Last Friday the sports world was astonished by two stories. First, the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, was reversing his decision from four years ago to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat. In a surprising but understandable move, James decided to return to the team he played for during his first seven seasons in the league, close to his boyhood home of Akron.
The second story was James’ eloquent, heartfelt words in explaining his move. These were delivered to the public via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, an excellent reporter and writer who clearly has gained LeBron’s trust for more personal revelations ever since he penned an exceptional essay on James for the Sportsman of the Year issue in 2012. James talked, and Jenkins turned his words into a “as told to” first-person account on SI.com.
Some observers, notably Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, had trouble with Jenkins and Sports Illustrated becoming such an important part of the story, rather than being mere witnesses, to use a term familiar to LeBron. While Sandomir’s point is valid, it comes off as of sour grapes, as though the Times and Sandomir wouldn’t have done the same thing if LeBron approached them to spill the story (hint: they would have). Jenkins explained that while ordinarily he would have written a standard story himself, this was an extraordinary situation.
That is mainly because of the way LeBron told the world he was switching teams the last time around, four years ago. The switch was televised as a show titled “The Decision,” packaged as an hourlong special with kids from the Boys and Girls Club of America as an “audience” supposedly interested in where LeBron would earn his millions. The display upset America’s collective stomach and spoiled his reputation as a basketball god. It seems clear now that this time, LeBron and his team were seeking an anti-Decision. Tremendous play, four straight trips to the NBA Finals, and two championships erased most of the stain, but there was still distaste over screwing over his hometown team live on ESPN.
This time, James avoided the squirmy televised carnival and had a trusted reporter craft a direct statement. I understand that, and I’m fine with it. Far more interesting to me is the way he messed with ESPN, the company that produced the Decision in the first place, sending Jim Gray out to waste time with inanities like “Do you still bite your nails?” before getting around to the actual news of the moment. Yes, the same company that went to 24-7 LeBron speculation mode the instant he opted out of his Miami contract on June 25 (thank goodness for the World Cup, which provided several contractually obligated hours per day during which the channel had to televise live sports—and ESPN’s soccer coverage was first-rate, it should be said). LeBron is the unique athlete to earn this sort of obsessive attention, though ESPN has given the likes of Tim Tebow similar treatment in the past. It tends to turn off fans, although in this case the news value of the NBA’s totemic player changing teams justifies (barely) the craziness.
But despite having dozens and dozens of “plugged-in” NBA types going on-air every 15 seconds to report the latest rumor fed by LeBron’s camp, or to read the tea leaves suggested by Ohio cupcake shops, James reached out to arch-rival Sports Illustrated to to break the story.
ESPN was left looking foolish, with “NBA Insider” Chris Broussard left to “confirm” LeBron’s direct announcement on a rival website. It was terrible optics for the network that not only had devoted a ridiculous amount of airtime to the story but is an NBA rights-holder, thereby helping to create the Legend of LeBron in real-time during the season. But as my pal Bryan Curtis pointed out at Grantland (ironically enough, an ESPN property), the off-season player movement tilt-a-whirl has replaced the actual games in importance, or at least it feels that way.
For LeBron, being great at basketball is only part of his job as the frontman for LeBron James, Inc. His perception in the court of public opinion is every bit as crucial, as he discovered post-Decision. In that context, avoiding ESPN—indeed, making them look bad—was part of the strategy. The average fan could read his moving, sincere announcement on SI.com and subconsciously think, Maybe it was ESPN’s fault, not LeBron’s, all along. It was a canny move, and while Sandomir would prefer otherwise, it was something that James had to do to fully erase his horror show from 2010.
Meanwhile, over on the Carmelo Anthony front, ESPN was beaten again, this time by an old-fashioned newspaper beat reporter, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, who scooped all with his pronouncement that Anthony would return to the Knicks. Perhaps Sandomir’s next story should be about the likes of Brian Windhorst, an otherwise tremendous reporter for ESPN who went to high school with LeBron and has followed him as a reporter from his scholastic days. Windhorst has been omnipresent on ESPN, newly outfitted in designer suits that made him look like he’s ready for the junior prom. Yet when it came to brass tacks, Windhorst, like his employer, was left behind by James, who had found a different date for the prom.