Top story No. 3: 'The Decision' topples good King James

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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CBSSports.com is counting down the top 10 storylines of 2010 in sports, culminating with the No. 1 story, which will be revealed on Dec. 30.

On the surface, it sounded completely silly. Really, it still sounds silly. A 75-minute special dedicated entirely to a professional basketball player announcing his free-agent destination. This is what qualifies as riveting TV now?

Yes, yes it does.

Almost 10 million people watched "The Decision." To put that into some kind of perspective, maybe the most hyped NBA regular-season game this season was LeBron James' return to Cleveland. That reeled in just a little more than 7 million viewers. That's right, LeBron, perched in a director's chair, dressed in a red- and white-striped oxford, telling Jim Gray where he was going to play basketball was bigger than LeBron actually playing basketball.

Everyone eagerly awaited the Summer of 2010, which would send members of the supposed greatest free-agency class in NBA history to new places. And James was the face of that select bunch. People had been counting down since 2008 one athlete's free-agency period, the likes of which sports, not just basketball, had never seen.

James' actual decision was monumental enough, but "The Decision" took everything to another level.

As soon as LBJ let out the now infamous "I'm taking my talents to South Beach" line, the sporting world basically stopped in its tracks. "Whoa, hold a sec -- the Heat now have Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James? Wow."

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Outside of that, at least at first, "The Decision" wasn't about basketball -- and wouldn't be for a while. The entire city of Cleveland lit up with anger, as jilted fans burned jerseys, hats, anything that smacked of LeBron or his various nicknames or logos. Dan Gilbert, in his finite wisdom, added fuel to the fire by calling James a quitter and swearing the Cavs would have the last laugh. Most everyone else took to burning James' would-be legacy, calling him a sidekick, a wimp, a liar, a cop-out. Critics said he had ruined everything for himself, though LeBron insisted he had done what was best for him.

Oddly, airing "The Decision" on ESPN was supposed to be brilliant PR for LeBron. James' boyhood friend and marketing chief Maverick Carter had arranged to have the program set up at a Connecticut Boys & Girls Club, where kids filled the backdrop as Gray pitched King James 74½ minutes of softballs. The show generated more than half a million dollars in advertising revenues, all of which went to the Boys & Girls Club of America. But all that was lost amid the uproar following James' self-referential (reverential?) statement about his talents and South Beach.

After the train wreck of the "Decision" announcement, the new trio was trotted out and introduced in a celebration that even some championship parades don't compare to. Fitting too, because in a way, "The Decision" was a championship for the Heat. The team was immediately the most visible in the league, probably the most talented and, once the season started, the most targeted by other teams and their respective home crowds.

LeBron James' Heat lost their opener days after Nike released its new LBJ ad. (Getty Images)  
LeBron James' Heat lost their opener days after Nike released its new LBJ ad. (Getty Images)  
And most of this before the Heat had gone through a single practice together.

Before you knew it, LeBron popped up in polls, listed alongside Tiger Woods and Michael Vick, asking who had ruined his good name the most. Who would have the hardest time coming back in the public eye? LeBron, who had simply decided to play for the Heat, was compared to an athlete who had gone to prison for despicable crimes against dogs and another whose infidelities stretched to near-epic proportions.

"The Decision" was that powerful, not only inviting everyone's rancor, but also messing with folks' common sense, with their hold on reality.

Boston's Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen is nice and there have been other strong trios throughout NBA history, but never has one team's threesome so captured our attention the way LeBron, Wade and Bosh have.

Some have asked if the new-look Heat are good for the NBA. How couldn't they be? LeBron made free agency matter again. And it has been a long time since an NBA training camp had press swarming around like it was media day at the Super Bowl. It has been a long time since roundball got so much attention, even if it's mostly going to just one team.

That doesn't mean you have to stop thinking the Heat are evil, that LeBron is a traitor to his home team or "The Decision" was worse for society than Flavor of Love. But while the aftermath of LeBron saying those seven little words has turned out to mean a lot of different things to different people in different places, it can't be considered anything less than earthshaking.

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