CLEVELAND - For six weeks, my nose has been buried in the LeBron James free agency story. I have looked at what it would mean to the city of Cleveland, let alone to how we were going to cover the story at Channel 5. It became an obsession of information. I wasn’t in the middle, but I was in the pipeline of information and misinformation.
The story began for me when LeBron James was a freshman at Akron St. Vincent St. Mary. I remember watching him play in his first state championship game. Interviewing him with a pack of other TV stations after the game, he was a soft spoken freshman. But, he was an amazing talent. I was watching the next Michael Jordan. I knew it.
Later, I watched the last live basketball game I would ever see with my brother, who passed away in 2005. My brother, father and brother-in-law went to the Canton Field House to see St. V's play the Chones triplets and Orange High School. We marveled at a modern day Jordan in a “Hoosiers” style gym. I cherish that game because of who was with me. Ron Harper walked in with the largest purple sweat suit I have ever seen. Shaquille O’Neal was there. I was in the center of the universe, and I was with my family. It was a milestone night, especially knowing I witnessed this with my brother.
The high school journey took his team to games all over the country. They even played games on pay-per-view. We laughed when his mom bought a Hummer. Her income to purchase the car was questioned left and right. Then, a young defiant LeBron brought a remote control hummer and played with it on the court. We laughed with him as he made fun of the state for questioning his actions. Then, we watched him get suspended in high school when he took expensive free jerseys. I looked at the then OHSAA director Clair Muscaro like he was an out of touch old man. How could the state stop the greatest thing from Northeast Ohio? He told LeBron he couldn’t do something. How dare he stand up to “The Chosen One.”
One time in high school, LeBron showed up late for the Cleveland Sports Awards. My co-workers at FSN Ohio and I sat with him at the same table. His mother, Gloria, put hot sauce on his food like it was going out of style. He picked up his award. He didn’t say much. He won the amateur athlete of the year. It was the only year he actually showed up to pick up his award. In the following years, he would not return. I thought maybe he was just too big to attend the event. That’s the price we pay for having a local superstar.
During his senior year, ESPN decided to air his game against Oak Hill, Virginia. Before the game I thought, “this is wrong.” The hype, everything around this doesn’t feel right. But, I justified it all in my mind. I remembered wanting to watch when SportsChannel America broadcast Robert Smith at Euclid in the first nationally televised high school football game. So that made it okay.
When it came time for LeBron to go to college, Ohio State was one of his choices if he was going to play college ball. Like it was actually a something he wanted to do. I almost thought he was considering about not turning pro. Then OSU basketball coach Jim O’Brien told me that he called LeBron and told him a full scholarship was all his. James just had to say the word and a full ride was his. But, he wasn’t going to waste any recruiting time on LeBron. The funny thing is O’Brien knew that if he landed LeBron, the NCAA would drop the bomb on Ohio State for the recruiting violations that happened to LeBron while he was in high school. The NCAA and Ohio State fired O’Brien later in his career, but those infractions were child’s play compared to what James had coming to him if he attended Ohio State.
Then the Cavs pulled the magic lottery ball. I was at the ballpark that night, and the city erupted. All hail, “King James” is coming to our city. After LeBron was picked in the draft, the next day he was at the ballpark. The folks at Jacobs Field told me LeBron was quiet, but his guys were a pain. They said his group was more difficult than most celebrities that came to town. I said, “Well, he just got drafted. Cut him some slack. After all, he is LeBron James.”
Along the way, I traveled with the Cavs and LeBron for Fox Sports Net. For the first two years, I was always amazed. It looked like he had read a book on each city before we arrived -- he was always well read to tell the good people of any city how much he knew about them and that each city was special. Watching city after city, I was blown away by the way he handled the cameras.
But something didn’t feel right. It seemed scripted like a WWE event. I watched from afar. When I did the postgame interviews for FSN, we would request LeBron and wouldn’t get him, even though NBA rules clearly stated the home TV broadcasting team got first choice of a player after the game. At the time, I still hosted the Indians postgame show and the Tribe still had some big stars. The Indians never turned down a postgame interview. I thought it was
crazy. I think I talked to LeBron twice in the postgame show all season long. I thought it wasn’t right. But, I let it go because we were the cable TV home of the Cavs.
