How was LeBron James' Decision special Good for the NBA?

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Answered by: Matt, An Expert in the NBA Basketball Category
Part of the allure of watching sports is that the momentum in a game can shift in a split second. It happens all the time: the most famous of those moments get some sort of a title. The Fumble. The Catch. The Shot. The Four-Point Play. Sports fans could rattle off a whole list of these, but for modern NBA fans one moment stands above the rest: The Decision.

Ironically, The Decision wasn’t an in-game moment. It was an ESPN special. But its implications were as far-reaching as any in-game moment. The Decision was one to be made by Cleveland Cavaliers Forward LeBron James. LeBron James' Decision was simple: to decide where in the NBA he wanted to play for the next stretch of his career.

It was the shot of drama the NBA had so desperately needed after a decade of predictability. There are two aspects here: the sports part, and the more compelling human-interest part. In sports terms, no player of James’ skill had been a free agent. Ever. James had willed a beleaguered franchise to greatness, and had the back-to-back MVPs to back it up. Talking heads across the country said it was as if Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan were suddenly up for grabs.

And then there was the personal side. An Akron native, James had spent his entire life in the state of Ohio. Cleveland had embraced him as the face of their city. A Nike billboard downtown with a picture of James read: “We Are All Witness.” But at 26, James had never lived anywhere else. Would the hometown kid make good on his promise to bring glory to the Cavs, and to Cleveland? Would the prodigal son leave home at last?

Those of us who watch basketball know by now that LeBron “took his talents to South Beach” to team with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. We know that afterward, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert publicly referred to James as a Benedict Arnold as the city literally burned effigies of James.

In a second, LeBron suddenly became the villain. He jilted Cleveland on ESPN, and he did it with a smile. He took the low road, leaving the tough-love Midwest for the glitz and the Gulf. He jumped ship from the underdogs, and joined forces with the big bad wolf. When asked if the Heat’s season was “championship or bust,” James replied: “No. But it is Championship.” He began referring to himself in the third person. James was fast becoming persona non grata around the league, and the Heat became the team the rest of the league loved to hate.

But how is this good for the NBA? In short, it shook things up. The 2011 NBA Finals was the first in ten years not to feature Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, or Tim Duncan. The NBA Finals was a welcome-party for the next generation of stars, and it allowed some new faces to forge their own legends. Wade’s Heat had defeated the Dallas Mavericks in a dramatic six-game Finals five years earlier, and James’ Cavs were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, but those appearances were flukes. Not only would neither player return to the Finals until 2011; their teams would fail spectacularly. The pressure was on the Heat: along with former Toronto Raptors Forward Chris Bosh, the two stars had staked their reputations on a Finals victory.

They came up short. Cleveland declared the Mavericks “Honorary Ohioans,” in a bizarrely flattering gesture.

Off the court, the groundswell in the NBA that began with LeBron James’ Decision was a gold mine: Nielsen ratings skyrocketed, which meant more interested viewers and more money for the league. Game 6 of the NBA Finals drew the second-highest ratings the league had earned since moving to ABC in 2003. The league was rife with sublots now, and the world responded.

The Decision repelled some. David Stern went as far as fining James for the event, calling it “arrogant and poorly executed.” Pundits turned on James, calling him out with as much zeal as they had embraced him.

But while James’ reputation took a hit, consider this: The Decision raised $2 million dollars for Boys and Girls Clubs across the country. James got publicity, most of it negative, but didn’t profit from the special. The bottom line here is that LeBron James' Decision was good for the NBA both in its infusion of human drama into a flaccid league, and reminding us of the NBA’s humane aspect when it otherwise could have been overlooked.

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