It has been nearly a decade since a moment in sports like no other, on July 8, 2010, when LeBron James, on the ESPN television special titled The Decision, announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers in NBA free agency to sign with the Miami Heat.
Now, as part of an ESPN series, “Backstory: The Decision,” which features the investigative reporting of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Don Van Natta Jr., offers a behind-the-scenes examination of a night that in many ways changed athlete empowerment.
In advance of Sunday’s 6 p.m. ESPN broadcast, the Sun Sentinel was provided an advance screening of the show, which the network said is still being completed.
The line that still resonates from that summer night at the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., is both the famous and infamous, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
And yet, near the end of the hour-long documentary, it is Van Natta who notes of the understated tack James took through his own media control in 2014 with his free-agency return to Cleveland as well as his 2018 move to the Los Angeles Lakers, “Never again would he be defined by a single poorly chosen phrase.”
In between, with interviews with ESPN executives and others, Van Natta, true to the anthology’s theme, offers a backstory about a single hour, witnessed by nearly 10 million, that changed the NBA, and arguably sports and beyond, with James going on to win 2012 and ‘13 championships with the Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Included in Backstory: The Decision:
– Of granting the hour of broadcast time without charge, former ESPN President John Skipper says, “It’s what we had to do to get the show.”
– Van Natta notes of late NBA Commissioner David Stern, “Stern Was. Livid. He demanded that Skipper cancel the show.”
– James’ former agent, current New York Knicks executive Leon Rose, initially was in favor of the production but later expressed second thoughts ahead of the airing.
– The idea for James’ televised announcement came from an idea pitched by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, and later advanced by longtime sportscaster Jim Gray.
– Van Atta notes of ESPN that “nobody wanted Gray to do it,” saying the preferences to host were Bob Ley or the late Stuart Scott.
– With Gray taking 21 minutes to ask James to name his destination, Van Natta says someone inside the ESPN production room blurted, “Oh my God, get to it already!”
– James arrived only 15 minute before the show went live, after dinner with Kanye West.
– Of the uneven, stilted interview, Skipper says, “I was surprised, because I thought it would be scripted.”
– Of James’ words to announce the decision, Skipper says, “It was pretty clear immediately that that was an inelegant way to say it.” (The shows notes the wording was eerily similar to the phrasing the late Kobe Bryant used in 1996 to announce he was going directly from high school to the NBA.)
– James then asked Gray to stay for follow up questions for LeBronJames.com, with Gray heard saying in the background, “You really want this?”
– Also included is a review of the letter penned in the immediate wake of the decision by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that called James’ departure a “cowardly betrayal.”
– The episode notes that James and his inner circle declined to be interviewed.