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ESPN's LeBron-a-thon: The Mother of all Televised Shams

NBA basketball free agent LeBron James waits to make his announcement that he is leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich July 8, 2010, in Greenwich, Conn. AP Photo/Greenwich Time
It's not often that I find myself rooting for some rich, wild-eyed owner over a reporter, but watching LeBron James' prime-time transformation from sports idol into just another corporate phony, I came away wishing there were more Dan Gilberts to go around.

After James announced to ESPN his intention to join the Miami Heat next season, Gilbert, the Cleveland Cavaliers' owner, had a public meltdown. First, he published an angry open letter calling out "The King" as the equivalent of a basketball Benedict Arnold. Then he followed with an emotional rant later during an interview with The Associated Press.

"He quit," Gilbert told the AP. "Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar. ... People have covered up for him for way too long."

Harsh? To be sure. Sour grapes? You bet. But reasonable grounds for righteous indignation? Every which way you look at it.

For Clevelanders, this was the equivalent of Walter O'Malley -- sorry, my people are from Brooklyn and we do not forget -- driving a stake into a borough's collective heart when he absconded with the Dodgers to Los Angeles. Or that other greedy fool, Horace Stoneham, who stole away the Giants, the city's other National League team at the time, from New York to San Francisco.

But Gilbert is only a sideshow. The spin that James and his handlers peddled to the public was the real story.

Whatever the motivation behind the decision of Ohio's first superstar since Jim Brown -- and a local kid, to boot -- to join the Heat, we didn't get it on Thursday night. Instead, James served up one cliche after another, figuring that would be enough to fool heartbroken Cleveland fans into believing that he had no choice. Instead of the truth, James and Co. offered enough baloney to stock every deli in Cleveland.

Maybe there were some fans too dumb to believe their hero would actually flip them the bird in prime time. But James managed to hit all the wrong notes. He now exits the city in a way that ranks a close second to Art Modell's relocation of the Browns to Baltimore.

After the LeBron-a-thon, one Cleveland bar offered free beers to anyone turning in a No. 23 jersey or a James T-shirt. Bartenders were then issued garden shears so they could cut them into little pieces. (See Mark Cuban's two word piece of advice to LeBron: Media training.)

Cavs Owner: LeBron Move "Cowardly Betrayal"

"I feel awful that I'm leaving," James told ESPN's Jim Gray. "I feel even worse I wasn't able to bring an NBA championship to that city, because I know they've been wanting it a long time."

Gray might have inquired why James believed that the Cavs, a squad with more wins than any other NBA franchise over the last couple of years, no longer have a chance to win the title. Of all the gentleman suitors who came calling, the Chicago Bulls, a young team with a talented roster, offered the best fit.

The post-mortems have not been kind but during a Friday morning appearance on CBS's "Early Show" Gray tried to turn this into a referendum about Gilbert's behavior. For his part, Gray said he "thought [the interview] was terrific."

I don't know about that. But the way ESPN took nearly an hour of primetime television before James made his announcement was a terrific sales idea. Gray was there to toss softballs, not put ESPN's meal ticket on the defensive. This was an infomercial whose point was to sell advertising for the sponsors, not pose serious questions.

As Esquire's Scott Rabb wrote, this is how the system now works. "One bland and gutless fraud is not going to ask anything that might make another bland and gutless fraud uncomfortable. Boo-ya! Truth is, ESPN and Nike and the major leagues are one seamless corporation, and it's hard to speak truth to power when your bunghole's stuffed with corporate cash."