On July 8, 2010, after a season of speculation, LeBron James announced his free-agency destination in a one-hour special on ESPN called The Decision. The concept for the prime-time show was hatched in Los Angeles during the 2010 NBA Finals, but it was executed in the tony suburb of Greenwich, Conn. A year later, four key behind-the-scenes operatives speak about their roles in creating the controversial event — the semi-secretive logistics, the intended misdirections, the surprise celebrity participants, and who knew what and when about how their grand production unfolded.
Mark Dowley, former partner at the William Morris Endeavor agency and a Greenwich resident: Ari Emanuel [co-CEO of William Morris] called me and said, “What do you think of the idea of doing the show?” And I really liked it. I like the whole notion of the emancipation of talent. No one could have guessed the level of interest this would get. We had never seen anything like that.
I said we should do it, and I knew Maverick [Carter, LeBron's business manager] and LeBron would agree we should do it for charity. LeBron has a natural preconceived notion about the Boys & Girls Club, and they could sure use the help. I called Maverick, and he loved the idea. He talked to LeBron, and he loved the idea. And then we went out in the course of 10 days and pulled it together.
It always struck me that here we are in [Greenwich], one of the most affluent communities in the world, and we have a terrible gym at the Boys & Girls Club. I thought we could help them out.
Dowley didn’t know how to approach the Boys & Girls Club without blowing the secret, so he called longtime friend Scott Frantz, a Connecticut state legislator and Greenwich resident, and asked him to provide a connection to the club.
Dowley: He’s a guy I can trust. I had the whole world watching and I didn’t want anybody to know where we were shooting this until the last possible minute.
Frantz: Mark didn’t put duct tape over my mouth or anything like that, but the strong hint was that, “Let’s get this organized and not spill the beans.” I didn’t even tell my family. You can’t tell anybody anything — not even your dog.
Frantz had Dowley call Bob DeAngelo, the executive director of the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club, on Sunday, July 4, to pitch the idea.
Dowley: I told him why [Greenwich] made sense. It’s neutral territory, because none of us knew where LeBron was going. It was as neutral as you could get while still being convenient. We worried about doing the show in Cleveland for LeBron’s personal safety. And if we went to any of the other contending cities, people would have thought he was definitely going there. And in Greenwich, I felt like we could get him in and out of town safely.
DeAngelo: I had just gotten back from five weeks of pedaling my bike from San Francisco to Greenwich with friends. When I got home, I had a list of chores to do. The very next day, I was up on a ladder washing windows when someone called — it was Mark Dowley. He asked me if they could use our gym to host this event. He swore me to secrecy. Their plan was to have the location be a total secret, and then at the end of the show, they’d announce where the location of the gym was. I almost fell off the ladder.
Dowley said the location choice had nothing to do with Carmelo Anthony’s wedding in New York the following weekend.
Dowley: None whatsoever. I heard everything imaginable. That [LeBron] was at [Knicks assistant general manager] Allan Houston’s house and he was going to the Knicks. That he was here for Carmelo’s wedding. I still think most people think that. It’s not true.
Amid all the planning with ESPN and the Club, Dowley had to figure out how to get LeBron from Ohio to Greenwich on the day of the show without anyone noticing.
Dowley: I had a private plane in a hangar in White Plains, N.Y., and we went out and picked him up in Ohio on Thursday [July 8]. I have a good friend, Steve O’Neill, who is the CEO of CitationAir [a private jet company], and I told him what we were doing and to get LeBron here very quietly. I needed to make sure no one in Cleveland knew where the plane was going. We were going to fly out of Akron, but we switched to Cleveland at the last minute.
O’Neill: I knew about the plan seven to 10 days in advance. [The location of the Ohio flight] was originally intended to be sort of a nondescript place where we’d pick him up, because he was allegedly being followed by the press who wanted to know where he was going.
Dowley: LeBron’s people switched it from Akron to Cleveland. LeBron had something to do before that was closer to Cleveland.
