It has already been three years but it feels like only yesterday. 36 months ago, LeBron James managed to hold fans of professional basketball collective breath with the single greatest media event of our lifetime. Others might argue that Earvin "Magic" Johnson’s news conference confirming his (short-lived) retirement due to the presence of HIV in his system or Michael Jordan’s (again, short-lived) retirement announcement after the first of two "three-peat" championships as more significant. But as I look back at that amazing summer of 2010 and remember fondly the anticipation, the aftermath, and the event itself, for my money, "The Decision" has them all easily beat.
Capturing the Moment
In July, 2010, NBA fans eagerly awaited any news regarding the free agency signings of superstars like Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and, of course, James. Careers were made, as in the cases of Brian Windhorst, Michael Wallace and Israel Gutierrez, who covered either James exclusively (Windhorst) or Miami Heat basketball (Wallace and Gutierrez), and in turn parlayed their association with this time period into becoming regular staples of ESPN. Other careers were killed (where are you now, Jim Gray?) or simply ended as an unfortunate side effect, like the staff laid off by Cleveland Cavaliers management, and not James himself, after the realization that season tickets would be harder to sell than an Aaron Hernandez jersey.
Despite the after-effect, it is "The Decision" itself, the one-hour show that aired on ESPN on July 8, 2010, that stands in my mind as a defining moment for the greatest sports star of the past decade and the greatest free agency period in the history of sports. The build-up to the show was historic…monumental. Every move was recorded and distributed eagerly to rabid fans for weeks. For the first time ever, social media outlets became a major factor in breaking "news" about secret meetings in hotel lobbies and who was part of each team’s contingent, aspects of free agency that had never interested fans before. Look at 2012, with the free agency courtship of Peyton Manning, or this year’s pursuit of Dwight Howard, or "The Dwightmare" as it has been labeled by the media. Coverage of these mundane events has become tiresome and incessant but, in 2010, they were essential. As the Heat’s future "Big Three" met with representatives from Chicago, New York, etc., fans anticipated information from local and national media alike, inhaling it like oxygen. In Miami, lungs full, I cringed upon hearing Wade would meet with Bulls representatives a second time. I gasped as I watched iconic New Yorkers like Woody Allen, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Spike Lee, pleading with James to join the Knicks. It was an obsession for thousands of fans across the country, the world.
But, when on July 7, Wade and Bosh announced jointly they would be signing with Miami, I exhaled, seemingly for the first time in weeks. By this point, some pundits had accurately speculated that the three top free agents would be signing with Miami. It hardly seemed possible, simply too good to be true. With two-thirds of that stellar trio locked up, however, at least there was a guarantee that the summer had been an incredible success for the Miami Heat. And then "The Decision" came. What an event! Transcending sports and drawing even the most ignorant and peripheral of fans, the announcement regarding the, uh, announcement, lured us more completely than any sports-related event since the O.J. Simpson chase and subsequent trial. I remember talking to co-workers and family members that knew little-to-nothing about basketball and answering questions regarding James and his potential destination. Regardless of the outcome, one man’s decision was going to give the American viewing public exactly what it wanted – no, what it needed – and become a charitable donation unlike any other seen before or since. Without a doubt, the program was must-see-tv at its finest.
I watched, almost as nervously as James himself, as LeBron stumbled to answer host Jim Gray’s ridiculous line of questions. And, as each commercial break drew out the moment further and more tantalizingly than I could have imagined, I exploded off the couch, unable to contain my excitement any longer. I paced, as I often do during the last seconds of a tight game, and followed each of my various superstitious steps, unable to look directly at the screen while being invariably drawn to it.
Finally, with my heart fit to burst from either my chest or my throat or, impossibly, both, LeBron uttered the much-parodied line, "I’m taking my talents to South Beach…" And, as Cleveland fans prepared bonfires and New Yorkers clung to their delusions of greatness, while the rest of country sat back, dejected, and saw their own championship hopes dashed, I joined my city, and its thousands and thousands of true fans, for the first of many long, triumphant screams.
Better Than the Sum of Its Parts
Despite the anticipatory angst the show created and its obvious impact on the world of professional basketball, the program itself, in retrospect, was fairly underwhelming. There was something forced about the whole affair. It seemed hastily slapped together and the line of questioning was far from riveting. The 1-on-1 format created a much-needed sense of intimacy, as well as a connection between the viewer and Jim Gray and, moreover, between the nervous fan base, hanging on every word, and LeBron himself.
But even this connection was somewhat fleeting and ineffective. The crowd of Boys & Girls Club members, muted in the background, chipped away at any potential bond. Cameras focused on Gray and James while the audience remained constant and looming despite its blurred pointlessness. Even the show’s rather obscure location (Greenwich, Connecticut? Really, ESPN?) seemed to reinforce the awkward, rushed vibe of the whole affair.
Watching the show now, free of the burden of its potential impact, "The Decision" and its barrage of commercial interruptions is actually a little dull. The effect is not unlike re-watching a horror movie. You know who gets stabbed and when and so the effect is minimized; at the end of the day you’re simply left with shoddy camerawork and poor dialogue. Any criticism of the show, especially with the benefit of hindsight and in light of the financial benefit it provided a needy community, smacks of sour grapes.
