A New Era of Player Empowerment: Don Van Natta Jr. Details the Making of ESPN's 'Backstory: The Decision'

LeBron James
LeBron James before The Decision | Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Ten years ago, LeBron James changed everything. Fresh off another early playoff exit with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron announced The Decision, an hour-long ESPN special with one purpose: to tell the world where he would be bringing his generational talents. Sports enthusiasts and pundits alike huddled around televisions across the country, waiting -- for the first time -- to hear a player tell them what he was to do next instead of relying on reporters and insiders.

Sitting in front of a group of children from the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut, speaking to Jim Gray, LeBron uttered those now-infamous words to millions across the country. "This fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."

We all know what happened next. LeBron was lambasted from every angle for his choice. He spent years as the central villain in everyone's NBA stories. To this day, it remains the worst public relations moment in the superstar's career. But what nobody expected is that, by seizing control of his own narrative, James proved to athletes everywhere they have the power to tell their own stories.

This is the main theme of Backstory: The Decision, ESPN's latest episode in the Backstory series, which takes fans behind the scenes of the most pivotal moments in recent sports history. Investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Don Van Natta Jr. is the driving journalistic force behind it all.

"The thing that really appealed to us about doing this was, to first of all, find out why. Just a very simple question. Why?" Van Natta told The Big Lead. "Why was this show even conceived of? Whose idea was it?"

In the process, however, Van Natta found much larger themes at play. ESPN and LeBron's agreement in 2010 was unprecedented. It gave an athlete narrative control. Before, athletes in all sports were more or less at the mercy of the press when it came to how their stories were perceived. LeBron wasn't able to alter the vitriol inevitably headed his way when he left his hometown to form an overwhelmingly dominant super team. In fact, The Decision made it even worse. But that didn't matter as much as the fact that his decision came from his mouth. That aspect alone changed the relationship between superstar athletes and the media forever.

It was difficult to see that at the time, though. Van Natta was quick to admit he never anticipated the ripple effects of that extremely uncomfortable hour of television on ESPN.

"I was at the New York Times then. I’m watching it as a die-hard NBA fan at the Times, and I was really uncomfortable with the fact that an athlete was selling an exclusive. ESPN gave LeBron an hour of prime-time television for free in exchange for an exclusive," said Van Natta. "As a guy at the Times, I found that unsettling and tweeted it out at the time. We actually used my tweet in the show. But I never envisioned the player empowerment legacy here, and it’s just so clear [now]."

To understand the extent of the impact of LeBron's decision and how it came to be, Van Natta interviewed numerous former and current ESPN employees, including former president John Skipper, the man who gave the green light. Van Natta acknowledged that delving this deep into his current employer's past was sensitive at times, but overall everyone on the network's side was forthcoming and willing to participate. He was, however, unable to get any of LeBron's main cadre to speak to him.

"LeBron wouldn’t talk to me. Maverick Carter wouldn’t talk to me. Rich Paul wouldn’t talk to me. Randy Mims, LeBron’s chief of staff, wouldn’t talk to me. None of those guys would talk to me. But I did talk to people around LeBron," Van Natta said. "I had some sources there, which really helped understanding how LeBron thought despite him not talking. LeBron is now an executive producer of his own shows, he’s a storyteller himself. He doesn’t need a guy like me to sit down with and tell what happened with the decision."

This isn't entirely surprising; LeBron already discussed The Decision in-depth two years ago on More Than An Athlete, which he sold to ESPN+. Van Natta figures they didn't feel the need to talk with him if they already gave their version of events on their own platform. But it actually fit perfectly into the player empowerment theme that serves as the backdrop to the special.

"Quite frankly, the fact they did that and then declined to talk to me works to our advantage a little bit in describing this era," he explained. "Serena Williams, Tom Brady, Kevin Durant becoming executive producers and telling their own stories, it worked organically for the story that they didn’t sit down and talk to me. In this case, it worked to tell the story we were finding."

This Backstory episode is filled with previously-unknown nuggets of information. The whole concept of The Decision was conceived by Drew from Ohio, a reader of Bill Simmons' mailbag who sent in an email suggesting LeBron announce his decision on ABC. NBA commissioner David Stern urged Skipper to axe the program because he didn't like how much power it gave one individual athlete. But what Van Natta really wanted to do, and what he feels he accomplished, was to draw a through line from The Decision to the era of player empowerment NBA athletes now find themselves in.

"[Mike] Wilbon and a number of people we interviewed for the episode expressed it so well, that LeBron showed this could be done. As Skipper told me, it’s positive reinforcement. You ask ESPN for some time and you get it, you think, okay, what else can we ask for and get?" said Van Natta. "Well, let’s start a production and media company. Now there’s all these platforms and media companies bidding for LeBron’s shows that he’s executive producing. Certainly on the player side, Kevin Durant and all the moves that have been made, even players switching teams without the benefit of free agency, demanding trades like Anthony Davis. You can draw a through line from the decision of what LeBron did to all of that now that’s happening in the NBA." "

Van Natta and his team were halfway done with this episode when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country. Three of the central interviews of the piece had to be done via Zoom, but Van Natta said it was remarkable how everything came together despite that. Based in Miami, Van Natta had to communicate with producers in the Northeast while conducting his interviews in a less-than-ideal medium. But he's excited for the world to see the final product.

"We really wanted to focus on not just the awkward hour of television and 'I’m taking my talents to South Beach,'" he said. "We really wanted to draw that through line to player empowerment, the building of super teams, athletes becoming storytellers."

Backstory: The Decision will air on ESPN on Sunday, June 28 at 9 PM ET.