O’Neill: Each airport has fixed-based operations — locations you can choose to depart from. We chose one in Cleveland that we thought would be suitable for the trip and would be more private. Sometime before that flight departed, they requested a different FBO at the same airport. Honestly, that happens every day.
Dowley: We did have to file multiple flight plans for where we going afterward, but we did not give those to anyone. I trust Steve. He made sure we did everything legally but at the same time had the leeway to change plans at the last minute. And you can do that with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] at the last minute.
O’Neill: Obviously, one plan involved Miami. Another involved canceling the flight if he went with New York and would celebrate there. We needed to make sure we had enough fuel to fly to California if he chose Los Angeles, and a crew that could fly at least six hours.
I was told shortly before the show started that it was going to be Miami. I was probably the only person at CitationAir who knew what was going on every step of the way. I called my office and told the right person there, simply, “It’s going to be Miami.” And he said, “OK, thanks.” And that was it. It was not a big sinister plot. It was, “OK, all the passengers are going to Miami and we’ll dust off that Miami flight plan and pass it to the crew [of the plane].” It was just a matter of whether you point the jet south or west.
Of course it was unusual to be a part of the whole drama around The Decision, and it was slightly unusual not to know where we were going until a few hours before departure. But prepping for stuff like that is a nonevent for us — it’s just what we do. When I write a book on this business, this won’t even get a paragraph. OK, maybe one, but not two. We fly well-known people every single day.
Dowley: [LeBron] arrived [Thursday] afternoon, maybe around 2 p.m., and he spent the next three-and-a-half to four hours at my house in Greenwich. I hired a cop and a security guard to sit on the road in front of my house so no one could get in just in case someone figured out where he was. But nobody knew. We had everybody from ESPN people, Boys & Girls Club people, sponsors and even a couple of my kids and their friends were there. And then Kanye West showed up. He and LeBron are pretty close friends. He called my office and just said he wanted to stop by. The office gave him my address, and he just stopped in. It was funny to watch — all the kids there thought LeBron was pretty cool, but apparently they think Kanye is really, really cool. They just flocked right to him.
We kind of had a rehearsal with LeBron and our team, and we called all the teams and told them what was going on [with the show].
Dowley and DeAngelo were disappointed they didn’t keep the location secret until the end. DeAngelo had planned to surprise the kids by tricking them into believing they were coming to the club to eat pizza and watch the event on television, only to arrive and find LeBron James amid a makeshift ESPN studio.
DeAngelo: Just the thrill of visualizing playing a joke on these kids. We were relishing that. It didn’t play out as a secret, but those kids still hyperventilated when they found out LeBron was coming here.
Dowley: [The location] didn’t become known until the day before, when I called the Greenwich Police Department to tell them what was going on. Within a half-hour, Newsday had it and everyone was calling. I was very disappointed. I love the Greenwich Police Department, but at that point, it went outside of a tight circle where I knew everybody and trusted everybody. Trust me, I wrestled with not telling the police, but I thought it would be a great disservice because you could be creating a riot.
DeAngelo: [When word leaked] my computer screen just blew up with all the emails people sent trying to get in. It was a lot of, “I’m a friend of a friend of a friend, and my grandma is from Cleveland and she’s a big LeBron fan. Could she come?” It was hysterical.
According to Dowley, a half-dozen sponsors paid a total of $3.5 million to $4 million for advertising. The organizers agreed to split the money evenly between Boys & Girls Clubs in every city with a team in contention for LeBron — plus the Greenwich club. Nearby clubs in Bridgeport and Stamford also received gifts. Each sponsor paid about $450,000 apiece for packages that included 30-second spots, bumpers and other ad space. The organizers were able to tack on a premium charge because of the special nature of the event.
Dowley: I did know [he was going to pick Miami]. I can’t comment on [how far in advance] I knew.
