LeBron James' "I'm Coming Home" image for Sports Illustrated. LeBron James’ “I’m Coming Home” image by Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated.

In the eyes of many, LeBron James’ story arc has gone from hero to villain and back to hero. As a result, he went from being popular to infamous to being even more popular.

The media has played a significant role in that narrative.

In the summer of 2010, ESPN broadcast The Decision special, during which James told a nationally televised audience that he was taking his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat. James and The Worldwide Leader in Sports both caught flack for the self-aggrandizing tone of this announcement. Some warranted, some unwarranted—especially since The Decision helped raise more than $2 million for the Boys & Girls Club.

The next time James entered free agency, he chose a different platform, which still raised questions. Not for James, but for Sports Illustrated. Ten years ago, James gave SI one of its biggest scoops when he revealed on July 11, 2014, that he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As told to Lee Jenkins, James said in an essay: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

This was seismic. SI breaking this news almost became as big as the story itself. Leading up to his free agency, there were several rumors regarding James, and many speculated who would be the first to reveal James’ next destination.

No one could have predicted that it would be SI.

The Washinton Post shared some of the details behind the scoop. It revealed that Jenkins had spent months pursuing James for a story. Jenkins had written previous SI stories on James, so James had a familiarity and sense of comfort with the NBA writer.

On Wednesday, July 9, Jenkins flew out to Las Vegas to meet with James. He told Jenkins the big news on Thursday. Working quickly and secretly, the story was posted on the SI website the next day.

As stunning as it was that SI broke the news, it was equally shocking that ESPN didn’t have the news first. Perhaps, James was unhappy about the blowback from The Decision and blamed ESPN for the negative attention. Regardless, SI reclaimed some of its power and relevancy.

While some applauded the scoop, there was pointed criticism. ESPN has several conflicts of interest with its broadcasting partners and certain athletes it covers. But when it does something that some would consider journalistically questionable, it’s not all that uncommon. Old-school print journalism, however, usually aspires to a higher standard.

One of the biggest critics was Richard Sandomir of The New York Times. While applauding SI for breaking the story, Sandomir wrote: “News value aside, the approach cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades.”

According to The Times, “Jenkins conceded that, in most cases, he would write a third-person story.” But in James’ case, he said, “My biggest priority was his voice, not my subtext.” Managing editor Christian Stone defended Jenkins saying there was no quid pro quo regarding access to James.

In journalism, you can get differing opinions on what constitutes best practices. Sometimes, there is no easy black-and-white answer. There’s no doubt about the news value of Jenkins’ work. However, Sandomir was correct in writing that the magazine put itself in a position of seeming like a PR mouthpiece for James.

Was there long-term damage or substantial fallout from this? Not particularly. But if any readers or fellow journalists looked at SI’s James’ coverage differently, you couldn’t blame them.

A lot has changed since the James-SI scoop. After winning the 2016 NBA championship for the Cavaliers, James left Cleveland again for the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2018. The fanfare wasn’t as loud. It seems like everyone knew that he was bolting before it happened. The announcement wasn’t surprising at all. It didn’t require a made-for-TV show or an essay.

For SI, the James story didn’t prevent its decline. The magazine/website that exists today is only a shadow of what it once was. If an athlete is going to reveal major news, it wouldn’t be through SI. It might not even be through ESPN. There are many other platforms and media outlets for star athletes to choose from and control the message.

And what about the author of the SI scoop? In 2018. Jenkins parlayed years of sportswriting excellence into a front-office job with the L.A. Clippers. He was originally hired as Executive Director of Research & Identity. According to his bio on X, he is now Vice President of Basketball Affairs.

Jenkins and James wound up being the clear winners here. Could the story been handled differently? Probably. But considering what has happened with these two men, it’s doubtful either would have changed a thing.

[Image from Walter Iooss Jr. for Sports Illustrated, from SI.com]

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.