It’s a trip down memory lane. A look back at the moment LeBron James became a sports villain. The circumstances that led him to pursue his own show to announce his free-agency choice and the impact it had on his life and career.
The latest edition of ESPN’s docuseries “Backstory” is a look back at “The Decision,” the controversial TV special on July 8, 2010 when the 25-year-old James told everyone he was taking his talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat and broke the collective hearts of Cavaliers fans. Narrated by ESPN writer Don Van Natta, Jr., the show features interviews with former ESPN president John Skipper, authors Buzz Bissinger and Scott Raab, “Pardon the Interruption” host Michael Wilbon, and NBA insider Chris Broussard. It doesn’t necessarily cover a lot of new ground, though the hour-long show does reveal some interesting details of “The Decision,” such as late NBA commissioner David Stern’s opposition to it and who exactly hatched the idea for the spectacle at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn. James declined to be interviewed, as did business partner Maverick Carter and agent Rich Paul.
Perhaps most importantly, “Backstory” delves into the impact the highly criticized show had on James. It covers his two titles with the Heat, decision to return to the Cavaliers and then leave for the Lakers. It shows how with each three of his free-agent decisions, he toned down his announcements, from the TV show to his first-person essay in Sports Illustrated and lastly making the call to go to Los Angeles with a press release. Meanwhile, it details how James expanded his brand, setting a trend of elite athletes using their star power to create their own media and production companies, and part of that was the realization through “The Decision” he could control his own narrative, even if it backfired the first time. It was also James who began the idea of the super-team, empowering players to control where they play and who they play with.
“It’s knowing you can do it, knowing you don’t have to sit back,” Wilbon said. “No matter how you feel about LeBron the player, whether you’re a rival. You can’t miss – it’s as bright as the sun – what his influence has done to your industry.”
The idea for the show, according to “Backstory,” didn’t come from James or anyone tied to him. It actually originated in a Bill Simmons mailbag, from a reader named Drew from Columbus, Ohio. Simmons pitched it to ESPN in February of 2010, suggesting they call it “LeBron’s Decision.” He suggested it to Leon Rose, James’ agent at the time who recently became the Knicks’ president, and Carter, James’ childhood friend and business partner. They loved it, Simmons wrote in an email to ESPN. But it didn’t get off the ground until June of that year, after the Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs by the Celtics. Broadcaster Jim Gray suggested it to Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel and Carter, who sold James.
Skipper was approached for the idea. Initially, James was going to pay for an hour of television time. But ESPN ended up giving it to him in exchange for ads his team would sell with the proceeds going to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Rose had second thoughts about it and Stern wanted ESPN to cancel it.
“David didn’t love ‘The Decision.’” Skipper said. “I think probably because the player was in charge.”
LeBron and his team were in control. Gray, who didn’t work for ESPN at the time, would host it. Vince Doria, ESPN’s director of news, thought members of the media should’ve been invited. They were not. James showed up to the Boys & Girls Club 15 minutes before the show following dinner with Kanye West and was clearly nervous and jittery.
The reception to the show, in which James didn’t make his decision known until it was halfway over, was very negative. The docuseries covered Cavaliers fans burning jerseys, the nationwide reaction to it and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s letter to the team’s fans in which he labeled James “selfish”, “heartless”, “callous,” and called the decision an act of “cowardly betrayal.” On the flight that night to Miami, the tone was somber, Broussard said. It was not joyous. But it was a ratings bonanza, drawing 13.1 million viewers at the exact time of the announcement and an average of 9.95 viewers. It also further elevated James as a megastar, albeit one that now had large segments of fans rooting for him to fail.
“It worked for everybody. LeBron was smart enough to figure out he would get a platform. He did,” Skipper said. “ESPN, I believe, was smart enough to understand we would get an audience, be the center of the universe. And despite all the media criticism, 10 million people watched. A lot of them watched incensed. But that’s OK.”