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Journalism Showcase: Production Notes from ‘Backstory: The Decision’

Latest entry in the docuseries premieres Sunday, June 28, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the course of reporting every feature, hundreds of stories, nuggets, and miscellaneous items never make the final product. Front Row’s “Production Notes” sought out those untold aspects from the making of the latest episode of “Backstory” – – which concerns the controversy surrounding “The Decision” programming regarding LeBron James’ 2009 NBA free agency – and shares them here.

Pulitzer Prize-winning ESPN investigative reporter and host of Backstory Don Van Natta, Jr. on:

Don Van Natta, Jr. (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

What he recalls the perception of “The Decision” being from when he was at The New York Times. . .
Ten years ago, I was fascinated by the run-up to “The Decision,” partly because of my absurd hope that LeBron might join my cursed Knicks (the event at the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., [just outside New York City] was the mother of cruel head fakes!). But how and why the unique special was cobbled together— and I kept wondering back then, “Whose idea was this?”— were far more intriguing questions to me than the national backlash that followed LeBron’s decision to turn his back on his hometown while 10 million viewers watched.

I was fascinated even then by the rationale of ESPN executives to land and air the exclusive show. And I imagined that it could not have been easy for the network’s NBA Insiders like Chris Broussard who were tasked with trying to scoop LeBron and the network’s exclusive broadcast.

The one interview he wishes he’d been granted beyond LeBron . . .

(L-R): LeBron James, Maverick Carter and new New York Knicks executive William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley pose backstage. (Rich Arden/ESPN Images)

Initially, I was going to say the show’s host Jim Gray, who declined repeated requests to comment. But I would have most liked to interview LeBron’s business partner, Maverick Carter. This was Carter’s passion project, though it wasn’t his idea, and he saw it as a step closer to his dream of becoming a storyteller and the executive producer of LeBron-centric projects.

In the weeks following “The Decision,” Carter worried the show’s backlash could cost him his friendship and partnership with LeBron. What’s interesting is the searing experience made LeBron and his inner circle grow even closer together. And they now have two successful media companies to package and sell their own series and film projects.

Just this week, they announced they had raised $100 million for storytelling projects by marginalized creators. There’s a clear through-line from the night of “The Decision” to the empowerment by LeBron and his fellow star athletes to tell their own stories, and also follow LeBron’s example of team-building. And I would have loved to ask Carter about that, though he did discuss some of these issues during his commencement speech at USC’s Annenberg School last year.

The project’s workflow . . .

We had about half our sit-down interviews done for this episode when the pandemic hit in March and had to finish the show in quarantine from our homes to make our late June deadline. We conducted three interviews via Zoom, and wrote the script, recorded the tracks, and executed all the film’s edits from our homes. A lot of key work was done by some of our amazing team members who followed strict social distancing guidelines at Bluefoot Entertainment in Avon, Conn. I am so proud of the entire Backstory team for their incredible passion for this story and hard work during these extremely difficult conditions. Always, our goal was to deliver an episode that we hope viewers will conclude is both enlightening and entertaining.

Other Production Notes:

  • Sampling of pre-debut stories that capture the film well (screener copies were provided to select media):; South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Sports Illustrated Media podcast; and Akron Beacon Journal.
  • Also occurring on July 8, 2010, “during the first round of the John Deere Classic, Paul Goydos becomes the oldest player in PGA Tour history – and the fourth overall – to shoot 59; his round included 12 birdies and six pars.” Included in that recap: “ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, who was on hand for the [LeBron] announcement, had interviewed Goydos earlier in the day about his 59. “I said, ‘Ask [LeBron] what he thought of my 59,'” Goydos said. “He wouldn’t do it.”
  • The actual “The Decision” show didn’t air until 9 p.m. ET, but as this ESPN press release excerpt indicates, it was actually part of a six-hour programming block:
  • In the “tweets last forever” category, as writer Chris Fedor points out in his story, “. . . On July 8, 2010, Van Natta was working as a reporter for the New York Times. Stunned that ESPN gave an hour of its programming to James for free, Van Natta sent out a snarky tweet [below]. . .” less than two years later, Van Natta joined ESPN.
  • Van Natta’s dog, Marley, makes a cameo. He steals the scene as diligent daddy Don works the story and Marley sniffs out his own path. An adoring public needs to know more on Marley, who, like Jim Gray, refused repeated interview requests, so we went to source very close to Marley, who spoke on the condition of anonymity: “Marley is a 12-year-old, 70-pound (the quarantine busted his diet EDITOR’S NOTE: Same!) rescue dog— mostly a black lab mutt who has one eye, a ripped ear (from a shelter scuffle) and the biggest heart. He also runs this house and is the mayor of “The Hammocks,” the Coral Gables public park where you see [Don] following him.”

    Front Row has also learned of two riders in Marley’s contract: Cold spring water “in a deep bowl,” and according to our Dogthroat: “An extra rawhide bone!”

    Good Doggo, Marley.

Van Natta discusses “The Decision” episode of “Backstory” on the ESPN Daily Podcast

Saturday’s “SC Featured” segment on SportsCenter will focus on Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. In the two years since his debut, the heat of the spotlight increased slowly, but over the last month Wallace has been transformed, from Darrell Wallace Jr, the Black race car driver, to Bubba Wallace, frontline soldier on the fight for racial equality. Ryan McGee reports.


Blackfeet Boxing is a film about fighting – for respect, identity and acknowledgment. As Tom Rinaldi reports, there are no scorecards or knockouts on the reservation. The prize at the Blackfeet Boxing Club is far more vital: survival. According to the United States Justice Department, Native American women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than non-native women. More than one in three has suffered rape, or attempted rape, and more than 80 percent will experience violence at some point in their lives. On the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, these are not statistics. They are stories, of lives and families, of loss and pain. The ESPN Films presentation of Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible, produced by Kristen Lappas, airs Tuesday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. Lappas is slated to join Mina Kimes on the ESPN Daily podcast on Tuesday, June 30.

– Andy Hall

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