Courtney Cox is a writer for FanSided partner BroJackson.com. For more great content, head on over to Bro Jackson and check out Courtney’s work.
On July 8, 2010, I was 22, approaching my second year anniversary at ESPN, and Bristol, Conn. was starting to wear me down. I was homesick, had just survived one of the worst winters on record, and had no idea where my career was going. I was working as a studio stage manager—I basically relayed the director’s wishes to the anchors, analysts, and crew over the course of the show.
One day, during a typical Sportscenter shift, my boss came down to the studio and in a very hushed tone, asked me if I was available that Thursday to do a remote event. These remotes were few and far between, so it was considered an honor and a good look to go on as many as possible.
Me: “Sure, where is it?”
ESPN Boss: “I can’t tell you that.”
Me: “Okay . . . what is it?”
ESPN Boss: “I can’t tell you that, either.”
Me: “Do I need to book travel? Flight? Hotel?”
ESPN Boss: “I’m not able to give you that kind of information. Are you in?”
I suddenly imagined myself in the trunk of an ESPN vehicle unable to apologize to my family because my ambition outran my good sense. It blatantly sounded like a trap; something that would eventually become a Lifetime movie.
So of course I said yes.
I contacted a colleague that was also in, and she assured me everything was on the up and up, even though she also knew absolutely nothing about what was going on. I also called my mom and told her that I had a great opportunity but I had no other information, but that I would check in regularly to let her know I hadn’t been kidnapped.
I automatically assumed from jump that this was The Decision. I Googled as much as possible to understand the basics of what might happen at this event, but at the moment I accepted the assignment, no one had any idea where it would be.
The Internet told me everything. I would either be in Connecticut or New York City that Thursday, and I was starting to realize the magnitude of what this event could become.
The morning of The Decision, I woke up ready to take on the world and share the glad tidings of LeBron James’ surprising news that he would be joining my team, the Dallas Mavericks. Worst case scenario, I’d be part of history.
And then I locked my keys in my car. With my phone. And everything I would need for the biggest non-athletic sporting event in my career.
After my panic attack and the use of a stranger’s phone at Dunkin’ Donuts to AAA, I was ready for whatever LeBron and his people had planned. Clear eyes, full hearts and such.
When we arrived in Greenwich that morning, people were already camped out. Every NBA team’s fanbase was represented, sitting in lawn chairs, posted up with picnic baskets and coolers, swept up in the free agency frenzy that held a steady grip on seemingly every part of the country. Kids were selling bottled water, parking lots across the street were packed to the max with news trucks that had no chance of getting a camera into the venue.
To add an extra element of crazy, New York City sports radio let its citizens know that there was a train stop from the city to Greenwich that stopped IN FRONT OF the Boys and Girls Club. Throughout the day, each round of the rumbling, hissing, tooting train brought more Knicks fans than one sleepy suburb could hold.
Inside of the Boys and Girls Club, we started setting up inside of what looked like the gym from Hoosiers. I had no idea how the space was going to hold LeBron, his big decision, and the backlash that would eventually rain down from the sports media heavens. At the time, I was unaware that rich neighborhoods even had Boys and Girls Clubs. What are they at risk for after school?
In any case, reporters kept trying to sneak in under the radar, and as a group, we all played bouncer to the many well-coifed hairstyles and conservative ties that tried to snake into the building. The tension was building over sponsorship placement, set design, and seating assignments, and it didn’t seem like anything was going to be decided in time for LeBron to take his talents anywhere. Such is the nature of live events–they seem daunting and impossible up until showtime, where most of the time things work perfectly without a noticeable hitch.
I had two big problems before the show started. The first was a ton of kids set up as props to represent the Boys and Girls Club in the background, which had been designated as part of the stage. As the stage manager, I was responsible for keeping about 60 kids in line for a one-hour show. Sixty kids that had been given a ton of free VitaminWater. With all of the sugar coursing through their veins, and all of the liquid sitting in their little bladders, I immediately laid down the ground rules:
1) Bathroom breaks happen during commercial breaks ONLY.
2) Even if LeBron doesn’t pick your team (most of the kids were Knicks fans), don’t go crazy.
3) We’re playing the quiet game for an hour. Deal with it.
Issue No. 2 happened about 30 minutes before the show started. Most of the guests were seated, comprised of high-level execs primarily from Disney and the Boys and Girls Club. I didn’t know most of the people present, but one of the higher-level faces I did recognize approached me concerned. He asked me about which seats were taken and if we could get more. Nervous about shutting down someone that could get me fired, I played it safe and tried to dodge the awkward responsibility of assigning seats. He whispered softly, “Kanye West is here and I don’t know where to seat him.”
