clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘The Decision’ Reloaded: How LeBron James’s Free-Agency Announcement Changed the NBA

The 2010 broadcast had its fair share of bloodthirsty critics. But eight years later, it’s clear King James’s televised special set a new course for the modern NBA offseason.

ESPN/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Eight years ago this week, The Boston Globe printed a blistering attack on LeBron James. The story didn’t run on the sports page. It ran on the editorial page. The Decision was big enough to be seen as a national crisis, like health care or the war in Afghanistan.

America was under the spell of a “preening” NBA star, the Globe warned its readers. Before bringing his “act of rather astounding egomania” to ESPN, James had forced teams to bend the knee—to court him with “desperate obsequiousness.” That fans, reporters, and owners were at the mercy of an athlete, the paper argued, was a reminder of “the often outsized role of sports in American culture.”

Fast-forward to this weekend. With little talk about his ego, James emerged from his Decision Cave to pick the Lakers. An Oklahoma City barber became an NBA insider. There were more than 1,900 retweets to be had for a scoop about Omri Casspi. Nobody was much concerned that America was being held hostage by the whims of a basketball player and his TV show. The criticism was that the NBA hadn’t turned the show into a prime-time special.

Revisiting James’s original Decision today is a tricky proposition. As TV, it’s hard to argue that The Decision was anything but an artistic catastrophe. “It was a shit show then and it remains a shit show,” the NBA writer Chris Sheridan said recently.

But looking back, it’s clear the media’s reaction to The Decision was also a shit show—in fact, an even bigger one. The stuff sportswriters complained about is the stuff they now obsess over in an attempt to get all the clicks.

To understand how we got from here to there, hop into my time machine sponsored by Nexis. With eight years of distance, the reaction that greeted The Decision looks like two things. On the one hand, it’s a mass exorcism of some really bad ideas about NBA players. On the other, it’s a kind of hysteria that’s almost poignant. The media was watching the power it had over athletes trickle away live on ESPN. As we watched James make his decision on Sunday, it’s clear that power is never coming back.

It’s July 2010. America is [checks notes] contemplating a spy swap with Russia. David Stern is moaning that the NBA, the sports league of the future, is losing nearly $400 million a year.

It’s striking how different the media looks. NBA writing is still split between a bunch of arrivistes on the internet and a bunch of single-sentence-paragraph-writing columnists in the newspaper. Larry King is big enough that James granted him an interview a few weeks before his big night. James kind of had to, because he wasn’t a fully formed media entity himself. The week of The Decision, Chris Paul convinced James to finally activate his Twitter account.

Jim Gray and LeBron James in 2010 Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Estabrook Group

On July 8, The Decision began at 9 p.m. ET with its now famous litany of weirdness. Children from the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut, [!] were seated in the background. Jim Gray asked James if he was still biting his nails. James said, “I’m going to take my talents ...” Then everyone got really mad.

Why were they mad? Well, more than three decades after baseball players vanquished the reserve clause, you’d have had to look hard to find a sportswriter who didn’t support James’s right to be a free agent. But The Decision revealed that that support went only so far. Sportswriters were OK with a player taking his talents elsewhere, but they weren’t OK with the method he used to take them.

The first thing writers hated was James’s use of a TV special. Watching James play basketball on TV was fine. But watching him choose a team on TV was a jab step toward Gomorrah. The show, one writer argued, represented an “enormous lurch toward players becoming bigger than the teams they play for, certainly, and perhaps even than the game itself.” (Kevin Durant, who announced he was re-signing with the Thunder on Twitter that offseason, offered “a classy example of the way things could be done,” one writer said.)

Other writers went further still. The problem wasn’t just LeBron. The problem was us. As one Pittsburgh columnist put it: “The Decision merely was a by-product of a warped sporting culture that has been spiraling downward for decades. Media, fans, parents, teachers, coaches. We are all accomplices.”

The other thing writers were uncomfortable—or, charitably, unfamiliar—with was the idea that players like James and Dwyane Wade could get together and choose their own destiny. In a piece that correctly pointed out the sea change that was taking place, ESPN’s Mark Kreidler labeled it a form of collusion. The New York Times Maureen Dowd chipped in a column called “Miami’s Hoops Cartel.”

At the time, James and his business manager Maverick Carter argued that much of the criticism was tangled up in racism. After Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert released his bug-nuts Comic Sans letter, Jesse Jackson said, “His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave.”

Slave analogies in sports are a subject for another time. But it’s notable that many black sportswriters saw The Decision as a simple matter of James exercising his rights. “Being born in Akron never restricted James from working anywhere else,” the longtime Chicago basketball writer Lacy Banks argued. In the Philadelphia Tribune, the former U.S. representative William Gray published a story called “LeBron Was Right.” It’s the opposite of a Freezing Cold Take—the rare piece of sportswriting that I wouldn’t change a word of.

Among big-name sportswriters, you rarely saw the pure derision of James that the Globe editorial showed. Rather, the writers would slap James with a bunch of unflattering adjectives before admitting, perhaps indirectly, that he hadn’t done anything wrong. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Rick Telander wrote, “LeBron James has made me feel dirty, foul, infested with tiny crawling things that want to creep into my ears and eat my brain.”

