Persistently throughout the 17 days that elapsed from when he opted out of his Miami Heat contract on June 24 to when he committed today to the Cleveland Cavaliers, we were reminded that LeBron James was in total control of the NBA.
The league was his. He owned it. Every report, every rumor, every other free agent signing that would fall like a domino after he made his all-important decision – it was all in LeBron’s massive, all-encompassing hands. There was nothing he didn’t coordinate – like every player, coach, GM, reporter, Twitter pundit and fan was a dummy and he was the ultimate ventriloquist.
So it’s so totally, completely, wonderfully fitting that when his decision finally came down at noon today, James was in control of that too.
LeBron announced his free agency decision in a beautiful 951-word personal essay, told to Lee Jenkins and published exclusively on Sports Illustrated’s site at precisely 12:00 p.m. His words were candid, measured, emotionally honest and extensive without being the slightest bit rambly. Simply put, the piece was perfect, and it delivered exactly the message LeBron intended: “I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there.”
LeBron and LeBron only controlled that message. Sure, Jenkins shared the byline and he’ll earn a great deal of praise for his fine work, but today is about LeBron. Those 951 words represented his thoughts, his feelings, his reasons for making the choice that he did. After a two-week media frenzy in which countless voices came together to produce absolute cacophony, LeBron settled everything by publishing one document of utter clarity. This is the greatest story in sports, and LeBron wrote it himself.
It’s crazy that we’ve reached this point, considering how we got here. What’s happened since June 24? We’ve heard every reporter between here and Jupiter give their latest LeBron scoop, each met with thousands of retweets and a chorus of reactors and overreactors. We’ve tracked a plane, weighed the opinions of a cupcake merchant and watched cars line up outside LeBron’s house in Akron when he wasn’t even home. We’ve debated, day after day after day after day, what would happen.
Of course, we were all just guessing. Some guessers were obviously more educated than others, but none of us really knew the truth. Even Chrises Broussard and Sheridan, who were relatively on top of this story given their insistence on Cleveland this week, had to be sighing with relief when their conjectures were confirmed by LeBron today. In a world where everyone’s got their sources and everyone’s reporting their stories, only one man had the pure, unvarnished truth.
This process was long and tiresome. I can’t recall a more painful 17 days for the life of me. The presence of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle made the LeBron saga unbearable. I hope we never hear the word “sources” again. Whether a reporter’s sources were right or wrong now doesn’t ultimately matter – now that the story has been put to bed, all the reporting ceases to exist. In one essay, LeBron overruled everything.
Honestly, I’m not sure how much “sources” ever matter. There’s an entire generation of reporters who grew up with the assumption that sourcing is everything – you grease the right palms, get intel from the right people and eventually you break the story. But we now live in an era when breaking the story is only 1 percent of the battle. Once it’s out there, it enters the Twitterverse and the blogosphere and becomes a sentient being. Having the scoop becomes less important than bringing a take.
Today, it was LeBron – not a news-breaker like Broussard or Sheridan or Woj or Stein – who initiated everything. His letter exemplified his complete command over the story, the news cycle and the game. Much as he can control the ball without ever actually playing point guard, LeBron can also control the media without being a reporter. He’s that powerful – and he’s been building toward this moment for 11 years.
LeBron’s ascent to “global icon” status has been gradual and not without its bumps in the road. His “Decision” in 2010, engineered by Jim Gray and ushered along by some questionable advice from the likes of Maverick Carter, was everything today’s announcement wasn’t. It was tacky, it was mismanaged and it was lacking in emotional depth. This time, by working through SI to present the story his own way, he patched up everything he damaged in 2010 and then some.
Perhaps this is becoming the new way to make news in professional sports. Jason Collins, you’ll remember, set this precedent in April 2013 when he also published a personal essay in SI to announce that he was gay. Like James, he was able to craft his own narrative without outside interference. That was the biggest story in sports in 2013, and LeBron’s reveal may well be remembered as the headline of 2014. I wouldn’t dare compare the two stories, as one exists on an entirely separate sociological and historical plane than the other, but suffice it to say that both were huge. And both were told the right way.
There’s no shortage of great NBA news-breakers in today’s landscape. Jenkins, whose recent pieces on Rajon Rondo and the final 29 seconds of Game 6 in 2013 were two of the best pieces of sportswriting in recent memory, is right up there with the best of them. But with all due respect to Jenkins and everyone else, no one was qualified to break this story like LeBron James himself. He’s worked for 29 years, six months and 11 days to earn his credentials – and today, he landed the scoop of a lifetime.