Mind you, this is not long after the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where Kanye gave Taylor Swift the business in his infamous “I’mma let you finish” speech. All I can think about is ‘Ye approaching the set, snatching the mic and saying, “Yo LeBron. I’m really happy for you. I’mma let you finish, but Michael Jordan had one of the best careers of all time.”
So I ask the high-level face, “Are there any seats in the back we can find?” thinking that the further back he sits, the greater my chances of properly wrapping up when I tackle him on his way to the limelight. He said, “How about those three seats on the third row?”
He wasn’t seeing what I was seeing.
So Kanye walks in with no entourage, just a couple of people, and now I’m thinking he’s either here because he was at the wedding rehearsal for Carmelo Anthony and LaLa, or he was the Chicago representative picked to show out when LeBron chose the Bulls. To this day, I’m still not sure why he was in the building.
I spend the first 15 minutes or so honed in on ‘Ye’s every move. He seems chill, he’s wearing his glasses indoors, and he’s not making sudden moves. I forget he’s there until one of the camera operators says, “I think Kanye West fell asleep.”
At the biggest non-sporting sports event in a while, Kanye West fell asleep before anyone announced anything. He was doing the church/school head nod and everything. Wake up, Mr. West.
He would eventually wake up and leave well before The Decision ended.
The first 30 minutes of the show built up the drama. Jim Gray found a way to ask a million questions other than the one that we all wanted answered, but I could feel we were getting close to the moment of truth.
My director was executing his vision with exuberance in my ear. This was the moment. Despite an outbreak of rumors, in my head it HAD to be either New York or Cleveland. He begins with this weird trepidation, as if he doesn’t realize why we’re all here.
“In this fall . . . this is very tough . . .”
<director is orchestrating a dramatic zoom: “Give me a zoom here!”>
“. . . in this fall I’m going to take my talents to . . .”
<“Keep on zooming!”>
Zoom guy gets a little crazy. I’m still not sure to this day if there was an actual problem with his camera, but he would not stop zooming in. All I hear in my ear is, “That’s good there. Perfect. Hold your shot. STOP ZOOMING. HOLD YOUR CAMERA! HOLD IT!”
I have absolutely no idea where LeBron James is taking his talents.
“I feel like it’s going to give me the best opportunity to win and to win for multiple years, and not only just to win in the regular season or just to win five games in a row or three games in a row, I want to be able to win championships. And I feel like I can compete down there.”
All I can see is the pained look on all of the kids’ faces in the background. Some of the kids legit look like they want to cry. Outside, a mob appears to be forming, with crazy chanting and a ton of New Yorkers looking like they’re ready to burn the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich to ashes.
I’m asking around on my headset to find out if any of the camera operators heard the answer. Someone told me Miami and I figured they had just missed his decision as well.
Why would he come on national television to leave his home state’s team? Why didn’t he just announce his decision with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade earlier in the week when they made that appearance on Sportscenter?
I had more questions in the coming days and weeks. What had I helped create?
No one seemed to have a clue during the day where James might end up, but walking into the situation, I really thought it’d be Cleveland. The whole thing was too elaborate, too showy for him to go somewhere else. He had to stay home. If not, it really is like your girlfriend thinks you’re going to propose, and you break up with her on national TV.
It was so telling seeing James’ whole demeanor change throughout the rest of the program. During commercial breaks, he appeared somber, realizing the magnitude of his action. I loved the idea of players controlling their own destiny, but I felt for betrayed Cavs fans and this grand gesture of rejection.
I could feel the tide turning from that point. The jerseys in flames, discussions of Bron’s arrogance and selfishness (even though he donated the advertising revenue to the Boys and Girls Club from the program and took a cut to play with Bosh and Wade), and the increased pressure to win immediately.
I also felt the heat from other outlets, either salty that ESPN had the exclusive interview or frustrated that this event was blown up as much as it was, allowing professional athletes to control the media outlets that are supposed to be the independently ethical source for news. As the hate overflowed, I couldn’t help but wonder if all would have been forgiven had he chosen Cleveland. The spectacle was vilified because of the final decision to leave Cleveland first and foremost. Or what if LeBron had still chosen Miami, but tweeted it out like Kevin Durant or announced with D. Wade and Bosh?
But three years ago, I was in the right place. I handed LeBron a towel before the show, and helped make the best television that I could. I left ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. offices shortly after for less frigid pastures. LeBron’s decision helped me make my own.