Today marks the 10-year anniversary of LeBron James’s televised special, The Decision. James’s announcement to head to Miami to pair with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh changed the course of the media landscape and ignited the player movement era that inspired guys like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and more. A decade later, how should we feel about The Decision? The Crossover staff looks back and analyzes.
The backlash to The Decision always mystified me. Was it cruel to Cleveland? Of course. Was it poorly executed? I don’t think it needed an hour, or 437 questions from Jim Gray before LeBron got to his infamous “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” line. Did James’s public image change overnight? I’d argue teaming up with two established superstars did that more than the TV show announcing it, but sure. Still—James was crucified by many for the way he announced his intention to change jobs. I don’t think we can forget the millions James raised for charity that night, an impactful act of giving in a career filled with them. Or that The Decision was the brainchild of a group of 20-somethings trying to shake up the traditional media model. Would James do it again? Of course not. It’s why he paired with a master wordsmith like Lee Jenkins in 2014 to announce his intention to return to Cleveland. But James has operated under the kind of microscope no athlete in history has had to contend with and this often cited as his greatest gaffe. If that remains true through the end of his career, it will be an impressive accomplishment in itself.
I was one of the last people in the U.S. to hear the news that LeBron was going to Miami. I was on a plane from Cape Town to New York coming back from the World Cup, and by the time we landed The Decision was old news. As an unbiased journalist in a jet-lagged haze wandering around JFK, I found it intriguing. As a Cleveland native, I, uh, didn’t take it quite so well. The word Judas was bandied about liberally.
But 10 years on, I can’t imagine things working out better for everyone. LeBron got to do his thing with his pals. The Heat got two rings. And the Cavs were forced to tear their whole team down and start over.
At the end of LeBron’s first stint, Cleveland was a directionless mess. First the Cavs tried adding pretty good–level vets, like Larry Hughes, Mo Williams and Ben Wallace. Then they got super specific in their noodling. After losing to the Magic in the 2009 conference finals, they decided they needed athletic wings, so they went out and got Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker, a shooting guard who simply could not shoot. For some reason they added in Shaq at the last minute, and then crashed out of the playoffs against the Celtics. (That led to one of the most unfortunate covers in recent SI history; we had a great Shaq story and threw him on the cover when Cleveland was up 2–1; three straight L’s and we looked pretty dumb. My fault.) And since the Cavs were winning (up until it mattered), they weren’t getting any help in the draft, unless you consider JJ Hickson helpful.
When LeBron left, two things happened. There was no urgency to be good right away and look for quick fixes. (Farewell, Shaq and Antawn Jamison.) Second, they could build through the draft–and they were bad, which meant good picks. The Cavs shipped Williams to the Clippers for an unprotected pick (and Baron Davis’s edible contract), which turned into Kyrie Irving. Somewhere in my 2011 Facebook feed is a conspiracy theory that the NBA would rig that year’s lottery for Cleveland to offset the loss of James. Prescient, but even then I didn’t think they’d get the top pick three times in four years. They subsequently drafted Andrew Wiggins and Andrew Bennett—the latter of which was nothing to brag about, but they were both part of the package that brought Kevin Love to town once LeBron returned.
Ironically, by the end of James’s second stint in Cleveland, the Cavs sort of felt like the 2010 team. Big Threes were all the rage, and LeBron, Love and Isaiah Thomas (who had come to Cleveland when Irving asked out) weren’t enough. The search for complementary pieces just wasn’t working. After the 2018 Finals, it was almost a relief that he left; the prospect of watching the Cavs inevitably lose to the Warriors again and again was too much. The fact that James got the town its ring definitely eased the jolt of his second Decision (as did the fact that it was handled in a low-key way), but the biggest reason there was no jersey burning in the summer of 2018 was that Cavs fans had been through this once before, and things worked out fine.