If there’s any sympathy to be had for the writers, it’s that there were a number of tractor beams pulling them away from the central question: Why can’t LeBron do what he wants? One distraction was Michael Jordan, emerging from years of relative silence. Jordan said: “There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry, called up Magic, and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team.’ … In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.” Remember that quote the next time you think the GOAT debate is something only TV opinionists care about.

There was the jersey-burning spectacle in Cleveland, which Michael Wilbon asked James about on ESPN after he made his choice. James, it turned out, had touched not only gonzo fandom but a particular Rust Belt sensibility that would help decide the presidential election six years later. “It was about how Cleveland saw itself,” Rachel Nichols told me recently, “how someone who was from there would want to leave at a time where there were other economic things going on in that area.”

Gilbert’s letter, which blasted The Decision as “narcissistic” and “cowardly,” created a wave of temporary sympathy for James. (The letter was in the same key as Gilbert’s reported quote from last week, about getting his team back when James leaves.) Even a sportswriter on the moral high horse doesn’t want to ride shotgun with a cartoonish billionaire.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh
AP Images

Today, you’d probably have to watch a TV debate show to find someone complaining about “preening” athletes and “look-at-me” spectacles. What changed? As Brian Windhorst has noted, over eight years the NBA media has been nationalized and tends to regard matters of loyalty at 30,000 feet. The media got younger and more diverse, Nichols pointed out. I’d love to think sportswriters stay awake at night grappling with moral principles. But I also think fashions just change. The rise of Adrian Wojnarowski showed there was a great career to be had by breaking decisions, not panning them.

There’s another theory: By insisting on making a public decision every four years—and giving himself cover by winning titles, including one after his return to Cleveland—James changed the center of gravity. Like Jordan urging the world to buy shoes and drink Gatorade, James was telling us it was OK to revel in the idea that you were the biggest free agent on the planet.

When Durant signed with the Warriors two years ago, he found himself in a different moral universe than the one James endured in 2010. Last year Nichols asked James if he thought Kyrie Irving, who’d demanded a trade out of Cleveland, would have it rough when he came back to the city. “No, everybody’s good,” James said. “Everybody’s good. KD last year in Oklahoma City. Paul George’s going to go back to Indiana. D-Wade’s going to go to Chicago. Kyrie’s coming back to Cleveland. … They will be fine.”

The second thing writers missed in 2010 was how The Decision was going to change the NBA offseason. That year, after James and the Cavs were eliminated from the playoffs May 13, Wilbon noted that the next 45 days would be full of speculation and leaks and—though he didn’t use this word—content. In those 45 days lay the creation of the modern NBA offseason.

The NBA had known big summers before, like 2000’s Tim Duncan–Tracy McGrady–Grant Hill sweepstakes. With The Decision, the offseason got a permanent time slot. In 2010, The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn pointed out that ESPN ran three hours of SportsCenter before The Decision and two hours after. Back then, such coverage was called an “infomercial.” Today, a successful sports media company is one that devotes the same tonnage to free agents who are not of LeBron’s caliber.

In 2010, you could see most of the offseason NBA media rites we now take for granted. The close analysis of where James would have the best chance to win rings. (The consensus among many in 2010 was Chicago.) The big-market teams humbled by a superstar. (When James visited the Knicks, the New York Daily News pleaded, “DON’T SCREW US NOW!”) There was the odd free-agent mini-scoop. The highlight of 2010 was ESPN’s Chris Broussard hearing from “independent sources” that The Decision would be broadcast on his own network. It was nuts then but seems basically normal today.

The fact people were mad about The Decision obscured the fact it was incredibly popular. The week before the special, Finn pointed out, ESPN ran a show called World Cup PrimeTime in the same slot. It drew just more than 500,000 viewers. The Decision drew nearly 10 million. It’s hard to get too mad at “egomania” when egomania is great for business.

The Decision now looks like an early battle in the war over who gets to report sports news. When ESPN partnered with James and let his team select Gray as his interviewer, it was said that a journalistic Rubicon was being crossed. The economist Andrew Zimbalist called The Decision a “bastardization of the role of the media insofar as in a democratic society we view the media as an independent source to report on news.” (Since James was just choosing a basketball team, Zimbalist said the infraction was relatively “harmless.”)

Writers were on to something, but the issue was larger than ESPN falling off the journalistic wagon. The Decision was about power. It was an early sign the players could seize control of the media. According to Windhorst, the growth of player-owned and -run media can be directly traced to James’s 2014 decision, as written by Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated. Even so, James spurred on the creation of nonjournalistic entities like his own Uninterrupted and The Players’ Tribune.

This year, when Paul George signed up to chronicle his “incredible journey” through free agency in a three-part SportsCenter series, nobody worried much about the ethics of the transaction. James choosing an Instagram story to say goodbye to Ohio had a certain branded poetic symmetry—what is the Silicon Valley behemoth about other than longingly admiring sunny vistas?

It’d be nice to chalk up all the Decision takes to a less-enlightened time. Aren’t we better and more woke sportswriters today? But the battle for who runs the media is still a live argument. How can you be in favor of players having an agency and power and not in favor of them dictating their own statements? Put another way: If LeBron has the right to choose his own destiny, why doesn’t he have the right to announce it on Instagram?

We writers now live in a post-Decision media—more or less happily, in James’s case. In the end, some of the angst about The Decision might have been because it reminded sportswriters of their new status. Before The Decision, we could imagine we were LeBron. Nowadays, we’re lucky to imagine we’re George Hill.