Jim Gray's LeBron James interview draws criticism for its soft questioning

kid gloves? Jim Gray's questioning of LeBron James was criticized as too soft.
kid gloves? Jim Gray's questioning of LeBron James was criticized as too soft. (Larry Busacca/getty Images For Estabrook Group)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

Jim Gray, the veteran sportscaster who has a reputation as a tough interviewer, has drawn less than rave reviews for his gentle questioning of LeBron James about the basketball star's decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Gray, however, angrily denied a report that he was paid by the James camp for his role in a relentlessly hyped ESPN special Thursday night on the all-star's move to the Miami Heat.

"I didn't take a penny from LeBron or any entity connected to him," Gray said in an interview Friday, responding to a CNBC story contending that a marketing organization set up by James paid Gray's fees and travel expenses. That report, Gray said, was "100 percent inaccurate, wrong, totally false" and "irresponsible. . . . I would never take a nickel from somebody I'm interviewing."

Although Gray said he devised the idea for the prime-time special, he also said "the subject of money never once was even mentioned to me" in discussions with Team LeBron. Gray said that ESPN paid his airfare and that he plans to submit a bill of several hundred dollars for incidental expenses, though he said he is unsure whether the network or some others connected with the telecast will cover those costs.

James's publicist, Keith Estabrook, told CNBC that the player's marketing agency, LRMR, did not directly pay Gray.

CNBC spokesman Brian Steel said the piece was updated Friday night to include Gray's denial. "The story is well sourced and we stand by the story," Steel said. He added that CNBC reporter Darren Rovell had reached Gray's agent, who declined to comment.

Gray said he called Rovell, who maintained that he was unable to find a phone number to reach Gray before the piece was posted online. "I screamed at this guy like I've never screamed at anybody before," Gray said.

Gray confirmed that he pitched the concept of buying an hour of network time to James's marketing agent, Maverick Carter, and Ari Emanuel, chief executive of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, during Game 2 of the recent NBA Finals.

"I brought them the idea, and they were loyal and [showed] a lot of honor when they found a network they wanted to put it on," Gray said. "They said: 'We're not kicking him off. That's not how we operate.' "

ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said in an interview that when James's representatives approached the network, Gray "was part of the package." The sports channel was "comfortable" with James handpicking his interviewer, Soltys said, because Gray had worked for ESPN, as well as NBC, and "we knew he was equipped to do interviews."

The network was also assured that James would remain for additional interviews, Soltys noted. Most of the questioning was done by Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon, co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," who used his portion of the hour-long special to push James about abandoning his home state and the outsize expectations he has created. Robin Roberts of ABC, which includes ESPN, interviewed James after the special for "Good Morning America."

Whatever the behind-the-scenes arrangements, the program did well at the box office, drawing more than 7 million viewers, according to overnight Nielsen ratings of the nation's largest markets. In Cleveland, more than one in four homes were tuned to the 9 p.m. special.

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