James still calls the shots – a decade on

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Daniel Schofield

Ten years ago yes­ter­day, LeBron James made “The De­ci­sion”, when the great­est bas­ket­ball player of his era re­vealed who he would be play­ing for next in a live tele­vi­sion spe­cial.

Ac­cord­ing to then NBA com­mis­sioner David Stern, it was “ill-con­ceived, barely

The ego has landed: LeBron James makes his grand en­trance as a Mi­ami Heat player in July 2010 pro­duced and poorly ex­e­cuted”. Watch­ing it back now that seems like an un­der­state­ment. It was car-crash view­ing, but it re­mains a sem­i­nal mo­ment in sports his­tory.

Not only does it re­main ESPN’s most-watched stu­dio show, at­tract­ing a peak au­di­ence of 13 mil­lion, but it changed the face of the NBA and rip­pled across other sports. Here was an ath­lete who put him­self in con­trol of both the league and the me­dia. Stern, who wanted the show can­celled, likened it to hand­ing over the keys to the car of the NBA to the play­ers.

The story, re­told by ESPN’s Back­story doc­u­men­tary team, will air at 5.30pm on Satur­day on BT Sport 1.

At the time, James was play­ing for his home­town Cleve­land Cava­liers and had been voted the NBA’s most valu­able player in 2009 and 2010. He helped Cleve­land to win the Eastern Con­fer­ence twice in suc­ces­sion, but in the play-offs they con­tin­u­ally stum­bled.

Hence there was no short­age of suit­ors will­ing to make James the best-paid player in the league when his con­tract ex­pired in 2010. Money, how­ever, was only one cri­te­rion; James also wanted ti­tles and pres­tige. And so, like a low­grade dat­ing show, six teams – the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Mi­ami Heat, LA Clip­pers, Chicago Bulls and the Cava­liers – came to pitch their wares to James di­rectly.

The Nets brought along Jay-Z. The Bulls re­cruited Pres­i­dent Obama. The Cavs made a Fam­ily

Guy clip. The Knicks com­mis­sioned a spe­cial So­pra­nos episode.

While the world wanted to know which way James would lean, spin­ning that into an hour of tele­vi­sion was another mat­ter, par­tic­u­larly with James and his in­ner cir­cle in charge. They chose the set­ting, the Boys & Girls’ club of Green­wich, Con­necti­cut, which was lit­tle more than a sports hall, and the host, Jim Gray.

The main prob­lem, how­ever, was that the “re­veal” had to come at the end, as ex­ec­u­tives fig­ured, cor­rectly, that ev­ery­one would turn off the mo­ment James an­nounced his de­ci­sion. What

The Nets brought Jay-Z. The Bulls re­cruited Obama and the Knicks made a spe­cial So­pra­nos episode

fol­lowed was 40 min­utes of toe-curl­ing pit­ter-pat­ter be­tween Gray and James, be­fore the lat­ter fi­nally an­nounced he was “tak­ing my tal­ents to South Beach and join­ing the Mi­ami Heat”.

There was a swift back­lash to both James’s live dump­ing of the Cava­liers – “the mean­est thing an ath­lete has ever done to a city” – and the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence – “TV’s equiv­a­lent of wa­ter­board­ing”.

Yet to­gether with fel­low stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – the “Hea­tles” – James won two ti­tles and reached four straight fi­nals, ush­er­ing in the cur­rent era of su­per­star teams and a boom for the NBA. In 2014, the NBA signed a $24 bil­lion (£19 bil­lion) me­di­arights deal, while the salary cap has more than dou­bled in 10 years.

James re­turned to Cleve­land, win­ning the 2016 NBA ti­tle, be­fore mov­ing to the LA Lak­ers on sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter terms in 2018.

Just as sig­nif­i­cantly, he has con­tin­ued to use his pro­file to be­come ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial sports fig­ure on the planet, par­tic­u­larly in dis­cussing racial in­jus­tice. Last week he an­nounced that he had raised $100 mil­lion to launch a new me­dia com­pany, Springhill Co, which will pro­duce the new Space Jam film.

As we have seen re­cently with the Black Lives Mat­ters move­ment, ath­letes in all sports are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing con­fi­dent in their own voices and are will­ing to by­pass the tra­di­tional me­dia.

Not ev­ery­one has copied James’s ex­am­ple per­fectly, how­ever. In 2018, Atletico Madrid for­ward An­toine Griez­mann an­nounced his de­ci­sion on live tele­vi­sion to re­main in the Span­ish cap­i­tal rather than mov­ing to Barcelona. A year later he joined Barca – where he has been an almighty flop.

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