By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; C01
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.
Gray, known for such confrontations as interrogating Pete Rose about his gambling during Game 2 of the 1999 World Series, took an excruciating six minutes on Thursday's program before popping the big question to James. Gray said he discussed his "thought process" with producers beforehand.
Asked about Gray's long, friendly exchanges before asking James which NBA franchise he had chosen -- including such softballs as "Did you enjoy this recruiting process?" -- Soltys said: "Our expectation was that he would ask several scene-setting questions. He did do more of those questions than we had anticipated."
Gray said he essentially agreed to work for free, minus expenses, because James was donating the advertising proceeds -- $2.5 million, as it turned out -- to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. ESPN's Soltys said James's organization sold all the national advertising to such sponsors as McDonald's, Microsoft, Nike and the University of Phoenix.
On WJFK-FM Thursday, Post sportswriter Mike Wise asked Gray whether he had lined up the University of Phoenix as an advertiser. Gray said he had no relationship with the school other than that "they sponsor some of the programs I happen to be on. . . . I'm not involved in any of those decisions."
CBS Sportsline columnist Gregg Doyel called Gray's interview "awful. I wanted to throw my TV out the window. It was clear they were dragging this thing on. The entire country wanted to know the answer to one question: 'LeBron, where you going?' It was painful."
Wise said Friday that "this production took the cake for staged journalism."
Local coverage of James's decision to leave the Cavaliers, which he joined out of high school at age 18, varied dramatically. New York's Daily News, which had been rooting for James to join the Knicks, ran a banner headline saying "WHO CARES!" The Cleveland Plain Dealer devoted its front page to a photo of James walking away, with an annotation under the headline "Gone": "7 years, $62 million, no rings."