“Which One’s the American?”

Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno on Unsplash

Our family has been viewing the Tokyo Olympics. Molly loves it. She loves the athletes and the stories, and she is amazed by the things human beings can do.

As anyone who has been paying attention knows, there have not been fans at the Olympics, and the games were postponed last summer. Everything about this Olympics has felt a bit weird. And as an American, it has been a different viewing experience. Athletes seem to get more attention for their political stances than they do for their sporting accomplishments. Media story lines have left things fuzzy when it comes to love of country, the honor of representing one’s homeland, and expressions of pride in national identity.

But every time we watch an event, my son asks, “Which one is the American?” He’s not watching the news. All he knows is that there are people in Tokyo who are from the same place he is from. He doesn’t care about their religion or class or their race. All he cares about is that they are from the same place he is, and because of that, he’s going to hope they win.

That’s as it should be.

Cover Fire for LeBron

Ten years ago LeBron James sat down on ESPN for “The Decision.” Thirty minutes into the program he spoke the infamous utterance, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” James, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, was drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft. His free agency was a tremendous moment for all sports. Cleveland wanted him back, the Miami heat won the day, but big market teams like the Knicks, Bulls, Nets, and Clippers also courted Mr. James.

The program, which raised $2.5 million dollars for charity and sold $3.5 million dollars worth of advertisements (portions of which also benefited charities), generated tremendous backlash. Jim Gray hosted the conversation, held at a Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. Children surrounded the platform to hear James’ announcement. The optics were terrible. Mr. James’s choice to join two-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade in Miami alongside big man Chris Bosh, who had been courted for the construction of a super-team, was viewed by fans as an easy way to title contention, a betrayal of local community, and a sign that small market franchises could never retain top-talent, only serving the league as developmental stops for the NBA’s best players before free agency and their prime productive years. Small markets couldn’t win, and this was proof.

In 2012, James was named by Forbes as one of America’s most disliked athletes, largely because of “The Decision.” By 2015 he was both one of America’s most loved and hated athletes. When he went back to Cleveland and won a title in 2016, I think a lot of people forgave the guy and accepted him as one of the greats.

LeBron James is the best basketball player I have ever seen with the exception of Michael Jordan. Though I do think an argument can be made that James is the better player, ultimately I think that argument fails. The variables make it an argument that can never be settled. James’s story is still being written, and if basketball ever resumes, his resume may eventually cause him to eclipse Jordan. But if I was building a roster in any era, and could choose any player from any era in the prime of their career who would be the cornerstone of my franchise, I’d choose Jordan.

So why am I bringing up “The Decision?” Mainly because we are approaching the ten year anniversary of the televised event, and ESPN has announced “Backstory: The Decision,” an upcoming documentary retrospective that looks at the development of the idea and the difference it has made in the landscape of sports. In the article I just linked from Awful Announcing, Ian Casselberry writes, “The 2010 TV special featuring LeBron James announcing which NBA team he would sign with as a free agent was a huge ‘get’ for the network. Yet neither ESPN nor James came out of the moment looking good. The entire circumstance continues to be the subject of ridicule and derision nearly 10 years later.” Yep. That’s right.

So its funny to me that in the publicity leading up to the release of the documentary, ESPN trots out this headline: “ESPN Show Confirms ‘The Decision’ Was Fan’s Idea, Not LeBron James’.” A fan, Drew Wagner, submitted an email to then ESPN personality and writer Bill Simmons suggesting the idea. Simmons pitched it to Mr. James’ people, and eventually it came together.

USA Today also picked up the story, with Scott Gleeson writing an article headlined, “A Decade Later, ‘The Decision’ Hardly Represents LeBron James’ True Legacy,” as though anyone is actually arguing this. It’s as though the publicity packet for this upcoming documentary read, “Hey guys, we really want it out there that ‘The Decision’ wasn’t LeBron’s fault.”

Scott Gleeson at least gets it right when he state’s that James’ legacy is a complicated one. And part of that legacy is that a fan submitted a suggestion to a Bill Simmons’ mailbag, it got passed on to ESPN and James’ team, and the adults in the room said, “Yes, that will work. Let’s work out the finances.”

LeBron could have let “The Decision” fade into history. But he didn’t. So here we are again, re-litigating whether or not the program was a good idea. It was a great idea for a Bill Simmons’ mailbag, but it wasn’t for LeBron. It was a poor move then, it’d be a poor move today, and regardless of who initially thought of it, James made the decision to go through with it.