On July 8, 2010, LeBron James changed the landscape of the NBA for years to come with a few simple words: “I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach.”
It took him quite some time to actually say those words, of course. Why get straight to the point when you can unnecessarily drag things out and infuriate an entire fan base?
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“The Decision,” an unprecedented ESPN special that brought an end to one of the wildest free-agency periods in sports history, was instantly viewed as a total PR failure more than a decade ago. Fans and pundits alike ripped James and ESPN for the poorly organized show, setting the stage for a season of LeBron and the Heat playing the league’s biggest villains.
Despite its flaws, “The Decision” did cause a major ripple effect that benefited James’ NBA brethren. It ushered in the player empowerment era and allowed superstars to take control of their careers. (Just look at Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.) It also marked a shift in how the basketball world perceived free agency and launched the year-round rumor mill.
And for James himself, leaving the Cavs and joining the Heat ultimately proved to be a smart choice. He reached four NBA Finals, won two championships and captured two MVP trophies while in Miami before heading back to Cleveland in 2014. He showed he had learned from his mistakes that year, sharing a letter through Sports Illustrated announcing his decision.
You probably remember the big-picture talking points that were hammered into the ground and the intense backlash James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh faced at the time. But there are a few details about “The Decision” that slid under the radar.
1. The original idea for “The Decision” didn’t come from James, a member of his inner circle or a TV producer. It was actually a fan suggestion from a Bill Simmons mailbag.
An email from a man identified as Drew of Columbus, Ohio, landed at the top of the November 2009 mailbag and asked, “What if LeBron announces he will pick his 2010-11 team live on ABC on a certain date for a show called ‘LeBron’s Choice’?” Simmons agreed the event should be televised and proposed a pay-per-view option.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll pony up $44.99 for ‘Decision 2010: LeBron’s Verdict,'” Simmons wrote.
Simmons later pitched the special to James’ business partner Maverick Carter at the 2010 All-Star break, according to ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr., who chronicled the genesis of “The Decision” as part of the network’s “Backstory” documentary series. ESPN didn’t immediately greenlight the idea, but it eventually reached an agreement with James.
2. Former NBA commissioner David Stern really, really didn’t want “The Decision” to happen. He pushed for ESPN to cancel it.
“I think [he didn’t like it] probably because the player was in charge here,” former ESPN executive John Skipper told Van Natta.
Adam Silver, who took over as commissioner after Stern retired in 2014, reportedly felt differently about the special, noting the ridiculously high ratings for ESPN (an average of nearly 10 million viewers). It also raised more than $2 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Still, Stern wouldn’t budge from his stance after calling the whole thing “ill-conceived, badly produced and poorly executed.”
3. Jim Gray wasn’t ESPN’s first choice to host “The Decision” — he didn’t even work for ESPN at the time — but there was no room for negotiations.
Network executives wanted someone like Bob Ley or Stuart Scott to sit across from James at the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., according to Van Natta. James’ team insisted Gray, who had interviewed James while he was in high school and spoken to Carter and agent Ari Emanuel about doing a TV special, be involved in the broadcast.
Gray didn’t initially understand the high volume of criticism, and he still couldn’t comprehend it years later.
“We did a television show — a television show!” Gray told The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis in 2016.
His one regret? He didn’t ask for money because he knew all proceeds were going to charity.
“They should have paid me,” Gray said of ESPN. “They should have paid me a ton.”
4. Kanye West was in attendance for “The Decision,” and he fell asleep during the show. Seriously.
Courtney Cox, a former ESPN studio stage manager who worked on “The Decision,” couldn’t pinpoint exactly why the rapper made the trip to Greenwich, but she claimed West missed the most important part of the evening.
From Cox’s 2013 reflection on “The Decision”:
I spend the first 15 minutes or so honed in on ‘Ye’s every move. He seems chill, he’s wearing his glasses indoors, and he’s not making sudden moves. I forget he’s there until one of the camera operators says, “I think Kanye West fell asleep.”
At the biggest non-sporting sports event in a while, Kanye West fell asleep before anyone announced anything. He was doing the church/school head nod and everything. Wake up, Mr. West.
He would eventually wake up and leave well before “The Decision” ended.
Also standing outside the Boys and Girls Club: a 13-year-old Donovan Mitchell. Yes, that’s All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell.
“I was outside, so it was cool being there. I wanted him to go to Miami at that point, I wanted him to get a ring,” Mitchell said in 2018 (via The Salt Lake Tribune). “I remember there were a lot of upset people there. There were a lot of Knicks fans, Greenwich being so close to New York and all. But it was definitely cool.”
Sorry again, Knicks fans.
5. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert didn’t stop talking after sending out that crazy letter — you know, the one in Comic Sans that called out James for his “cowardly betrayal” and “shocking act of disloyalty” because he chose not to re-sign with Cleveland. Super chill.
Well, Gilbert kept going and actually got angrier. In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Gilbert said James had gotten a “free pass” and that it was “accountability time.”
“People have covered up for [James] for way too long,” Gilbert said. “Tonight we saw who he really is.”
Gilbert added that James “quit” on the Cavs during their 2010 second-round series against the Celtics, which ended James’ initial run in Cleveland.
“Watch the tape,” Gilbert said. “The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar. . . . It’s not about him leaving. It’s the disrespect. It’s time for people to hold these athletes accountable for their actions. Is this the way you raise your children? I’ve been holding this all in for a long time.”
The letter and those comments created a giant rift between Gilbert and James, but they were able to reconcile years later and maintain at least a somewhat professional relationship during James’ second stint with the Cavs. Gilbert kept up his end of the bargain by spending extravagantly on roster upgrades, and James delivered on his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland.
Oh, and that letter no longer appears on the team website. Good call there, Dan.