Millions of Americans had pleaded with basketball superstar LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and come to their city when he became a free agent. Bloggers, media pundits, and reporters of every kind seemed to devote much of their lives to figuring out what team James would be a part of for the 2011 season.
The speculation ended on Thursday, July 8, when ESPN opened a full hour of prime time for some pretend-journalism and an interview with James, who 28 minutes into the infomercial announced he was leaving Cleveland and going to the Miami Heat.
Floridians were ecstatic. With multimillionaire James joining multimillionaires Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, they were sure the Heat would once again win an NBA championship, something that had eluded James in Cleveland.
The day after the ESPN show, the man known in Cleveland as "King James" held court with Wade and Bosh in Miami's American Airlines arena, surrounded by 13,000 screaming fans, all of whom watched South Beach and Miami city officials give the three superstars keys to their cities. Two days after the announcement, Miami Heat fans began buying replicas of James jerseys, with his new number, 6, stitched across the back. Most NBA jerseys sell for about $50; these were priced up to $150.
In other basketball franchise cities, millions of fans who thought their team would have a chance to sign the man who wears a tattoo, "Chosen 1" across his back, wailed incessantly, as if their high school's Prom Queen had just rejected their mournful bid to go steady.
On the day of the "decision", ABC-TV, a sister company to ESPN, devoted two segments on its nightly news to the forthcoming spectacular. The other networks settled for one segment. Following the "decision", the TV networks and local stations ran "breaking news" crawls beneath scheduled shows. The next morning, newspapers gave the announcement front page coverage, with extensive commentary inside. The New York Daily News devoted almost its entire front page to a picture of a scowling James, and the whining headline, "Hey, New York, we're the greatest city in the world, so … WHO CARES!" The New York Post front page headline was a bold "LeBum".
But, it was Cleveland where hatred unified a city of about 450,000, part of a metropolitan area of about 2.2 million. Within minutes after James announced his decision, the Cleveland fans threw his cardboard images into trash cans and burned jersey replicas, the same ones they had proudly worn for seven years. Within two days, they began tearing down a Nike-sponsored 10-story mural that featured LeBron James, his head thrown back, his oversized arms spread out, saviour-like. This city would not have any graven image of the traitor they once worshipped as a "hometown hero".
Thousands even proclaimed they would boycott all companies - including State Farm, Coca Cola Nike, and McDonald's - that have endorsement contracts with James.
Between tears and rage, Cleveland fans, aided by numerous sports commentators, claimed that the James defection would cause the city to lose at least $20 million in revenue and, for all we know, doom it to be a third world country. A bitter Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who had not received the courtesy of even a pre-announcement phone call from James, lashed out in a letter to his fans, calling the decision, a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal," and that the hometown Cavaliers, unlike James, "have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you".
But, Gilbert's most important statement might have been his observation of the entire process. Although Gilbert would have praised James and the TV coverage had he remained in Cleveland, the Cavaliers' owner pointed to an underlying truth. The decision, said Gilbert, "was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment".
Even when the hyperbole is stripped away, a truth remains. For at least a week, it didn't seem there was any other news. But there was.
On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "decision", another heat wave washed over America. In this one, three people died from the heat wave that gripped the northeast; hundreds more, mostly senior citizens and the homeless, had to be treated for heat stroke or heat exhaustion.