Who would’ve ever thought the signing of a free-agent superstar athlete would command an hour-long prime-time show on a major TV sports network?

It happened last Thursday night on ESPN when Cleveland Cavaliers’ most famous player made his decision in front of 9.95 million anxious viewers according to The Nielsen Co. to defect from Ohio and move his center of operation to Florida—Miami to be more precise.

When LeBron James declared, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” he was leaving the Cavaliers and joining two of his Olympic teammates in Beijing—Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh– to form the nucleus of the Miami Heat franchise of the NBA there were opposite reactions from the two cities, which was sort of expected.

The basketball fans in Cleveland went berserk and quickly distanced themselves from a one-time family member. James, the schoolboy star from Akron who revived a downtrodden NBA franchise and raised championship hopes for seven seasons with the Cavaliers, was no longer welcome.

Many fans burned their LeBron James No. 23 jerseys they had treasured for seven years. A 10-story high iconic image of James on a mural in downtown Cleveland that dominated the city’s skyline for years was dismantled Saturday.

After James’ announcement, Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert posted a letter to Cleveland fans, chastising James for “a several-day narcissistic, self-promotional buildup culminating with a national TV special of the decision unlike anything ever ‘witnessed’ in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.”

Gilbert, who owns online retailer Fathead.com, dropped the price of its LeBron Fathead wall decals from $99.99 to $17.41, which coincidentally happens to be the same year (1741) Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold was born.

Gilbert told the fans at Cleveland that he will do everything in his power to get some quality replacements for James. He went on to predict that Cleveland will win a world championship before Miami’s star-laden team does. “You can take it to the bank,” he promised.

In a matter of hours, James went from one of the most adored athletes in Cleveland history to its most hated. He went from hero to villain before the sun rose.

But the mood in Miami was decidedly different where James, dressed in a white Heat uniform for the first time, took a look at his new home crowd, folded his arms across his chest and nodded. “It feels right,” James bubbled. “We’re going to make the world know that the Heat is back.”

But the quiet man in the shadows who made this all happen in Miami is Heat President Pat Riley. Wade, Bosh and James all signed six-year contracts Friday night, each set to make about $2 million less than the $16.6 million they could have demanded for the upcoming season.

“All three of these gentlemen are going to be here for a long time and they’re going to be here for a long time for us to enjoy, thoroughly enjoy,” Riley predicted.

The 65-year old Riley saw an opportunity for the Heat to be of championship caliber and he jumped at it.

After all, he’s been a winner all of his life and this fervent desire to win has been with him since he grew up in Schenectady, N.Y. about half-a-dozen blocks from yours truly. We both lived on the “tree streets” off the main drag, me on Elm St. and him on Spruce St.

As a teenager Pat liked to play basketball in the park with the older kids like Barry Kramer, who went on to be an All-American basketball player at NYU and Don Blaha, who also starred at NYU.

Riley was a high school All-American at Linton High in Schenectady and went on to play for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky where he also gained All-American honors. He was drafted by San Diego of the NBA and later traded to the LA Lakers.

After his playing days were over Riley went into coaching and had successful stints at Los Angeles, New York Knicks and Miami. And he is probably itching to come out of his front office at American Airlines Arena as soon as he obtains some free agents who can complement his trio of superstars.

He’s talked with Derek Fisher, who has been part of all five LA Lakers’ championships in the Kobe Bryant era and is eyeballing several other NBA free agents who would love to play on a team with James, Wade and Bosh. However, Fisher decided to remain with the LA Lakers. NBA Commissioner David Stern fined Gilbert $100,000 for these comments.

Riley did the same thing in 1986 with the LA Lakers when he assembled a hand-picked team consisting of an aging Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who at 37 years old was still a 20-point scorer, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott. Jamaal Wilkes started at small forward, while Worthy and Michael Cooper came off the bench with former MVP Bob McAdoo.

Riley transformed that team from the flashy, dazzling fast-breaking team of the early 1980’s to a team that learned to play with their heads as a blue-collar outfit. He led the Lakers to the title that year and then “guaranteed” they would repeat the following year, becoming the NBA’s first back-to-back champion in 19 years.

You can bet new Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will be on a very short leash during training camp and the start of the regular season this fall. And don’t bet against Pat Riley getting back into coaching.

KWICKIES…One thing this Korner has never been able to understand is why is a baseball thrown out of a game if the pitcher throws it in the dirt, but if a batter slams one off the fence, the ball remains in play for the next batter?

Sunset Grove golfer Glynn Aldredge had a hole-in-one last week on the par-3 No. 12 and will be presented a $100 check for his feat from the MGA treasurer this week. Also Bob Couser had an eagle-2 on the Par-4 No. 9 hole using a hybrid club from 105 yards out that didn’t get more than five feet off the ground and went right into the hole.

Steve Stricker successfully defended his John Deere Classic title by winning the event last weekend by two strokes over Paul Goydos, despite Goydos’ dazzling 59 in the opening round last Thursday. Stricker had rounds of 60-66-62-70—258 to finish at 26-under par. He collected a winner’s check for $792,000.

JUST BETWEEN US…The Houston Astros finally found a scapegoat for their poor offensive performance the first half of the season by relieving hitting coach Sean Berry of his duties Sunday. He was replaced by Jeff Bagwell, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1994, who will begin his new job Thursday in Pittsburgh. Bagwell has been a special assistant to Astros’ General Manager Ed Wade since retiring five years ago and will have some tips that worked for him that should be beneficial to some of the Astros’ hitters. Houston has the second-worst batting average in the majors (.237), the worst on-base percentage (.295) and is tied for 28th with only 57 home runs. The Astros (36-53) just finished a 4-2 home stand and could already be on track for a successful second half of the season.