I watched as LeBron’s men moved in around the team. I watched our guys at FSN who were on the broadcasting team for years get bumped off the team flights because LeBron’s boys were flying on the team plane. I watched Head Coach Paul Silas -- a guy I respected -- get run out of town. While I thought he was a little too worried about little things, I knew he was not about to put up with anybody’s garbage. I think that’s what got him fired. How dare he tell LeBron what to do? Did he not buy in?
It got worse.
I was not a big fan of going to shoot around or practice because of all the waiting. A scheduled 1 p.m. interview session suddenly became a five-hour wait. When the Indians season started, I could not wait to jump back over and cover the Tribe on FSN. The Cavs were all about the show, and not about the game.
It proved to be true. When the powder started flying from LeBron’s hands, I thought to myself that he ripped that off from Jordan. As time grew, the dancing, the choreographed introductions, it just grew really old. It wasn’t right. This wasn’t about the game. This is a show. On the road with the Indians, I would get mad when fans started ripping the Tribe. Covering the Cavs, I used to listen to LeBron cry and whine to refs left and right. I was embarrassed. Fans would be yelling all by me. I couldn’t argue back. I knew they were right. Somebody told me Jordan used to talk to the refs all the time. So I thought, “super stars get to do that. I must not be used to covering a super star.”
I looked at the 10-story piece of art/billboard across the street from the “Q.” It said “We are all witnesses!” I thought, “This is crazy. This guy is not God.” This was wrong, but, I looked at the ratings on FSN. I knew people were watching, so I looked the other way.
In 2006, The Indians moved away from FSN. The thought of covering LeBron and “the show” was not as enjoyable to me. A shot to jump to another TV station and stick with the Tribe was enough to convince me to change jobs. I had a chance to leave. The timing was right.
Now, I was at a distance, back in the pack waiting for LeBron like everybody else. I had a chance to be more critical. I remember walking to desk after a Sports Sunday show. I said something critical of James. I looked at the nasty e-mails. They said, “How dare you say anything critical about LeBron? How can you say that? You know that stuff will make him want to leave town when he is a free agent.”
So I backed off. I was feeling like if I said something negative, maybe he was listening. Talk about ego. How dumb was I? I sliced my own thoughts to play the game.
Every move the Cavs made, LeBron knew and had some say. They did everything they could to get him to stay. Go back and look at previous blogs. When the Cavs picked up Antawn Jamison and then got Z back. I said, “Look at this team. They are the Yankees of basketball.” That’s LeBron’s favorite team. There is no way he is going to leave. I even looked past the fact that LeBron totally stiffed the Browns when they played the Cowboys. The Browns hooked him and his boys up with a suite and free everything. Did he say, “Thanks?” No. Browns staffers will tell you he was rude, calling out Browns fans. He wore Yankees hats to Indians games. He did not care about Indians and Browns fans. Looking back, that was the first sign he didn’t care about Cavs fans either. Yet, I looked the other way.
After I came to NewsChannel5, one of the first things LeBron said was, “I am a great leader!” It’s a running joke on the set now, and has been since he said it. It is the most egotistical thing I have ever heard. He has no championships. At the time, the only thing he led was St. V's to 3 state titles. I never made a big deal out of it. I should have.
Then, look at this season. Often I watched and marveled at his play. I thought, “Wow! We are really spoiled by how good he is.” Those were the same words he would utter after game 5 against Boston. I thought, “it is okay for me to say it. Not him.” The game was the defeat in then Head Coach Mike Brown’s tenure. Brown said there was nothing wrong with LeBron’s elbow. The MRIs showed there was nothing wrong with LeBron’s elbow. LeBron said there was nothing wrong with his elbow. Guess what, there was nothing wrong with his elbow. But, because I noticed at practice he was holding his elbow a month before the playoffs, I said something to the Plain Dealer’s Brian Windhorst about it. He told me I was right. It was bothering him. I bought in again. It had to be the elbow that was causing all these problems.
