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How LeBron James' Infamous Decision Changed The League Forever

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ten years ago today, LeBron James set the NBA on fire. In 2010, he was one of the most sought-after free agents in league history. Sports fans wondered, would the Ohio-born James stay close to home in Cleveland or go play for another team? Well, millions saw him announce his decision live on an ESPN special.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM GRAY: The answer to the question everybody wants to know - LeBron, what's your decision?

LEBRON JAMES: In this fall - man, this is very tough. In this fall I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.

CHANG: While Miami celebrated, fans everywhere else were furious at James for tearing the guts out of his hometown on live TV. But his infamous decision changed the league forever. Joining me to talk about the legacy of "The Decision" is ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz.

Hey there.

KEVIN ARNOVITZ: Hey, Ailsa. How are you?

CHANG: Good. All right. So I'm going to admit to you, I am not a sports fan. So can you just take me back to 10 years ago and just explain why people reacted so strongly to this decision, even though players switch teams all the time, don't they?

ARNOVITZ: I mean, this is debated all the time in terms of what made people so upset. And I think to a great extent, when you look back on it, it's a question of the power in the league had always resided with owners and general managers. And sure, players with a certain stature could pick where they wanted to go. But by and large, that was sort of how things were determined, and players were part of these teams constructed by these men.

And I think what LeBron did which shocked everybody was he recognized something, which is that talent, not team owners or GMs, drive the value of the NBA product and kind of asked rhetorically through this, you know, admittedly kind of gratuitous program - why shouldn't the players who provide that value determine the balance of power in the league? And if that means teaming up with friends around the league, other players you want to play with, irrespective of what the power brokers think, why not do it?

CHANG: OK. So looking back 10 years, I mean, would you say that LeBron's infamous decision really did change the way teams and players do business now?

ARNOVITZ: Absolutely. And you can just cite a few examples that have been profound over the last few years - Kevin Durant, arguably one of the three best players in the game, joining one of the greatest teams of all time, the Warriors, 'cause he, you know, wanted to play with Steph Curry. And so that happened. LeBron James - interesting enough, it's nine years later in Los Angeles where a young superstar named Anthony Davis leverages his power and teams up, essentially, with LeBron's agent to get himself traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers assembled kind of a quasi-super-team this summer.

So it really changed the way we think about this. And so many of the criticisms now, Ailsa, almost seem quaint. Oh, it was narcissistic, or it turned basketball into a reality show - when we now know that all of sports and, for that matter, all of American life is a reality show.

CHANG: So interesting. I mean, do you think if we saw something like this happen today - like a huge star leaving his home team - would it even cause the same uproar today, you think?

ARNOVITZ: I mean, that's the funny thing. It's a regular occurrence now, and we sort of yawn. Yes, there's a little disloyalty. The player might get booed on his first return. But life is going on, and basketball continues to spin on its axis.

CHANG: Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN, thank you very much for joining us today.

ARNOVITZ: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZLO HOLLYFELD'S "BONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.