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The Decision: Reminiscing on LeBron James’ move and its impact 10 years later

Rob Huckins is the host of the Trails to Peaks Radio podcast and creator of the website Chasing Jade Trails to Peaks. In this story, he takes a long-form look at “The Decision,” LeBron James’ announcement that he was taking his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat, and its impact 10 years later.

In many ways, LeBron James’ televised announcement that he was joining the Miami Heat in lieu of returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers a decade ago seems to loom even larger in the history of modern sports culture than the actual four years he spent playing in the Sunshine State.

By any measure, James’ run in Miami was a clear success, an era which saw him play some of the most inspired and spectacular basketball of his career.

He won two titles (2012 & 2013), led the team to the NBA Finals in each year while wearing a Heat uniform, snagged two league Most Valuable Player awards and two NBA Finals MVP awards in 2012 and 2013, and was a first team All-NBA selection every year.

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Other than Dwayne Wade, it could be argued that James is the most important player in the franchise’s history. And it all started with an unprecedented, live television event on July 8, 2010, one named then – and known now – simply as “The Decision.”

In retrospect, the show seems a bit tame – and undoubtedly clumsy – by today’s standards. It still carries heft because it featured one the absolute greatest players in the game’s history letting everyone know he was leaving the team which drafted him to head south, instead joining a team with a relatively modest, albeit flashy, history in the league.

James made this announcement with all the awkward flare – and misguided hubris -of a contestant on “The Bachelor,” waiting until the stilted question posed by ESPN host Jim Gray to blankly state, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” thus offering his rose to Miami and ending the mystery which had consumed the NBA’s off-the-court narrative for months.

Broadcast from the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut, “The Decision” ended up raising $2.5 million for the organization, while an additional $3.5 million in advertising revenue raked in from the broadcast was distributed to an array of other charities.

This latter aspect of “The Decision” often gets overlooked and deserves mention along with all of its warts because it typified James’ often contradictory public profile in those years: a young superstar talent who commanded a lofty platform. A player who wanted to sincerely “do good” for others based on his own success, but couldn’t resist his own inclinations toward media manipulation and attention in the process. 

“The Decision” was, at its fundamental core, a blatant attempt to package and deliver a sports news story which had nothing to do with an actual game. It’s easy to forget now that both fans and members of the media seriously thought James might end up with the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls or Los Angeles Clippers (it’s been reported since that music mogul David Geffen allegedly wanted to purchase the Clippers simply to get the opportunity to land James in Los Angeles).

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There were even some outlying bets on James heading to the New Jersey (soon-to-be Brooklyn) Nets, a team thought by many at the time as the perfect landing spot for the young superstar because of its modern ownership team (including Jay-Z) and move to New York City.

And still, many others thought, in the end, James would not be able to leave the Cavaliers after several successful regular seasons followed by stinging playoff disappointments and would just stay home. But he left. And then came back to Cleveland four years later. And then went to the Los Angeles Lakers after that, a move which went down with much less fanfare than surrounded his move to Miami.

By the time he joined the Lakers, “The Decision” was mostly a small visual in his career’s rearview mirror. James had learned by then that just because you can command the attention of a massive, live television audience to announce your next employer, it doesn’t mean you should.

He was roundly skewered and vilified by critics and fans alike for “The Decision,” enduring an outpouring of disdain and mockery usually reserved for athletes who actually do something harmful, not just turn in an awkward, poorly-produced and egocentric performance on live television.

Jerseys were burned. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a blistering and caustic public letter in an attempt to all but bury James in the cemetery of public opinion, and for fans outside Miami-Dade county, the Heat became the most despised team in professional basketball.

Ten years later, “The Decision” not only appears less egregious as an event, but oddly prescient of the decade which would follow it. A move of publicity which, in retrospect, appears more in step with the sports cultural norms of protocol today than it was in 2010; a time when the game still largely revolved around what teams did each offseason to get better, not what individual stars did to alter the futures of NBA franchises.

By joining Chris Bosh (recently traded from the Raptors to the Heat) and Wade (already in Miami and the team’s best player), James helped usher in the “player empowerment” era for league stars to create pathways and engage in backdoor communications to enable the creation of teams usually reserved for fantasy leagues and fan dreams.

In 2007, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were both stars when they went to the Celtics, established veterans who were sure to give Boston a serious championship boost for years to come. Along with Paul Pierce, that Celtics team rolled its way to the 2008 title and one other Finals appearance in 2010.

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But the nexus of Bosh, Wade and James was something much different, more purposeful and focused in its evolution, more modern. The three had reportedly discussed for years among themselves the idea of joining up on the same team. By 2010, their paths met in dramatic fashion, creating a louder, brasher and younger Big Three than was in Boston: a South Beach tandem thought to have the potential to dominate the Eastern Conference – and NBA – for years to come.

James himself (in a playful, but nonetheless bodacious prediction) said Miami would win “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” championships, a statement which would come back to haunt him after the team ended up winning “only” two titles in four years.

Those two titles (along with four Finals appearances in a row during Miami’s James-Bosh-Wade Era), in retrospect, seem almost besides the point when analyzing “The Decision,” since its spectacle pales in comparison to the era it actually began.

That era was one where player movement would dominate the storyline of every season, creating a strange and oddly intoxicating dynamic in which the offseason narrative became just as compelling – if not more so in some years – as the actual games played.

Media outlets routinely covered where prospective free agents would land before the playoffs even began. Fans became casually as familiar with basketball business as they did on-court strategy, regularly breaking down salary cap space and protected draft picks along with analyzing their team’s use of the bench during third quarters.

