There was no chance of getting any sleep.
It was in the final hours of July 7, 2010 when the surrender emerged to the exhausting, relentless pursuit of LeBron James. It had been two years of coverage, speculation and sourcing.
On that final day, the eve of LeBron’s “Decision” show, was one final mosh pit of information about the location of the show and other details. It felt like a victory just to correctly pinpoint Greenwich, CT as the spot. But the Holy Grail, of course, was identifying what team he would choose. At that point, everyone was guessing.
You know when you’ve reached orbit on a story like this? When LeBron’s own PR people start asking YOU where you think he’s going.
And as late as 10:30 p.m., no one in the media had a clue. It was just a circle of infinity around LeBron’s seemingly impenetrable atmosphere. Newsday received a story from me that was edited and sent to the printing press. The first editions had one of the more forgettable byline efforts of my career.
There wasn’t going to be a scoop. No breaking news. No spoiler. From this point forward, we were all just supposed to be Witnesses. And nothing was more annoyingly pretentious than that campaign ... at least until “The Decision” was borne.
Make no mistake, as a reporter; this felt as close to a defeat as you ever could in this business. That may sound strange, but yes, there are such things as wins and losses on this side of the notebook.
After putting that much time and effort into a story, competing with other reporters like hawks picking off field mice, a competitive instinct develops simultaneously with a respect for the ones who were committed to the effort. I won’t call it a foxhole mentality, but there was a point where no one cared who broke the story, you just wanted someone to have it. No one wanted it to remain a secret up until the show.
And late in the evening, on July 7, 2010, countless Clark Griswolds of basketball media arrived to Wally World.
I had gone to bed.
My Blackberry, however, was having none of that. It buzzed relentlessly on the bedside table, imploring me to not give up yet. The first text from a reliable source was cryptic, providing clarity to something I found out earlier in the day. There were just a few missing pieces. After a few replies, the conversation took a stunning turn.
It was like when Deep Throat says to Woodward, “Don’t you realize what you’re onto?” in All The President’s Men.
As I went deeper and the story suddenly evolved, LeBron’s decision to go to the Heat was still just a whisper among the elite of the NBA. But news was traveling fast in that stratosphere.
There was Michael Jordan at a charity golf event, shaking his head and chuckling in amused respect for Pat Riley’s ruthless guile. There was Alonzo Mourning apologizing to friends for an unexplained quick exit because he was told to get back to Miami immediately. And then there was Antawn Jamison, who spit a curse upon realizing that Cleveland was suddenly going to feel a lot colder this winter.
There was next the call to the Newsday sports department. This was the ultimate STOP THE PRESSES moment. I was ordered to triple-check my information, which wasn’t easy at 11 at night and with the last deadline in less than an hour.
Calls were made anyway. Apologies offered for the late call. Some accepted, and others not so much. A member of LeBron’s management team did not confirm anything, but instead implored me to make sure my information was correct. He also offered this warning, “LeBron is known to change his mind.”
That was not a denial.
The story was filed. The tweet went out. And, of course, mayhem ensued.
Knicks fans flooded my mentions with anger and accusations of hate. Cavs fans mocked my media affiliation (Newsday has one of the largest circulations in the nation, it should be noted) and dismissed my story. Other media outlets scrambled to confirm, but couldn’t.
All I wanted to do was go to bed.
The best part of the night was the attaboys that arrived via text from people I banged with in the paint throughout the LeBronathon. There was Brian Windhorst, then of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and now of ESPN.com, who expressed appreciation for the fact that it was a newspaperman who broke the story, not someone else. There was KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune - a friend for years going back to our days as basketball guys covering the NHL - and new friends I made at MSG Network, who asked me to make a guest appearance on a show called Knicks Night Live.
My friend Chris Broussard of ESPN.com, who was closely connected to LeBron James’ inner circle, confirmed my story in the early morning hours. I was warned again about LeBron’s penchant for indecisiveness.
I crawled to bed and lay there, wide awake ... until daylight.
The following day involved source-based denials from competing media outlets that any decision had been rendered and radio silence from LeBron’s people. No one was happy that it got out and they were going to make me sweat it out. The issue is, when you’re wrong about a story of this magnitude, it pulverizes your credibility.
Nevertheless, I was confident in my sources. But I didn’t completely exhale until after LeBron uttered those famous words four years ago today:
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”
In retrospect, I hated reporting something that I knew would be a crushing blow to the Knicks, who said they hadn’t yet been informed of any decision, and apparently found out just before the show aired.
I especially hated it for Knicks fans, who spent the past two years dreaming of the scenario that put the game’s greatest player on the game’s biggest and most historic stage.
It was truly a bittersweet feeling.
Still, it was an incredible lesson in journalism, an amazing experience as a reporter and an unforgettable chase of one of the biggest stories in American sports history.
This year, LeBron James is a free agent again, as is Carmelo Anthony. Reporters are all once again asking the same questions and executing the same dogged pursuit of the story. There is speculation, innuendo, consternation and anxiety. The drama builds as each day passes.
Who’s gonna break the story this time?
AROUND THE NBA
- There have been reports of the Knicks looking to carve out some payroll by trading the team’s two top-salaried players, Amar’e Stoudemire ($23.4 million) and Andrea Bargnani ($11.5 million), who are both in expiring years. To do so, the reports say the Knicks would need to pair a young player to the acquiring team. These types of deals are extremely difficult to execute and also don’t happen unless there is another move waiting to piggyback. It becomes a bit of chicken-and-egg in the sense that if you move those salaries to create room to bring in another star to pair with Melo, you’d first have to have commitments from Melo and that star, right?
- Kevin Love hasn’t received much attention this summer after being a hot name in trade rumors late in the season. Love has one year left on his deal in Minnesota and plans to pursue free agency in 2015, if he’s not traded first. Look no further than Boston on this one. Danny Ainge has gathered up plenty of assets to make a push for Love. There have been some discussions between the Celtics and T-Wolves, but nothing yet has come close to a deal. The T-Wolves aren’t in any hurry ... yet ... but Flip Saunders will be angling to scour as much of Ainge’s collection of young talent/draft picks as possible. Expect another team to jump into the fray -- perhaps a team that loses out on this year’s free agency sweepstakes -- soon to create competition.
- There has been a lot of focus on the potential deconstruction of the Miami Heat (don’t bet on it, kids). What has gone under the radar is how another East power, the Indiana Pacers, look like a franchise stuck in reverse. There are reports that Roy Hibbert is being shopped and free agent Lance Stephenson has yet to find any offers from the Pacers suitable and may look elsewhere. The Pacers have an issue at the point guard position and their bench looked paltry late in the season.
- I love the hiring of Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn. Hollins deserved a better fate in Memphis and proved to be an outstanding coach with the Grizzlies. One thing we can expect is the Nets will be nasty, which can only mean more intensity in the so-called rivalry with the Knicks.
Plug time: Don’t forget, NBA Summer League in Las Vegas begins Friday. We will have full coverage of every Knicks game on MSG Network!