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Original Issue

Friends in High Places

IN THE scene imagined by fans, 'Bron and Jay-Z are perpetually surrounded by ice sculptures dripping Krug, with pouty-lipped ladies in necklines that plunge like stock charts, all shaking their cabooses, blissfully unaware of the hip replacements in their future.

You could almost see this MTV tableau racing through the minds of the New Jersey suburbanites at the Izod Center on March 12, as LeBron James and Jay-Z slapped hands and exchanged words after the Cavaliers' 104--99 loss to the Nets. It was a courtside meeting of megawatt luminaries—NBA scoring leader James just having dropped 42 points, rap mogul Jay-Z about to leave the arena wearing a long black coat like Dracula's cape.

Except in that instant, with the fans' glam projections stripped away, it was just LeBron James hanging with Shawn Carter. That's usually how it is when they're together: two genuine friends, square as Chiclets.

"We just go out and have dinner, the whole family," LeBron says. "We talk, and we focus on what we missed the couple of weeks we weren't together. Things like that."

It's all so Nick at Nite when you remember that James and Jay-Z, by gossip-page accounts, have had the same girlfriends for years. It's all so Got Milk? when you realize that LeBron doesn't even drink alcohol, except for the occasional toast.

Their past lives were faster. They know what it's like to grow up abandoned by fathers and surrounded by despair, but they both had the will to escape and to parlay their talent into empires. How many buddies can both count American Express CEO and chairman Kenneth Chenault among their confidants? "We know what we've been through," says James, "and we connect with that."

Now they have the bond of daily minutiae. The 38-year-old Jay-Z is there to give LeBron a tip on a vacation spot or the name of a good tailor, there to woof at James's 50-point night at Madison Square Garden or to straighten his tie before dinner. "There's a lot of trust," as LeBron explains it.

It's real. It's true. It's trill, to use the street slang term. (I learned that from Rolling Stone. Feel free to drop it into your carpool conversation.) Oddly, this kinship between Jay-Z and James has created unease around the NBA, but it isn't related to the misogynistic lyrics Jay-Z, a 1.5% owner of the Nets since 2004, has rapped. In one song he complains, "I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one." (Which, if you're me, is kind of a relief.)

The angst is over potential conflicts of interest. The Cavs won't say they are threatened by James's friendship with a rival owner, but for every Cleveland game Jay-Z attends, for every Yankees cap or pair of pinstriped high-tops LeBron puts on, there is more speculation about the two joining forces in New York in 2010—the year James becomes a free agent, the year loosely scheduled for the ribbon cutting on the Nets' new arena in Brooklyn.

Are Jay-Z and James plotting a merger? As the NBA's president for league and basketball operations, Joel Litvin, notes in an e-mail, "Although we would not prohibit Jay-Z and LeBron from having a social relationship, they cannot discuss LeBron's employment with the Cavs or the possibility of LeBron playing (at any point in time) for another team."

It must be tempting for Jay-Z and James to ponder, in a Seussian dream, "Oh, the places they'd go" if they partner up in Brooklyn. But that's an outsider's view. Their inner circles promise the two never discuss business. Pinkie swear.

To doubt them is popular, but it's a disservice to reduce their friendship to a camaraderie of convenience. As LeBron quickly points out, his looming free agency "doesn't mean anything" to them. "We were friends way before he was part owner of the Nets," he says.

What does "way before" mean when James is 23? Hoops prodigies have excellent contacts. LeBron was a high school sophomore from Akron when a friend introduced him to Jay-Z at a hotel before the rapper's concert in Joliet, Ill.

Their friendship evolved from there. The two communicate almost daily, with some version of the every-dude salutation, What up? Regular guys.

Regular in that Jay-Z downloads songs like anyone else—except he launched the performers' careers to help build his $286 million music and fashion empire. Regular in that LeBron has a scrapbook like anybody else—except some of the photos were shot by Annie Liebovitz, which generally means no red-eye issues.

Regular except that the NBA has never dealt with a relationship like it: a superstar and an opposing team's owner walking in the same corporate and cultural circle. But if the league's suits can suspend suspicion, they'll see a friendship linked by life, not lifestyle, rooted in the past, not 2010.

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For every Cavs game Jay-Z attends, for every Yankees cap his pal LeBron puts on, there is more speculation about the two joining forces in New York in 2010.