It takes a lot to shock Americans these days. After all, we are a culture where pop icons have to don suits of raw meat at awards shows, and stay-at-home moms have to have eight children at once to make a name for themselves. But, the free agent contract negotiations of one NBA player did seem to capture the attention of the nation for the better part of a month.
For a short while last summer, the LeBron James free agent saga unfolded in such a way almost no one could have predicted, in the process running the cities of Cleveland, New York, Chicago, and Miami through an emotional ringer. It was THE story of the year. LeBron James, arguably the most coveted free agent of all time… for any sport… was weighing his options, and in the process potentially altering the landscape of the NBA for years to come. Would he stay in Cleveland – the city that loved him like no other could? Or would the bright lights of the Big Apple lure him away? The options were many, the tension palpable, and it went on like this for weeks.
LeBron news dominated sports coverage around the country. Many joked that the attention that ESPN was paying the spectacle warranted its own channel (perhaps ESPN12…The King’s News) and that was before they decided to give him a one hour signing special – The Decision. James coverage was so all consuming that before it was all said and done many viewers were reporting symptoms of LeBron-lash (a disease marked by anxiety, irritation, and nausea from too much hype).
The whole fiasco climaxed in a nationally televised sit down interview with Jim Gray. It had the potential to be an edgy interview as Gray had a reputation for asking tough questions, instead it turned out to be a lot of coy skirting around the matter at hand before finally getting down to the business of determining where King James would sign. After some trivial banter which prompted SNL head writer Seth Myers to Tweet “Foreplay from Jim Gray just as satisfying as I’ve always imagined it would be” … LeBron finally announced he would be South Beach bound.
Miami rejoiced. Chicago scratched its head. New York went back to the drawing board (chants for Car-mell-o, Car-mell-o already filling the streets outside of The Garden). And Cleveland went through the seven stages of grief.
But the real story wasn’t so much that King James was on the move, but rather how he announced it. He did it in the most grandiose, spectacular way in all of NBA history. The obvious self-promotion of the event rivaled on a publicity stunt of Spencer Pratt or P Diddy. Whether it was good publicity or bad publicity, it was indeed the greatest publicity I have ever seen attributed to one individual athlete or team in my lifetime. Barry Bonds’ steroid scandal never hit such a fevered frenzy. The Brett Favre’s consecutive starts streak drama didn’t even come close. Even Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and the Red Sox 86 year drought-breaking World Series victory all pale in comparison in terms of media coverage and pop culture significance of The Decision.
Popular support for James and the move was split. Americans either fell into the Pro-LeBron camp, which supported the move and the super team which it created, or the Pro-Cleveland camp, which despised the abandonment of the city and team that supported him during his rise to superstardom. It was eerily reminiscent to the Team Edward and Team Jacob controversy which had divided America earlier. (Side note – it’s not really even a choice. Clearly Jacob is right for her. He loves Bella and she wouldn’t have to change for him.)
Even the fallout from The Decision was headline news. Within minutes the Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert, released a passionate and critical statement about James’ choice to leave Cleveland. That reaction (which won him Bleacher Fan’s nod for Debate of the Year) prompted a response from Jesse Jackson, who compared the whole ordeal to slavery and not so subtly questioned the racial bias of Dan Gilbert and anyone who questioned LeBron’s choice. It seemed that anyone and everyone had an opinion about The Decision and it was being made as public as possible.
The Sports Debates is no different. We have tried to hash out the issue in debates both on the website and off. In fact, we are still arguing the issue to this very day. Sports Geek and I quite frequently try to hash out never really finding common ground. Perhaps I just root for the villains too much or perhaps LeBron isn’t the orphan hating kitten strangler the city believes him to be (another side note – I actually think Cleveland might prefer an orphan hating kitten strangler to LeBron at this point). But the fact remains that LeBron’s decision is still a polarizing entity in the sports world, even today.
In some respects, LeBronmania is still in full swing. But the question remains, why? Is it that he is the greatest, most important sports figure of all time? Probably not. Is it that his decision was so shocking that we simply cannot or will not accept it? Again, I think not. I believe the issue is and always was the spectacle of it all.
Americans like drama and LeBron is drama. Michael Jordan playing for a team other than the Bulls would have at one time been unthinkable, although not impossible. But even if the Jump Man had jumped ship it probably would never have been done in quite so flashy a way, and might very well have been received by the public in a very different way. The difference is in the approach. LeBron’s legacy is flash, and The Decision was the biggest flashpoint of 2010, if not of all time in the NBA.