For most of NBA history, free agency for the league’s best players hardly equated to the freedom to choose their own destination. Even after players earned the right to unrestricted free agency in 1988, the price they usually wound up paying for individual agency was their reputation. Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf essentially accused Horace Grant of faking injuries after he signed with the Orlando Magic. Former Los Angeles Clippers head coach Mike Dunleavy accused Elton Brand’s agent, David Falk, of using his influence “to poison him” against returning to the team in 2008.
The mere idea of free agency offended the sensibilities of fans used to the one-sided idea of loyalty in professional sports. Players were expected to devote their entire careers to whatever team happened to draft them, their own interests be damned. A famous Orlando Sentinel poll in 1996 had over 91 percent of fans against Shaquille O’Neal receiving a $115 million contract. Fans would welcome players back, but only on their own terms, and players were deemed selfish should they find greener pastures elsewhere. It’s telling that the second line of the Associated Press story on Shaq signing with the Los Angeles Lakers included the words “O’Neal refused to talk about the deal.” How often does Shaq refuse to speak his mind?
It was a condition of the pre-Decision world stars like O’Neal occupied. Free-agent announcements have not always been spectacles. They originally came in the form of press releases from teams, and later, in the internet’s earlier days, website-bound stories from reporters. Stories broken through traditional means led to traditional reactions. Teams, through direct quotes or strategic media leaks, controlled the messaging behind the decisions made by players. By the time a player had access to his own traditional means of communication with fans through press conferences and game access, it was typically too late to sway public sentiment.
Of course, old habits die hard. When LeBron James attempted to bypass traditional media channels with ‘The Decision,’ fans were practically hardwired to reject it. James drew perhaps the greatest backlash any athlete has ever received for changing teams, starting with an infamous comic sans-font letter from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert deriding James’ choice. As unhappy as people were with the destination, just as much of the criticism was based on the method he used to announce it. It was classless, the old guard declared, to air a television special in which he dumped his hometown team. To an extent, it might have been. The delivery was messy, but the method was a necessary sea change.
James opened the door for athletes to tell their own stories rather than subjecting themselves to a system designed to villainize them. He leveraged his own star power into a platform athletes have been using ever since. Fans were so desperate to hear his decision that they had no choice but to listen to him explain it in his own words.
The first draft came off callously enough to scare players off for the next several offseasons, but James mastered the form four years later with his now-famous letter in Sports Illustrated to the city of Cleveland. The tone changed, and James rightfully drew praise for his humility and graciousness, but the broad strokes were the same. The best player in basketball had no intention of letting anyone else tell his story.
The trend spread like wildfire in the subsequent summers. Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward used first-person essays to announce their free-agent moves to the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, respectively. Others that lacked the cache to draw such audiences out of their free agencies adopted the form on a smaller scale merely to tell their sides of the story. No reporting will ever be able to better exemplify who Dion Waiters is than the incredible story he published in The Player’s Tribune in 2017. On a smaller scale, players do this on social media every day.
It is the quieter element of the player empowerment movement that James started. His decision to join the Miami Heat may have empowered players to take control of their careers and actively seek out their preferred destinations, but ‘The Decision’ empowered them to control their narratives. There will always be fallout when a player leaves his original team for something new, but a decade after the fact, the wider world has grown far more accepting of the “agency” element of free agency that the players have in taking control of their own stories. No owner in their right mind would accuse a player of faking injuries after leaving in 2020. No coach would suggest someone needed to be poisoned into leaving their team.
Players, like anyone else, are human beings free to decide for themselves where they’d like to work. It shouldn’t have taken a television special to remind people of that, but it was a public relations war stacked so heavily against players for so long that somebody had to take an active step if it was ever going to be changed. That is the enduring legacy of ‘The Decision.’ LeBron put himself in the line of fire, and in doing so, he empowered an entire generation of players to shape the stories of their own careers.