Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for July 25th, 2010

Framing Your Own Narrative — or, why LeBron James’ “The Decision” ESPN Program Failed.

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We writers know all about the dangers of framing our own narrative.  Sometimes, our best assumptions regarding plot, characters and story just do not work.   And that is exactly why LeBron James needed a writer/editor in his entourage, to keep him from making his disastrous mistake in coming up with his recent one-hour ESPN special entitled “The Decision.”

As most know, LeBron James is a highly paid athlete.  He is from Ohio, and he’d played for his hometown NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, since he was drafted out of high school.  He is now twenty-five, and he’s been told for years how good he is, how kind and generous he is, and how he may even be the best player the NBA has ever had.  (A debatable assumption, one I do not agree with.)  And he’s been highly marketable, even likable — the best liked player in the NBA in many senses, someone who had fans throughout the country and possibly even the world due to his play on the court and his generous nature outside of basketball.

So perhaps it’s more understandable that LeBron James would think it was OK to announce his decision on where he’s going to play basketball next year on national television in a live special that was aired on ESPN.  All the revenue from his one-hour program was given to charity, something James and his people requested and ESPN agreed to do.  James was even allowed to pick his own interviewer, Jim Gray, something unprecedented in the history of sports journalism to the best of my knowledge.

Note that LeBron James, at this point, had not announced his decision, which is why the program became entitled “The Decision.”  (I know it’s basic, but humor me, please.)  And James figured that no one would get upset with him when he announced that he was going to play for the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (Wade is a perennial All-Star and Bosh is just under that caliber) — James only saw what he wanted to see, and nothing more.  His plot, story and characters were all laid out — and yet what was the outcome?

As ESPN ombudsman and former NBC Sports executive Don Ohlmeyer put it here http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=ohlmeyer_don&id=5397113 :

It was billed without irony as “The Decision.” But for those who thought ESPN could agree to televise live LeBron James’ announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat — ultimately served up with ample hype in the form of an awkward, uncomfortable, staged one-hour network special — and still be free from public controversy, it might as well have been called “The Delusion.”

As has been well documented, Team LeBron proposed the exclusive special to ESPN with the following conditions: (1) Veteran broadcaster Jim Gray, who has no current association with ESPN, would host the segment in which James announced his plans; (2) The network would yield the hour of advertising inventory to be sold by James’ team with the proceeds directed to the Boys & Girls Club of America; (3) The network would produce the entire show and pay for all production costs.

And Ohlmeyer’s column goes on to quote many journalists who were very upset at James’s action (along with ESPN’s questionable ethics in televising it), some of whom I’m going to quote below:

David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: “ESPN led the way Thursday night in some of the most debased sports coverage I can remember seeing. The hype was shameless, the lack of perspective colossal.”

David Barron, Houston Chronicle: “LeBron James hijacked ESPN, selling the network on an hour-long glorified infomercial preceded by three hours of breathless hype and numbing repetition.”

Tom Hoffarth, Los Angeles Daily News: “The truth is, how does anyone believe anything else ESPN reports about James from this point forward?”

Now, obviously, this isn’t what James had expected.  Nor was it what most of the people at ESPN had expected, with the possible exception of Mr. Ohlmeyer (who, if he’d been asked, would’ve given an immediate thumbs-down to the whole charade).  But it’s what James should’ve expected!

Listen.  Cleveland is an economically devastated area.  They don’t have too much to cheer about, and being able to cheer for a native son who happens to be an exceptionally gifted at the game of basketball playing for the Cavaliers was one of the most hopeful things many Ohioans had to look forward to, bar none.

What James did in framing his own narrative is to forget about the external factors going on all around him — the bleak hopelessness.  The utter despair.  The futility of an area that has a 9.5% unemployment rate as of June 2010 according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the most recent statistics available.

Note by any objective standard, by someone who wasn’t surrounded by “Yes Men,” this narrative — someone who’d grown up in Akron, OH, leaving his hometown team for the bright lights and big city of Miami, FL — would be a non-starter.  And by any objective standard, James’ decision would’ve been made quietly and privately as most NBA player decisions are (no one really cared where former Milwaukee Bucks guard Luke Ridenour went, for example, though Ridenour was an essential cog in the Milwaukee Bucks’ surprising playoff run earlier this year)**, which means some of the criticism being leveled at James now wouldn’t have happened.

I’m sure it’s not really fun for LeBron James, a man with an enormous ego, to hear from NBA analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, this (from http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=5391478):

“There would have been something honorable about staying in Cleveland and trying to win it as ‘The Man’ … LeBron, if he would’ve in Cleveland, and if he could’ve got a championship there, it would have been over the top for his legacy, just one in Cleveland. No matter how many he wins in Miami, it clearly is Dwyane Wade’s team.”

Or, how about this from Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a Lakers standout for many years, and also a Hall of Famer, who said this to Bloomberg News reporter Barry Rothbard:

Basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson said he never would have joined with Larry Bird to win a championship the way LeBron James is teaming with Dwyane Wade(notes). […]

“We didn’t think about it cause that’s not what we were about,” said Johnson, whose Michigan State squad beat Bird’s Indiana State team in the 1979 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. “From college, I was trying to figure out how to beat Larry Bird.”

Or how about Michael Jordan himself, who said this at http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=5391478 :

“There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team,'” Jordan said after playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada. The interview aired on the NBC telecast of the event. “But that’s … things are different. I can’t say that’s a bad thing. It’s an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”

In other words, LeBron James’ attempt to frame the narrative failed with his own peers or at least those he truly wants, some day, to be among — Hall of Fame caliber players.  They saw this as a sell-out, in short — they saw this as a player who’d proven he wasn’t enough to win with a good supporting cast around him take the easy way out and join a team with two other superstars in order to win a championship — something most of them would not have countenanced under any circumstances.

So we see what’s happened in retrospect: James’ “story” has taken a marked detour.  From a beloved near-demigod playing for his hometown team, James has become a carpetbagging, narcissistic athlete who will do whatever he wants for fortune and glory — something which should be a cautionary tale to us all.

The moral of this tale, if there is one, would be for James to run his decisions by someone who is outside himself and outside his circle of “Yes Men,” for the same reason fiction writers have first readers.  Because someone who could’ve told him, “No, you don’t do this if you want your fans to still love you,” and “No, you definitely don’t go on ESPN in order to announce you’re leaving economically depressed Cleveland for Miami” would’ve saved James an inordinate amount of grief.

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** Note:  Ridenour went to the Minnesota Timberwolves this off-season, quietly and without fanfare.

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 25, 2010 at 4:27 am