Revisiting The Decision

The year 2010 is remembered in NBA lore for something that happened off the court, rather than on it. The Los Angeles Lakers took the title that year, beating the Boston Celtics in a thrilling seven-game series that saw Kobe Bryant win the fifth and final ring of his storied career. But the real story took place during the offseason, as, ten years ago today, LeBron James referenced Kobe by announcing that he’d be “taking his talents to South Beach” in a television special broadcast live on ESPN.

Recorded at the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich in Connecticut, The Decision was unlike anything the sports world had seen before. It lasted 75 minutes in total and attracted an average audience of approximately ten million people. Just over 13 million tuned in to watch the announcement itself, which occurred around thirty minutes into the show. Prior to that, James made small talk with host Jim Gray, who asked questions about LeBron’s ‘process’, who he’d received advice from and whether or not he still bit his nails. It was hardly thrilling or particularly insightful stuff. But the big reveal did offer a moment of genuine drama, as James announced that he was leaving his beloved Cleveland Cavaliers in order to play for the Miami Heat:

In doing so, he turned down the bright lights of New York, the opportunity to emulate Michael Jordan in Chicago and broke the collective heart of Cleveland. He was, after all, The Chosen One and was supposed to end the city’s sports curse, which at that point stood at 46 years.

Anyone who’d seen the Cavaliers get dumped out of the playoffs that season probably had a sense of what was coming though. James had spent the first seven years of his young career carrying the hopes of an entire state and as he trudged off of TD Garden’s hallowed parquet floor, after a Game 6 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics, he looked well and truly defeated. That seemed even more evident in the postgame press conference too, as a tired James told reporters “I guess you have to go through a lot of nightmares before you finally accomplish your dream”:

James’ time as a Cavalier had hardly been a nightmare up to that point though. He’d helped the team to five successive postseasons, winning an impressive 66 regular season games in 2008-09 and 61 games in 2009-10. Furthermore, he’d taken the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2004, where they got swept by the veteran San Antonio Spurs. In 2009 he took them back to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were outplayed by the Orlando Magic. Had they won that series, the Cavaliers would have gone head-to-head with Bryant’s Lakers in the Finals. But the Magic exploited Cleveland’s lacklustre perimeter defense to rob neutral fans of what might have been one of the greatest Finals matchups.

Orlando ultimately came out on top in that series because their own star player at the time, center Dwight Howard, had help in the form of lights out shooters Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu. This meant that over the course of the six-game series, Howard averaged 26 points per game. Meanwhile James, whose most talented teammates were probably Mo Williams and Delonte West, was forced to carry Cleveland’s offense to the tune of 39 points per game. This was a factor once again the following year, when Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen gave the Cavaliers another lesson in losing and LeBron himself the impetus to take control of his own destiny.

The franchise had, after all, spent seven years trying to find the right formula, but came up short time and again. In 2010, out of sheer desperation one can only assume, they even tried pairing James with an overweight, 37-year-old Shaquillie O’Neal, whose experience far outweighed his ability to contribute on the court at that stage of his career. The partnership resulted in a fun highlight reel and a Slam season preview edition that proclaimed “Dream Team Shaq & LeBron Are Ready to Make History”, but ultimately failed to deliver the postseason success James desperately craved. And at that stage in his career, he felt he had little choice but to look elsewhere, even if that meant walking away from the closest thing he had to a hometown team.

But winning was higher up on James’ agenda than sentiment at that point, as sports writers the world over speculated about not just where he’d be playing when the 2010-11 season tipped off, but how his legacy would compare to that of Michael Jordan when all was said and done. This particular debate was nothing new, as LeBron had been dealing with Jordan-level hype ever since becoming the first high school basketball underclassman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002. By 2010, James had presumably had enough and The Decision represented an opportunity for him to reclaim control, announcing where he’d be playing for the foreseeable future on his own terms.

Believe it or not, the concept was a fan’s idea, originally conceived in Bill Simmons’ popular mailbag column on ESPN. Simmons in turn pitched it to LeBron’s team (which included Maverick Carter, Leon Rose and William Wesley) at All-Star Weekend. The whole thing then came to fruition not long after the Cavs were eliminated from the playoffs later that year.

Ironically, Simmons was critical of The Decision. He labelled it the ‘LaBacle’ in a column published on ESPN.com the day after it aired. And he wasn’t alone, as the majority of sports writers condemned the show. Largely, it seemed, because they felt that it did them a disservice, representing a huge step towards players becoming bigger than the teams they play for (a viewpoint Cavs owner Dan Gilbert reinforced in his ‘shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own’ letter to fans). Ironically, the advent of social media was just around the corner, giving athletes entirely new levels of access to a variety of platforms that allowed them to communicate with fans without the help of either the team they were playing for, ESPN or any other media outlet for that matter.

Following The Decision, James went on to win two championships in Miami (not three, not four, not five, not six…) playing alongside Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a host of talented role players, the likes of which he could have only dreamt about in Cleveland. In 2011, he told ESPN that if he had his time over, he would probably change how he’d announced his decision to sign with the Heat, “because I can now look and see if the shoe was on the other foot and I was a fan and I was very passionate about one player and he decided to leave, I would be upset too by the way that he handled it”:

Watching interviews like that and the one he did with Oprah in 2012, it’s striking just how young James was at the time. He was ultimately just trying to do the right thing for his career and had no idea just how savage the backlash would be in Cleveland. What’s more, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Miami was just a proving ground for a player looking to hone his skills and learn to win before going home to fulfil his destiny. As for The Decision, it raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Club and showed other athletes that they too could control their own narratives, provided they were bold enough.