With James’ announcement, the league informally entered its fantasy-league-as-real-life period, where fans grew to follow players more than teams, a move motivated in part because rooting for actual teams carried with it a kind of perpetual, inevitable chaos (not to mention growing collections of poorly aged, expensive game jerseys featuring past stars).

In the 10 years since “The Decision”, the list of stars who left teams via free agency, or by pressing teams for their own trade deal (or both), is staggering. Kevin Durant (twice). Paul George (twice). Kawhi Leonard (twice). James Harden. Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis. Andre Iguodala. David West. J.J. Reddick. LeMarcus Aldridge. DeAndre Jordan. Chris Paul. Dwayne Wade. Al Horford. Kyrie Irving. Jimmy Butler.

And lest we forget, LeBron James, who changed teams three times during this span.

Besides simply changing teams during this time, James controlled his own destiny for the entire decade, opting to sign for shorter deals that offered windows of opportunity to exit any franchise in case things went the wrong direction.

There was no long-term deal which sealed James’ fate, or made him beholden to any owner or franchise for very long. James has made his money, but never signed the type of long-term, binding deals seen with baseball’s Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, or most recently with football’s Patrick Mahomes.

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This alone is revolutionary and unprecedented. Whether someone celebrated or loathed this practice, it offered James maximum freedom during the prime of his career. James, in essence, was consistently and repeatedly betting on himself and his own future value, a high-risk move which has given him tremendous independence and affected the fortunes of multiple franchises in the league.

James has influenced other players to carve out their own versions of this strategy, something only Durant and Leonard were really able to pull off in similar fashion. But the game was changed after “The Decision” as players began to increasingly control the fortunes of teams each year and, subsequently, the balance of power in the league.

James won his three titles during this time, and has positioned himself for a fourth with the Lakers if things break his way (and he could, if able and willing, still play for yet a fourth team at the end of his Lakers deal).

Durant won his two titles after joining the Warriors in 2016, while Leonard quietly strong-armed his way out of San Antonio after winning a title and Finals MVP (beating James’ Heat in 2014 no less) to head north to Toronto and win a title in his only season with the Raptors.

Now a member of the title contending Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard possesses a player-friendly, short contract which will allow him maximum mobility for the next few years of his career.

Durant joined forces with Irving in Brooklyn, while Westbrook hooked up (again) with Harden in Houston.

The reality now dictates that any star player on any team will more than likely not finish his career with that team. There may even be a third team, or even return trip to one’s original team, in the span of one’s career. The possibilities, it appears, are endless.

Who says you can never go home again? James has proven, without question, you can. In many ways, this can be attributed to “The Decision”.

This is why James arguably became not only the game’s best player during this time, but also its most important. The kind of once-in-a-lifetime force which can influence most any other aspect of the game both on and off the court.

In the decade since “The Decision,” the voices of players have carried the most weight of any time in league history. Part of this is circumstance, part of this is James himself.

The league got a different, more player-friendly commissioner during this time (Adam Silver) who oversaw a league which saw a huge and timely revenue windfall, which allowed a flurry of player activity and highly lucrative contracts.

In addition, the game’s popularity attained even greater heights globally than ever before, partially due to its star power, but also because of historical improvements in technology (internet capacity, streaming subscriptions, growth of social media, expanded playoff format) which enabled the most people to watch at any given time in history.

James owns his own media empire these days, helping fund and produce all kinds of content on a wide range of subjects. Social media, firmly in its Jurassic Period in 2010, has expanded to become the most dependable access one has to sports stars, outpacing in many ways the reach and relevance of traditional media. James has been there for all of this, and will no doubt help shape the next phase of this evolution in the coming years.

He has used his massive platform and influence to speak candidly and forcefully on social issues, and to exercise leverage on how the business of basketball is done. James opened the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio two years ago, an elementary school which will eventually expand to grades one through eight and be operated by the public in the next few years. Considering all aspects of potential reach by a professional athlete, nobody in the game comes close to casting as wide a net as James. 

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As poorly executed as “The Decision” was, or as brazenly opportunistic as it seemed at the time, it worked. In one broadcast event, James shifted control – decisively and in more ways than one – to the players, and it’s remained there ever since.

While James was largely vilified at the time, he wound up being a fan-friendly, accessible, wunderkind of a player. An all-time great who boasts as much power of celebrity through social media as he does with fans both in the United States and abroad.

While he is often accused of lacking the so-called “killer mentality” of his wildly successful predecessors Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (two players against whom he is most often compared), he may well end up having a better overall career than either of them when he hangs it up for good. But, who knows when that will be; he is thriving as a player in his mid-thirties, competing at the very highest level for championships while controlling his own narrative through media companies and lifetime shoe deals.

James will more than likely end up being the wealthiest basketball player in history when he retires, and much of this was through his savvy moves off the court. He will continue to be a force in the league long after he retires from playing, and will perhaps end up being the most influential player post-retirement off the court of any fans have ever seen.

Perspective and time are two very important factors in determining one’s legacy and, in general, the writing of history itself. In 2010, “The Decision” was widely derided and assumed to be the result of youthful stupidity and overreach by an entitled and most likely overrated player.

Today, it is a curious part of basketball’s recent history, a watershed moment that began an era of player empowerment and expression in a league which has clearly moved on into its next phase of existence.

If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the league from collapsing under the weight of drug scandals and incessantly low television ratings, and Jordan brought the game into the next century by closing out the old one, then James is the next and naturally most transformative player in that lineage: an immensely powerful and unique force in what may be the most global American sport ever.

James is truly unprecedented in how he plays and the impact he’s had on the court and in how the business of basketball is done. And it started in earnest a decade ago, when he announced he was changing employers, not because he had to or because someone was doing it for him, but because he simply wanted to. The business of basketball will never be the same again, on or off the court. 

Follow Rob Huckins on Twitter: @RobHuckins

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