The Art of the Deal

LIke Couach Cal, LeBron took it to another city and another level.

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How's your summer?

Jim Gray is getting grief for asking Lebron James that and other softball questions on ESPN's "The Decision" last week, before getting around, some 25 minutes later, to the subject of which team James will play for next season.

Big deal. The fuss over "The Decision," which NBA commissioner David Stern called "ill-conceived," is laughable. Some might say the NBA itself is ill-conceived, but that's another matter.

James monetized his talents and his future earnings. ESPN monetized its brand, scored a ratings coup, and provided some welcome programming and debate fodder between such classics as the NFL draft and the finals of the World Cup and baseball's All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby. Gray, who famously pressed Pete Rose about gambling in an interview during the 1999 World Series, played along. He is far from the first or the worst. In fact, as the winner of 11 Emmys, he's one of the best. He and ESPN didn't invent kissing butt for access.

Star college and pro players abandon their hometowns and old teams to join forces on other teams in all of the major sports. They also join forces with ESPN and their chosen interviewers and ghost writers. James took it to another level, as they say. What he did might be unusual now, but it won't be in a few years, just as teenagers jumping from high school to the NBA or holding press conferences to announce their college choice is no longer unusual.

"The Decision" did well in the ratings, with nearly 10 million viewers. That's all that matters to the NBA and ESPN and Team LeBron. As I watched Gray and James kill time, I realized I had seen this combination of polish, jock charisma, and good looks before. If James had decided to play one year of college basketball instead of going straight to the NBA in 2003, is there any doubt he would have gone to the University of Memphis? He would have been a perfect fit with Coach John Calipari and Athletic Director R.C. Johnson, just like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, slightly younger versions of James with a year of college ball behind them.

Calipari was the master of recruiting the one-and-done superstar. He gave Memphis nine years and a Final Four. James gave Cleveland seven years and one NBA Finals. By current standards, both of those are reasonably long tenures. Both Calipari and James were celebrated when they came and scorned when they left. So it goes, sports fans. You knew what you were getting.

And television viewers knew what they were getting with "The Decision." Gray's "How's your summer?" was not a bad icebreaker for someone charged with padding half an hour around the two seconds it takes to say "I'm going to Miami." Maybe not as good as "So Pete, isn't it time to come clean about this gambling thing?" or "Kobe, are you saying you had consensual sex with that woman in the hotel?" or "Mike, do you regret biting off the tip of Evander Holyfield's ear?"

But it wasn't that bad.

Believe me, breaking the ice and beating around the bush before asking the Big Question is harder than it looks. I once blithered for a minute before the advertising executive I was interviewing interrupted to point out that my socks were too short and I was showing too much hairy leg and then asked me to repeat the question.

The Lebronathon was at least as suspenseful as the primetime telecast of the New York Jets' 29th pick of the NFL draft or the first 110 minutes of Spain against the Netherlands or the come-from-behind victory of David Ortiz over Hanley Ramirez in the Home Run Derby. And it was a lot more exciting than the Memphis Grizzlies' press conference to announce the signing of Rudy Gay a week after it was already known.

Purists, may you spend a year dealing with Arkansas Highway Patrol officers who think reporters should be shot on sight, Rebuild Government meetings, school board meetings, jocks who say "we need to step up," corporate flacks who sit in on their boss's interviews, and government officials who are "not at liberty to say" a damn thing.

So "way to go," Jim and ESPN. I'll take canned LeBron any day. Good luck in Miami, and I look forward to watching LeBron and Bosh and Wade and the Heat at FedExForum. Meanwhile, you made this summer a little more interesting.

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