LeBron James hype in overdrive

NBA star's future to be decided on ESPN's 'The Decision'

What’s next: The 24-hour LeBron James Network?

It wouldn’t seem out of the question considering all the hype the free agent has been receiving in recent weeks as he finally reveals where he will take his basketball services — making the announcement in an unprecedented hourlong television special tonight.

Depending upon the hourly rumors, he may remain in Cleveland, move a bit west and sign with the Chicago Bulls, head south to join the Miami Heat, or brace for the bright lights of New York and play for the Knicks.

Speculation leaned toward the Heat on Wednesday evening when sources told ESPN that James would be joining free agent all-stars Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade in Miami. This coming after speculation Wednesday afternoon that James would be heading to New York.

On Tuesday, ESPN said that to give James’ moment maximum exposure, it would air the special, titled “The Decision,” at 9 p.m. ET Thursday, sandwiched between five hours of NBA-dominated “SportsCenter.” Revenue from the broadcast will go toward the Boys & Girls Club of America, James’ preferred charity. Sponsors include Bing, U. of Phoenix, Vitamin Water and McDonald’s.

James’ declaration of where he’s bringing his services will come in the first 10-15 minutes of the broadcast. The remainder will be given over to “Pardon the Interruption” co-host Michael Wilbon, who will discuss with James how he came to the decision, when he made it and the factors that influenced him.

Some in the NBA already feel the James spectacle has gone overboard.

Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel: “It takes 15 seconds to say, ‘I’ve decided to stay in Cleveland,’ but we’ve got another 59 minutes and 45 seconds to, what? Promote LeBron James? As if we don’t do that enough.”

James’ reps had placed at least one demand on ESPN, that longtime sports announcer Jim Gray (a sports vet of NBC and CBS) handle the introduction, interview and follow-up with James. The network said it didn’t have an issue with Gray’s participation.

Said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s exec VP of production: “This event ends up somewhere and we have a decision as a news entity to ask if we are comfortable with the parameters laid out? Maybe we don’t draw it up exactly like we might have wanted, but we’re comfortable where it ended up.”

Williamson said James’ team brought the prospect of a special to ESPN late last week and all parties decided Thursday was the opportune time to televise James’ decision.

ESPN’s reporters apparently were not clued in and had to report the story out against their competition.

Williamson, in a conference call with a handful of reporters, said ESPN prides itself on its church-and-state attitude between the newsgathering and business sides, and he wasn’t going to just hand off news of the special to one of his own reporters, even if it meant being scooped on its own story. And if a competing network ends up with a exclusive on where James is headed prior to Thursday’s “The Decision,” Williamson said he’d be OK simply passing that info along to its viewers.

“If two hours from now if another entity announced LeBron is going to X team, we’ll report that,” he explained. “We wouldn’t silence a reporter (his or a competitor).”

James’ possible move out of Ohio has been page-one fodder for the past two or three years, and exploded once his Cavaliers were bounced by the Boston Celtics in the recently concluded NBA playoffs.

Summer has been ESPN’s time to focus on baseball. But this year, the national pastime — which normally dominates the warm weather months — has clearly taken a backseat to the LeBron Derby.

Baseball seemed left behind as the net came off the NBA playoffs and then segued directly to the World Cup, which has garnered boffo numbers. With the Cup’s semifinals airing Tuesday and Wednesday and the finals between the Netherlands and Spain moving to ABC Sunday, soccer and basketball’s free-agency landscape have dominated the signature show “SportsCenter” every evening for the past few weeks.

For all the attention James is receiving, he’s yet to win a single NBA Championship nor win a single game of the NBA Finals.

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