I feel just as great about The Decision today as I did on July 8, 2010. As Sports Illustrated’s resident Heat fan, let me tell you, The Decision was one of the best nights of my otherwise meaningless life. To this day I don’t even know what words came out of LeBron’s mouth after he said he was taking his talents to South Beach. That’s because I was too busy cheering, screaming, hugging friends, and calling family members in the immediate aftermath of his announcement. The only thing cooler than The Decision was the Heat’s welcome party for the Big Three the next night. I remember waiting an absurd amount of time for the players to actually come on stage. And I remember nodding along in giddy agreement as LeBron rattled off how many championships he expected to win in Miami.
In all seriousness, was The Decision the most tactful thing LeBron has ever done? Maybe not. It definitely is not an ideal way to end a business relationship with your previous employer. But The Decision also laid bare so many of the issues in how both the fans and media view athletes, issues that are still being corrected today, though progress has been made. If anything, The Decision—which raised money for charity!—was ahead of its time. Because of the backlash, we’ll probably never see something like it ever again. And even as Lee Jenkins’s biggest fan and a current employee of Sports Illustrated, an orchestrated television stunt will always be more gripping than a letter. Much like LeBron’s career as a whole, The Decision wasn’t perfect, but our lives are all more interesting for having experienced it.
The mass panic regarding LeBron James’ departure from Cleveland is almost laughable after a decade of reflection. Perhaps the idea of an hour-long television special wasn’t exactly prudent, but as for the decision itself, LeBron should be commended, not condemned. James left a middling basketball situation for a true chance at a dynasty, capitalizing on his talent as he hit the prime of his career. Was he supposed to trust Dan Gilbert with his peak years? Such a move would have ended in disaster. James went from a phenom to a champion in Miami, allowing him to cement his legacy as one of the greatest players in NBA history. Aesthetics aside, James’ choice was clear. Moving to Miami may be the best thing he ever did.
The way James went about The Decision will likely never be replicated, and with good reason. That type of spectacle is not needed in today's media landscape, but it is understandable why James chose to go that route. The program was an opportunity to boost his brand and drew intrigue from a large audience. Fans may have been upset that James did not choose their team on The Decision, but ultimately he accomplished what he was trying to achieve.
As for James' choice to leave the Cavaliers for the first time, it is difficult to say it was the wrong decision. In Miami, James won two championships and capped his departure by bringing Cleveland its first ring in history-making fashion. James may be criticized for taking a short cut to get championships, but it was an attractive offer and he later kept his promise with his home state. Ultimately, the Heat's 'Big Three' was a trio to remember—from the highlights, friendships and the iconic photo capturing Dwyane Wade celebrating James's dunk. Though it was over the top, The Decision set the stage for James' future accomplishments and will be remembered as a turning point in the way fans consume free agency.
LeBron James’ TV special The Decision largely defined the 2010s in the NBA. While player empowerment and star player movement did occur in the decades prior (see early examples of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, among others), James’ TV show on ESPN was a pioneering event for players showing authority and control over the content associated with their brand. Today, a number of stars (and lesser players) around the league have their own logos and individual production companies and the notion of “owning one’s content” seems built-in to being an NBA player. James’ show was a seminal moment for that reason. Plus, and this shouldn’t be forgotten either, it was decade-altering decision on the court.
I maintain that people were only mad about The Decision after LeBron didn't say what they wanted him to. I didn't talk to anyone who was upset going in. In fact, everyone I had a conversation with was excited to see where he would go and if it would be their team (Sorry Knicks fans). I'll admit I was a little agitated after it aired too. But that was because I, like many, thought LeBron and Wade (and Bosh) was more unfair in the moment than it actually turned out to be. Which is why I believe the Miami Heat pep rally actually rubbed more people the wrong way. Ultimately, in the grand scheme of things it is hard to say it was a mistake, as James went to eight straight NBA Finals, became a champion in Miami and then made things right with Cleveland. Not to mention the whole production foreshadowed the modern age of sports media a bit and we all have talked about LeBron nearly every day since. So, while there may be some aspects he'd like to have back, overall The Decision looks better through the lens of history.