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LeBron calls the shots for special with ESPN

July 7, 2010 |  3:18 pm


When LeBron James announces where he plans to play basketball next season on ESPN Thursday night, he'll do it on his terms.

As part of the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar's deal with Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN to tell the nation of his  plans, James got to handpick who would interview him and persuaded ESPN to give up its commercial inventory for the hourlong show "The Decision."

The show, which will air at 6 p.m. Pacific time, is being co-presented by the University of Phoenix and Bing, the search engine owned by Microsoft Corp. McDonald's is among the other sponsors. But ESPN won't be making any money off the event, which should draw big ratings. The presenters and sponsors are making donations on behalf of James to the Boys and Girls Club of America. ESPN is covering production costs.

ESPN reporters also won't get first crack at James. That privilege will go to veteran sports journalist Jim Gray (a former ESPN on-air personality), who was selected by James to talk with him after he unveils what team he will be on next season. Once Gray is done, Michael Wilbon, host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" and a Washington Post columnist, will get his shot at James.

The highly unusual arrangement, particularly the decision to cede advertising time to James and his team, has some in the journalism community shaking their heads.

“It crosses a line whether it is a donation or a direct payment to LeBron James,” said Chris Harper, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University.

ESPN defended its arrangement with James, although a senior network executive acknowledged that there were some “gray areas” to the pact.  

In a perfect world, “maybe we don’t draw it up exactly like this,” said ESPN Executive Vice President Norby Williamson, who is overseeing the telecast. However, Williamson said the network does not believe its agreement with James is tantamount to paying for an interview.

“We’re comfortable asking ourselves, 'Are we doing the right thing?,' " Williamson said.

James’ decision to take his news to ESPN was something of a slap in the face to the NBA's own cable network channel, NBA TV.

“The big loser in this is NBA TV,” said Timothy Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. “I suppose he may get a phone call from [NBA Commissioner] David Stern.”

-- Joe Flint

Photo: LeBron James. Credit: Adam Hunger / Reuters