James still calls the shots – a decade on
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.