Moreover, one of the most common complaints was that the show was self-serving. Upon further review (side note: how can one say this phrase without imagining yourself in a referee’s jersey?), LeBron was clearly nervous about the whole affair and the answers he delivered were basic, almost to the point of seeming rehearsed. Typical "athlete-speak" at worst and genuine discomfort in front of the camera at best. From a public relations perspective, there was nothing about the show that cemented LeBron as a global icon. Most of James’ responses reinforced his appreciation of the whole free agency affair and being wined and dined by the various suitors. But, by his frequent reference to this courtship as a "process", it became joyless and perfunctory. The choice to leave Cleveland and join the Heat was, and always has been, a business decision. Years later, it is still his work on the court, and not a one-hour television show, that continues to define him as one of the greatest athletes of all-time. "The Decision" was never about serving James or helping to establish him further as a multi-media mogul but, rather, just an announcement that he would be working somewhere else from now on. It was the impact of his decision that had, and continues to have, an impact on the NBA.
Misplaced Anger and Rewriting History
So much of the reaction to James’ decision was vitriolic and misguided. Any player as famous as James is sure to illicit strong feelings, both negative and positive. While overwhelmingly popular and well-liked as recently as the spring of 2010, the time period leading up to "The Decision" was a huge component of twisting everyone’s opinion to the more hateful end of the spectrum. A part of it was certainly the media-induced fascination with James’ impending free agency. During the 2009-2010 season, even as LeBron’s Cavaliers dominated the NBA, many of the questions directed at the two-time MVP were about his future team. Never once did his answer waver, deflecting questions by stating, time and time again, that he would make the decision after the season. However, as often is the case, the media fanned the flames of speculation and brought a non-issue more attention that it deserved. The embarrassing ouster of the Cavs during the NBA playoffs (which led to the introduction of the new and undeserved nicknames of "LeChoke" and "LeQuit" as if James’ performance, and not an inferior Cavaliers’ roster, was responsible for losing to a championship-caliber Boston Celtics team) only whipped the NBA fanbase into an even greater lather.
By the time the hype-parade surrounding the entire free agency period peaked on July 8, passionate fans were a time bomb ticking to explode over anything. Had James’ re-signed with Cleveland, would the nation have welcomed "The Decsion"? Likely not but at least there would have been less polluted air over Lake Erie, free of the smoke caused by the burning of James’ former jersey. Wouldn’t the cities of Miami, New York and Chicago have felt just as led on and embarrassed by the failed courtship? And, had LeBron stayed in Cleveland and failed to win a championship (an entirely too-possible outcome) wouldn’t the narrative of his career been similar to other great players like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, great players who were simply not great enough to get a ring?
And what of those players, and other basketball greats, who took this opportunity to criticize James’ decision? Their opinions flip-flopped so carelessly, caught up in the nationwide mob mentality that resulted from "The Decision". Barkley, a loud-mouthed, Hall of Fame talent burdened by his inability to win an NBA championship, ripped LeBron publicly while conveniently forgetting how he forced trades to the Phoenix Suns and to the Houston Rockets to pursue a ring that continued to elude him. Malone failed to achieve champion status, toiling away at Utah for years while putting up gaudy point totals and failing to get past Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams – twice. So determined was he to get a ring, he joined a dysfunctional Lakers team of washed up Hall of Famers in 2004, only to fail in his pursuit once again. And what of Jordan himself? He bashed James in the media as well, although clearly ring-envy wasn’t the basis for his misguided anger. He proudly proclaimed that he wouldn’t have joined other teams to win it all, a statement easier to make after winning six championships. As great a player as he certainly was, it is too easy to say what-he-wouldn’t-have-done as opposed to rehashing what he did do. Jordan’s displeasure for his inferior teammates is well-documented but took place in a time when social media didn’t exist and the internet didn’t provide constant updates on how the greatest scorer in the league was incapable of winning a championship on his own. And, lest we forget, Jordan didn’t win anything for his first six years in the league and only amassed those trophies once he was joined by other Hall of Fame talents like Scottie Pippen and, later, Dennis Rodman, as well as a talented group of players that fit perfectly-constructed roles crafted by (another Hall of Famer) Phil Jackson.
The Perfect Ending
The world of sports is littered with rewriting the histories of our favorite players. We embrace Magic Johnson as he smiles politely on camera, while forgetting he got his first coach, Paul Westhead, fired after one year or that he somehow contracted HIV after marrying his high school sweetheart. Michael Phelps is a media darling when he has Olympic gold medals around his neck; not as popular when he’s caught in a South Carolina frat house with a marijuana water pipe in his hand. We celebrate Ray Lewis dancing into the Super Bowl, while we try really, really hard not to remember how he literally got away with murder.
LeBron James tried to win it all with a group of NBA players who will one day make it to the Hall of Fame the same way I will – by waiting in line and paying admission. He never complained, never went to jail and never beat up a teammate, either publicly or privately. He joined his great friend, Dwyane Wade, to work for a great company that made him feel comfortable and gave him the best chance at being happy. He did it for less money and he wound up donating millions as a result of his announcement on national television. He absorbed insults from cowards who hid behind internet blogs or from those who joined thousands in their cowardice by booing him or yelling at him about his family, his race and his manhood from up in the stands.
And how did he respond? By winning two MVP awards, a recognition of his individual greatness that he deflected by giving credit to his incredible teammates. By winning an Olympic gold medal and showing great national pride, even as the country had hated him the year before. By going to the NBA finals for three consecutive years. By winning two NBA championships and vowing to bring his new city a third.
We just celebrated Independence Day, a tribute to our desire as a nation to choose our own leaders and our own system of government. As we look back at July 8, 2010 and how James has continued to demonstrate his greatness since then, let’s always remember how it all started with one great and winning Decision.