Published July 09, 2010
ESPN and ABC both are owned by Disney, so the sports channel is perhaps to be forgiven for borrowing a format from its sister network for a one-time-only special:
"The Bachelor: LeBron James Edition."
In those terms, the rose went to the Miami Heat, but just to keep the reality-TV analogy going -- and that's ultimately what this exercise was -- "The Biggest Loser" here was James, followed closely by ESPN.
An ESPN exec pledged to The New York Times that the network was "not going to string it along," but they couldn't resist airing two long commercial pods before James sat down with Jim Gray, who danced around awkwardly before prompting the 25-year-old star to unveil his, er, decision, a full 27 minutes into the hour. So much for that promise about coming clean during the first 15 minutes.
Even staging the made-for-TV event at the Boys and Girls Club (and donating proceeds to that group) left a sour aftertaste, if only because it felt as if the kids were essentially being used as props on the altar of James' superstar-sized ego.
Shockingly, James seemed unprepared with a clear answer regarding how he felt about leaving Cleveland, which ESPN's Michael Wilbon referred to as an "economically depressed" area that would be wounded by James' departure.
"It was a hard decision, because I know how loyal I am," James said with a straight face -- a contradictory statement that Gray didn't bother to challenge or clarify.
Toward the end, James was shown video of people in Cleveland burning his jersey. Again, he fumbled for a response, though ESPN's analysts chided the fans, without appearing particularly eager to hear from them.
Certainly, both James and ESPN did themselves no favors in the protracted run-up to "The Decision," which represented a ripe object for ridicule -- especially for the James camp, which had to be rethinking its own decision to turn this into the equivalent of a State of the Union address as soon as the derisive tweets began.
Not that ESPN got off much easier. Los Angeles Times NBA scribe Mark Heisler -- easily the best reason to read that paper's sports section -- probably put it best, labeling ESPN "the enabler of narcissists."
Granted, ESPN's role in orchestrating this spectacle is less easy to mock, if only because the sports monster landed an exclusive coveted by every other media outlet, including newspapers that haven't been stingy in covering the free-agent follies. To say another network wouldn't have made milked it would be hypocrisy.
Still, once handed the story, ESPN pummeled it in the most uncouth manner possible, flogging the LeBron-a-thon for hours before and after the decision with near-wall-to-wall coverage.
"At stake: The NBA's balance of power!" a baritone-voiced announcer bellowed as the hour opened, sounding as if the network had booked an exclusive with the pope -- or maybe Jesus.
Admittedly, as James' interviewer, Gray was in a tough position, albeit one of ESPN's own manufacture. Any honest accounting of "The Decision" had to ask whether James had damaged his brand -- appearing to buy into his own hype -- by breaking the news in this fashion. But that meant the special would have to dump on, or at least second-guess, itself.
"This has got to be the easiest interview in the history of the world. There's one question," satirist Harry Shearer quipped on MSNBC Wednesday. "Larry King could do this interview."
In the announcement's wake -- and ESPN's coverage ran well past the allotted hour -- the network stayed with its studio crew for quite awhile before venturing out (after some clunky on-air glitches) to correspondent Shelley Smith, who had the unenviable task of reporting from Cleveland.
Smith didn't mention it, but anyone watching could see a Cleveland policeman standing behind her, keeping the bar patrons from intruding on her live shot. All one could hope was that irate Ohioans confined their bonfires to James jerseys, not property.
James' only really significant response came near the end of the hour, when Wilbon took over the questioning. "That's the only reason we play this game, is to win championships," he said, boiling the calculus down beyond dollars and cents -- something James need never again worry about again, regardless of where he went -- to the validation that comes from winning a title.
Sure, James didn't choose the biggest media market (New York) or necessarily the best team (Chicago). Instead, he went with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- a young, marketing-friendly trio, provided that fans outside South Beach can get past the circus that brought them together.
Although Thursday's showcase was the dictionary definition of overkill, James isn't done talking. He's already scheduled to talk with "Good Morning America" softball-hurling host Robin Roberts Friday on ABC.
James always has had a theatrical streak, including his shtick about throwing powder into the air before games.
In the way he handled "The Decision," though -- with an assist from ESPN's worshipful playmakers -- he demonstrated he wasn't just throwing smoke, but was filled with it, too. And ESPN provided this image-conscious but ultimately ill-advised star with a whole hall of mirrors.