Thanks to a big assist from LeBron James, Sports Illustrated scored what might be its biggest scoop ever Friday.
Amid extraordinary internal secrecy, the magazine broke the story read round the world — that the National Basketball Association’s four-time most valuable player intends to play next season for his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. “I’m Coming Home,” read the splashy headline on SI.com over James’s account of his decision, written in as-told-to fashion by the magazine’s basketball writer, Lee Jenkins.
Just as surely as the news delighted Cavaliers fans, it surely disappointed the sportswriters who have made offseason NBA player moves — and rumors about NBA player moves — into a thriving journalism sub-speciality. As the best basketball player in the world, James’s destination has been as closely followed as the naming of a new pope. Speculation about him, including premature reports, began to percolate online almost as soon as James’s Miami Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals last month.
Sports Illustrated hasn’t typically been a leading player in the NBA trade-rumor and gossip market, the pro basketball equivalent of the “hot stove” league for baseball fans during the winter offseason. But its story, posted at 12:13 p.m. Friday, instantly touched off a server-melting frenzy. By the afternoon, it was on track to be the most-viewed story in the site’s history.
Jenkins, who has covered basketball for SI for four years, had proposed a story about the next phase of James’s career to editor Paul Fichtenbaum and managing editor Chris Stone in the spring. With their assent, Jenkins began pursuing James and his advisers, but wasn’t assured of landing an interview, let alone any news, Stone said.
Last Saturday, Jenkins e-mailed his editors and said that the story they’d discussed months earlier was a possibility. Jenkins was so fearful of tipping his hand that he didn’t mention James by name in his e-mail, according to Stone.
On Wednesday, Jenkins flew to Las Vegas, where James was running a summer basketball camp, but still didn’t have a confirmed interview. James agreed to talk to him on Thursday. That’s when James disclosed that he would leave Miami for Cleveland, the team he left four years ago when he disclosed his choice on a nationally televised ESPN special (“The Decision”), saying that he was “taking my talents to South Beach.”
To ensure the news didn’t leak, Jenkins said nothing about the nature of his story until sending it to his editors Friday morning. The story’s arrival at SI’s New York offices touched off some special handling: A few select staffers were quietly called in — about a half-dozen in all — to edit, illustrate and lay out the piece. The story, which carried James’s and Jenkins’s joint byline, was ready for publication in about two hours, Stone said.
“We took Lee’s lead here,” he said. “He was very frugal with the information he shared with us. He knew all along there were no guarantees and that the story could go sideways at any time. The less we knew, the less disappointed we could be.”
Stone speculates that SI got the goods because James felt comfortable with the magazine and with Jenkins, who has written several cover stories about James, including SI’s 2012 Sportsman of the Year profile. “He trusted Lee and SI not to turn this into a circus, and I think we didn’t,” he said.
The James story was SI’s second major exclusive involving a pro basketball player over the past year or so. In April 2013, the magazine published an essay by NBA veteran Jason Collins in which Collins revealed that he is gay, making him the first male athlete on a major U.S. professional sports team to do so.
With 3.7 million unique visitors in one day, the Collins story ranks just behind another first-person essay, by Seattle Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman (4.3 million), as the most-viewed ever on SI.com, according to magazine spokesman Scott Novak.
As of late Friday, he said, the James piece was on track to surpass both of them.