Frantz: I was there [at the telecast] and had no idea it was Miami. The vast majority would think he would be doing this [in Greenwich] because he was signing up with New York. That’s what I thought. The only thing that was a letdown for me, as a Knicks fan, was the actual decision. We all sat there in shock that he wasn’t coming to New York.
Dowley: The only other part that was disappointing was someone at ESPN came out that afternoon and said LeBron would announce the winning city within the first 10 or 15 minutes. That was never the case. No one wanted to drag the show out unnecessarily, but if you reveal the surprise within the first 10 minutes, it’s like showing the end of the movie right away. I was very angry. I don’t remember who it was that said it. When I get pissed off at someone, I don’t remember their name.
DeAngelo: When LeBron said he was going to take his talents to South Beach, you could hear a pin drop. People just didn’t know what to do. And you know how you get that little delay before things are broadcast on television? That split second passed, and then you heard this huge collective groan from all the people crowded outside. After that, LeBron left the gym and went into a small, private room just to quiet down a little bit and to protect himself. He did another interview with someone else, and then he had to leave. He was on a very tight schedule.
LeBron posed for one photo with the kids, but he declined to sign autographs.
DeAngelo: We’ve had a lot of athletes and some really great people come through the Boys & Girls Club. They did have time to sit down and sign autographs. [LeBron] was not able to do that, unfortunately. He got here late and was on a tight schedule for the telecast. He had no time prior and he had to get whisked out of here afterward. When you have someone in like that, the tendency is to say he’s going to be great, and sign a lot of autographs and ham it up and get lots of photos. I’d say we were disappointed we weren’t able to do that [with LeBron]. But what carried the day for me was the generosity he showed for the Boys & Girls Club. Our club got a six-figure gift, 30 Hewlett-Packard computers and a whole bunch of Nike equipment. We totally remodeled our gym and got a climbing wall. It was a really positive thing for us.
Dowley: We went back to my house after the show, had a beer, and Kanye and LeBron talked for a while. We then went to the airplane hangar at White Plains. He and everyone else [not West] got on one plane and went to Miami. I got on another plane and went to Nantucket. I think LeBron at that point felt great about [the show]. We all felt great about how much money we netted for the kids. He didn’t look worried one way or the other. It was, “I’m going to Miami to start the next chapter in my life.” He certainly could have done that show and made a lot more money for himself. But we came up with an experiment. I’m fond of experimenting, and I’m proud of doing something different.
Those involved with the making of the special were dismayed at the way it was received and the way in which LeBron has been portrayed as either a megalomaniac or a dupe of corporate suits who used the show to exploit him.
Dowley: We got a lot of grief for it. A good deed never goes unpunished, you know? LeBron is an exceptionally bright young man. No one is taking advantage of LeBron James. And Maverick Carter is a very bright guy. I’ve done deals with them since and we’ll do deals with them in the future. Everybody can hold their heads up high. The only people who know best about how they felt [about the criticism] are Maverick and LeBron. There is no way they enjoyed a lot of the aftermath. I do know morally and from a socially conscience standpoint, they know they did something good.
The guy who really got wronged was [The Decision interviewer] Jim Gray. The whole original idea was Jim’s and Ari’s and Maverick’s. I thought Jim did a hell of a job. He’s quite a gentleman. This was sports, after all, not U.N. wartime reporting. People just got a little nuts over it.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s infamous post-Decision letter to Cleveland fans bashing LeBron was a subject of conversation among the show’s insiders almost immediately.
Dowley: What didn’t get enough play was what Dan Gilbert said afterward. The next day, Maverick and LeBron called me and asked what they should say in response. I gave them two suggestions: “I guess Dan is not going to be sending me a fruit basket again this Christmas.” Or then something about how you can understand why [LeBron] doesn’t want to work for this guy anymore — that [LeBron] needed to get out of this abusive relationship. Because it was abusive and stupid what Gilbert said. Especially since hours before he was calling Maverick at my house, checking in about his offer, hoping LeBron will go back there.
Of course, LeBron did the right thing and just issued a “no comment.”