LeBron James has very few stains on his sparkling resume. The Decision, which took place almost 10 years ago, remains the ugliest blemish.
Though his decision to leave the Cavs and play for the Heat only affected a handful of franchises, it was impossible not to have a reaction to his ill-conceived studio show. Through one prism, it was viewed as a unique charitable effort for The Boys and Girls Clubs, emblematic of the power James wields. Through another, it was a nationally televised gut-punch that resonated far outside of Ohio.
On Sunday night at 7 p.m. MT, ESPN’s Backstory with three-time Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Don Van Natta turns the lens on itself and explores the circumstances leading to that cultural touchstone moment.
As executive producer Robert Abbott sees it, The Decision turned into much more than a moment in time.
“The show was kind of a train wreck and was criticized across the board,” Abbott told The Denver Post this week. “ESPN got criticized, LeBron James got criticized, Jim Gray got criticized. LeBron was a villain for several years after it. But when you look back 10 years later, it was really the start of kind of a revolution that we didn’t know was happening as we watched.”
Abbott was referring to the so-called “superteam” that joined forces to win two rings, but it also signaled a massive shift in the media dynamic.
“LeBron started owning his own narrative, meaning, ‘They don’t need us anymore,’” Abbott said.
James and his team have since become media moguls in their own right, this week announcing their new and latest venture, SpringHill Co. after raising $100 million. The Decision, though widely ridiculed at the time, was their first gamble.
Without giving away too much, Van Natta’s on-camera reporting explores the Hollywood players involved in the production and unearths interesting nuggets like whose idea it was in the first place.
“It wasn’t Maverick Carter’s idea, it wasn’t LeBron James’ idea, it wasn’t ESPN’s idea, it wasn’t Bill Simmons’ idea and it wasn’t Jim Gray’s idea,” Abbott said. “It was somebody else’s idea.”
Though The Decision was widely panned as ESPN catering and donating its time to James for his announcement, the show yielded 13 million viewers at the moment he arrived at his decision. It was the highest rating of any studio show in the history of ESPN.
The story explains the history of James’ core friend group – Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and Randy Mims – and sheds light on how James empowered those close to him. Ironically, even though The Decision was a public relations disaster, Abbott noted that the mess only drew James’ confidantes tighter.
James and his circle had discussed The Decision on one of their platforms, More Than an Athlete, so when Abbott’s team asked for their involvement they politely declined. They did, however, provide video clips and images to enhance the documentary.
“Over the last year, I touched base with them again, they’ve already talked about it on their own terms, so they’re not really interested in talking about it in journalistic terms,” Abbott said. “I’m not saying that what they said that night wasn’t factually accurate or anything, but they want to own their own story and profit from their own story.”
Most importantly, Abbott was confident that they’d done the story justice despite the potential for a conflict of interest. He said ESPN didn’t censor any audio or offer much, if any, pushback at all.
“The majority of the first three acts are all about The Decision, which was a train wreck, and it’s the last act that is about the legacy,” he said. “We beat up ESPN and LeBron and Jim Gray and everybody involved pretty good.”
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