“I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.”
With those words, and after weeks of anticipation, including rumors that the news would break Thursday afternoon via his website, Lebronjames.com—which subsequently crashed—the NBA’s Prodigal Son, LeBron James, finally made the world aware of his future employer, dropping the news on Friday that he’s headed back to Cleveland in a bylined Sports Illustrated essay.
To have The Decision 2.0 be an essay—really, an “as told to” interview—in the world’s most venerable sports magazine was a calculated move, to say the least. Anyone familiar with the events of four years ago can attest to that.The consensus seems to be that this was a classier move by James, a personal interview piece in SI versus a bizarre ESPN special dubbed The Decision orchestrated by his PR and management teams wherein King James infamously announced his decision to “take my talents to South Beach.” But the basketball legend still seems to get off on trolling the media, and by extension, the world; keeping everyone wrapped around his precious fingers. It seems that, despite the madness of the past few weeks, James had made this “decision” some time ago.
In fact, three weeks ago, his wife Savannah posted the following to her Instagram account, accompanied by the message "let the countdown begin":
Akron, Ohio, is, of course, James’s hometown, and he met Savannah while the two were high school classmates at St. Vincent-St. Mary—a Catholic prep school in Akron.
So, if James knew of his decision weeks ago, as the cryptic Instagram post and his SI piece, which must have taken some time to prep, seem to indicate, then the de facto King of All Basketball Media was toying with us all along—and not just the fans, but also leaving his longtime teammates, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who are also free agents seeking employment, in the lurch while the entire basketball realm awaited his big move. James even met with Pat Riley and Heat execs on Wednesday evening in Las Vegas and was reportedly accompanied on the flight over by his teammate and pal Wade.
The Decision, if you remember, was a PR nightmare. Broadcast live on the evening of July 8, 2010, it was a surreal 75-minute ESPN TV special in which James, an unrestricted free agent who’d played all of his seven years in the league for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, announced that he’d be heading to Miami.
It was all kinds of wrong.
The “special” began at 9 p.m. and, despite promises from ESPN execs that the “decision” would be announced within the first 15 minutes of the show, that was not the case. It opened with the network’s NBA analysts Stuart Scott, Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, and Chris Broussard—you know, the one who thinks being gay is “an open rebellion to God”—giving lip service to James’s greatness for a whopping 21 minutes before kicking it to Jim Gray, who proceeded to ask 16 questions (!) over 6 minutes before finally getting to the one anyone cared about. It was torture, plain and simple. Still, ESPN got its ratings, with 13.1 million people tuning in to the announcement.
But that wasn’t even the most troubling aspect of it. For the exclusive broadcast rights to The Decision, ESPN sacrificed whatever journalistic integrity it had left, agreeing to hand over all advertising and air time—again, 75 minutes—to Team James, and also allowing James to hand-pick his interviewer, Gray, who was then paid handily by James’s marketing company for the gig. ESPN’s executive vice president Norby Wiliiamson rationalized the breach in journalistic ethics thusly: “This event could have ended up on the Internet…It could have ended up on another network. This event was going to end up somewhere, so we had a decision to make as a corporation and a news entity.”
The fallout was severe. In addition to questioning ESPN’s integrity, Cavs fans took to the streets burning jerseys. LeBron first defended the special, saying he was “happy with my decision,” then claimed to CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that race was a factor in the backlash—which earned him the ire of many prominent African-American sports journalists.
“It’s just that now, James is trying to have it both ways,” wrote CBS Sports’ Mike Freeman. “He has catered to corporate America, mostly ignored issues that affect people of color, and then when so many people turned on James, he’s now suddenly seeing the racial light.”
Three months later, James indeed saw the light, admitting to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols:
“If I could look back on it I would probably change a lot of it. The fact of having a whole TV special, and people getting the opportunity to watch me make a decision on where I wanted to play, I probably would change that. Because I can now look and see if the shoe was on the other foot and I was a fan, and I was very passionate about one player, and he decided to leave, I would be upset too about the way he handled it.”
We’ll see if he has similar regrets about manipulating everyone this time around.