LeBron James’ ‘The Decision’: A review

Senior Television Writer
07.09.10 55 Comments

I went to sleep last night not sure if I should write anything about “The Decision,” the bizarre, excruciating one-hour special that ESPN carried last night so LeBron James could announce that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with the Miami Heat. This isn’t a sports blog (though I did, on rare occasions, write about the Yankees and Giants at the old blog) and actual sportswriters like Joe Posnanski and Will Leitch have already offered up more thoughtful takes than anything I’ve got. Plus, as a Knicks fan, I worried that I’d just come across as someone bitter about being jilted.

But this is a TV story, in the end, as LeBron was involved in one of the lamest, most obnoxious hours I’ve ever had to witness (and remember, I watch “American Idol” weekly). And while I’m disappointed (and have already moved on to hoping the David Lee/Anthony Randolph trade turns out to be the opposite of all the moves Isiah Thomas made during his nightmarish tenure), I had reached a place by Wednesday afternoon (i.e., before the Miami reports came in and it looked like LeBron was either staying home or coming to New York) where I began to wonder if I wanted this guy on my team.

Okay, let’s be real: I really, really wanted him. He’s the most talented player on the planet, the entire Knicks roster was constructed as a bunch of complementary pieces to the King (and desperately needs a point guard without him), etc., etc., etc. But he had come across so badly in the way he handled free agency – not helped by a sports news media(*) that treated every rumor as gospel, setting the concept of the reliable source back several decades and making LeBron look even more indecisive than he was – that I would have felt like my team and its fans were making a deal with the devil by this point. I’d have taken him, obviously, but not with nearly the enthusiasm as I would have before this process began.

(*) One of the few exceptions to this was Alan Hahn, the outstanding Knicks beat writer for New York Newsday, who stayed out of the fray and didn’t report every stray piece of gossip he had heard as if it was wisdom from the mountaintop. So when he became the first to report that LeBron had chosen Miami, I felt confident it was true. The work of Hahn and a handful of other reporters (like Brian Windhorst from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who knew LeBron since high school and put out this telling tweet earlier in the week) on this story was in stark contrast to the likes of ESPN’s Chris Broussard, who changed LeBron’s destination every five seconds, and who, after also ultimately staking his claim to Miami as the pick, looked miserable and terrified at the start of “The Decision,” knowing that if LeBron’s people had been playing him, he’d look like even more of a clown than he had over the previous week. Just a bad period all around for the media.

For a guy who’s obsessed with his “brand,” it’s staggering how badly he bungled things from a PR standpoint. Going to Miami for a team that would feature two of the NBA’s top 3 players, plus a guy easily in the top 15, makes an incredible amount of sense. Yes, there’s risk that his game might not mesh with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and that Pat Riley might not be able to surround them with enough quality role players, but from a basketball standpoint, it’s still a better situation than Cleveland (capped-out and filled with mediocre guys made to look better by James), Chicago (lots of talent, but no shooters that he needs, plus he and Derrick Rose seem incompatible), New York (lots of shooters plus Amar’e, but little depth and defense if he signed), etc. It makes sense from a basketball standpoint, and from a narrative standpoint. LeBron played with Wade and Bosh at the Olympics. They hit it off famously, allegedly discussed joining together when all were free agents, etc. 
This is a story James could have sold, easily. It would have hurt the city of Cleveland, obviously, and disappointed the other teams that had planned their futures on a shot at the guy, but it wouldn’t have felt like the slap in the fact that “The Decision” turned out to be. 
If LeBron wanted the story to be “Miami gives me by far the best chance to win, and as a bonus I get to play with my friends, and I will take less money for those things than I would have in Cleveland or elsewhere” he needed to make the announcement at the same time as Wade and Bosh, and he needed to do it in a much lower-key way, like a simple press conference. That way he looks decisive (as opposed to waiting for them to make their choice), doesn’t look like an attention hog, doesn’t create the largest possible audience in which he could tell New York, Chicago, New Jersey and, especially, Cleveland, to drop dead. If he wanted to raise money or awareness for Boys and Girls Clubs, he could have easily done that in a lot of other ways, including announcing at said press conference that he was going to write them a large check from his new Miami contract.

Not only did the timing and the idea of doing a solo primetime show come off badly, but the execution by both LeBron and ESPN was horrid. I understand why ESPN would agree to this – ratings were huge – but both the athlete and the channel came out looking terrible. I wrote a joking blog post on Wednesday about the idea that LeBron and ESPN might need to copy some reality show results show tropes to fill the time, and most of those suggestions would have been denser and more entertaining than what ESPN and LeBron ultimately chose to do. Jim Gray? Really? One of the most tone-deaf interviewers in the history of televised sports? A man who never seems to make a human connection with either his subject or audience? This is who you want asking the first questions about LeBron leaving his home state heartbroken so he can go play for an all-star team? And LeBron comes into this without any kind of clear talking points about the appeal of Miami (besides the chance to win) or his regrets about leaving Cleveland? Did no one prepare him in any way? Did he have no idea how stiff and robotic and cruel he came across as throughout that special?

Look, LeBron was always going to be criticized in some corners for this move by people who suggested (as Knicks Hall of Fame guard Walt Frazier did) he was taking the easy way out by linking up with Wade, who had already won a title. And Cleveland was always going to be miserable no matter how LeBron pulled this off. The team will slide back into mediocrity, if not ’00s Knicks-level badness, and the area will lose a lot of money that came from 41 sold-out games a season.

But the way it actually went down, it’s not hard to understand why Cavs fans were burning his jersey in the street, or why Cavs owner Dan Gilbert went to Defcon-1 and issued an amazing, juvenile, incendiary open letter to the team’s fans that, among other things, promised, in all-caps (and Comic Sans!): “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” It’s not hard to understand how LeBron went from one of the most-liked players in the league to someone whose polling turned unfavorable seemingly overnight.

As a TV show, “The Decision” was both nasty and boring (a tough combination to pull off). As an attempt to build the brand of LeBron James, it was a catastrophe. The pressure on this trio to win multiple championships will be huge and unforgiving: if they win, it’s because they were expected to, and if they lose, it’s embarrassing. And the biggest target will be on the back of the man who sat stone-faced in Greenwich, CT last night.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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