During game three of the playoffs in Boston, I walked by Gloria James, said “Hello,” and I thought nothing of it. Little did I know, by the end of the week, rumors about her would hit an all time high. I just thought she had really grown up from the days
LeBron was at St. V’s when she would take the Wheaties Box and taunt other parents. But, I looked the other way.
By game five, and for the first time in LeBron’s career, he was called out by someone in the Cavs organization other than Paul Silas (and I believe Danny Ferry behind closed doors). Dan Gilbert thought he quit, and the fans booed him. He didn’t like it. We all feared that it would be fuel for his fire if LeBron wanted to leave. But, there was another game to be played. We felt LeBron wanted to win a championship. I thought it looked like he quit. I didn’t want to believe it.
It was ESPN Armageddon in Boston for game six. The world was going to end if the Cavs didn’t win. It didn’t after the loss. The locker room looked in a daze. I wondered how this had happened. My texts blew up about how LeBron threw his jersey after leaving the locker room. I waited for the LeBron to get to the podium. I watched, hoping he would give us a sign. He did. He said Cleveland wanted to win a championship. That was enough for me to blow off the rumors of New York, New Jersey, Chicago, the Clippers. He was staying.
We watched LeBron drag some of the world’s richest men to Cleveland to hold free agent meetings. They all came ready to roll, ready to make a pitch. Before this happened, Fox Sports' Steven A. Smith told us he was going to Miami. We all laughed. We all thought he was just looking to get back on ESPN. We had seen misinformation about who the Cavs next head coach would be. ESPN had different reporters saying different teams. I would hear one thing and think it was a misdirection to another. I believed nobody. I thought LeBron was going to stay for the money.
Players often talk about being businessmen. It is a business. We all know it. LeBron was meeting with some of the most powerful men in the world. He showed up in sweat suits and shorts. That’s not what you wear to a business meeting. It’s what you wear to a game. Guess what? To LeBron James, who wears some very fine suits, this was all a game. A game that was over before anybody walked in the door. He knew where he was going. But, I thought because the Cavs had one of the last cracks. They were going to win.
Then came the real dog and pony show: ESPN’s “The Decision.” LeBron was going to announce what he was going to do. James is a man who understood Cleveland sports history and had talked about “The Drive”, “The Fumble” and “The Shot.” For LeBron James to go on the air and not pick Cleveland would mean that he was manufacturing his own place in sports misery. In fact, he even got to name it. The folks in New York bought in, when he said the announcement was in Greenwich, CT. People thought LeBron was going to the Knicks. But, once again, the man I watched, and a man who had wowed audiences around the country, made everyone believe they had a shot.
He picked Miami.
I just gave you all kinds of excuses for things LeBron did that I knew were not right. But, in the end, we should have listened to Stephen A. Smith. In an interview on ESPN 850 WKNR, he said he knew LeBron was going to Miami at least three weeks before anybody said it was true. Smith got it from LeBron’s inner circle, but, he didn’t work for ESPN. If he was right, the ratings would have been a flop. The “E” stands for entertainment, not ethics.
I do believe there are people at ESPN who knew Stephen A. Smith was right. Plus, there must have been an internal debate in Bristol about if the show was right. It just didn’t seem kosher that the station that was airing the event to have reporters or analyst pick different teams. On the outside, it looked like a big ratings ploy, which is questionable from a journalistic point of view, and brilliant from a ratings point of view. Not only will I never trust LeBron James, I will have trouble trusting ESPN again. But, one man on the network stood out: Skip Bayless. From day one he was a LeBron realist. He was right about LeBron. I just didn’t want to listen.
I used to laugh when WTAM’s Mike Trivisonno ripped LeBron. I thought he was only doing it for ratings. He said the things I was thinking. I give him credit for having the guts to go against the grain. I look back at all my excuses and Triv was dead on.
In the end, LeBron wrote his own place in Cleveland sports misery. I watched it happen before my very eyes for over a decade. The problem is that I was blinded by the fact that I want to see a championship in my lifetime. I was willing to bank my hopes on a 25-year-old who is the second best basketball player in the league. I can blame him for what he put Northeast Ohio through, but I blame myself for looking past things I knew in my heart weren’t right.
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