How Cleveland And Sports Illustrated Won The LeBron James Sweepstakes

As it happens, LeBron James's free agency, conducted under seemingly total radio silence, kicked off in earnest exactly when everyone thought it did: with a Cleveland radio guy reporting that Dan Gilbert's private jet was bound for Miami.

That was Sunday, July 6, as fans flocked to Flightaware to track the progress of Gilbert's Gulfstream as it headed to South Florida. Gilbert himself stopped the rumors dead by tweeting that he was sitting in his backyard. In reality, as he revealed to Adrian Wojnarowski today, Gilbert was on his way to what turned into a four-hour meeting with James, agent Rich Paul, and business manager Maverick Carter. First on the agenda: apologies for a certain Comic Sans letter.

"We had five great years together and one terrible night," Gilbert told James, and so started the process of reconciliation on Sunday night in Miami. "I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back."

Gilbert may not have known the letter was still online, hosted at the Cavaliers' official website. (The Cavs would request help from the NBA taking it down the next morning, then claimed the timing was just a coincidence.) James, too, offered regret at how things went down four years ago. He told Gilbert he was sorry about The Decision.

At that point, James may or may not have made up his mind on returning to Cleveland, but he had already set into motion his mechanism for announcing his choice this time around.

The day before the meeting, on Saturday, July 5, Sports Illustrated senior writer Lee Jenkins had emailed his boss, managing editor Chris Stone. "Remember that thing I sent you in the spring?" Jenkins wrote him, according to Stone. "I think it's a possibility."

That "thing" was Jenkins's nebulous pitch, made around the end of the regular season, on how to tell the story of James's pending free-agency decision. Jenkins, Stone says, didn't necessarily want to break the news of James's choice, but "wanted to tell the story in a new, better way than it was told in 2010."

Jenkins was known to James's camp, most recently for an essay nominating him for SI's 2013 Sportsman of the Year. It couldn't have been more favorable, playing up James's charity work, and writing of any lingering bitterness over The Decision that "the rehabilitation is complete." Redemption is a storyline that clearly resonated with James.

"I think they trust him and by extension trust SI that we wouldn't turn this into a circus," Stone says of the James crew's decision to go with Jenkins. The negative reaction to airing The Decision on ESPN was clearly still a sore spot for James, so much so that he brought it up in his meeting with Gilbert. Sports Illustrated was a more respectable outlet and had done right by James in the past. (It had done right by Jenkins, too, as it turned out. Earlier this year, Jenkins rebuffed a fairly serious courtship by Grantland. It's hard to see him scoring the LeBron story as a part of the ESPN machine.)

The idea of a first-person "as-told-to" essay came from James's camp, according to Stone. They reached out to Jenkins to float the idea on July 5, and that's when Jenkins put his bosses on high alert.

While Jenkins and James's people worked out the details, Jenkins mostly kept his bosses in the dark. Stone says he talked once or twice a day with his writer, but Jenkins seemed almost afraid that talking about it would ruin the chances of the idea becoming reality. "Lee was reluctant to share too much," Stone says, "with the understanding that it could have gone sideways at any minute."

On Wednesday, LeBron James and agent Rich Paul met in Las Vegas with a Miami Heat contingent that included president Pat Riley and assistant GM Andy Elisburg. According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, the Heat left that meeting "feeling good about their chances to retain" James. But between that moment and the next day, James made up his mind.

On Thursday, James's camp told Jenkins that James would give him the scoop. They also contacted police in Bath Township, where he keeps his home, and requested off-duty officers as security for a forthcoming announcement.

"On Thursday his company requested additional staffing for Thursday and Friday," Michael McNeely, the Bath chief of police, told Deadspin in an email. "That staffing was provided and paid for by LeBron's company. They indicated there was going to be an announcement."

According to McNeely, the department got additional word this morning that the announcement would come today.

Thursday night in Las Vegas, James sat with Jenkins for an interview that he used to write the piece that would bear James's byline. James, as the nominal author, was given final say on the piece before it ran. Jenkins filed the story this morning, fewer than two hours before it was published, and that was the first time Stone actually learned James was heading back to Cleveland. Not that he didn't have an idea.

"I think I could tell in his tone," Stone says, "that Lee felt he had a big story here, and what's the biggest story? He's going to the Cavs. Though maybe I was extrapolating there. I suppose he could have woken this morning and said, 'I'm staying in Miami.' So I guess there was that fear. Not that we were rooting against him staying in Miami, but this is a good story. Going to Cleveland is the better story."

To avoid the chances of James's decision leaking, the story was shared with as few SI staffers as possible. Only six people saw it before it went live, including Stone, Time Inc. sports group editor Paul Fichtenbaum, and Brad Weinstein, who edited the story. Fictenbaum told the Wall Street Journal that they didn't sell ads against what would surely be a monster story, to avoid the news leaking.

And if that news had gotten reported elsewhere first? Stone says SI didn't have a plan B. The essay was everything. "We made a commitment to telling the larger story," Stone says. "We're just not going to out-Woj Woj"—referring to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski—"or be able to take on the entire ESPN armada. As good as Lee is, we invested all our energy in the story that posted today. The fact that we got the double of the newsbreak as well was like hitting the lottery."

Last night, LeBron James flew from Las Vegas to Miami with Dwyane Wade. Mid-flight, he told Wade his plans. This morning, James called Pat Riley and Heat owner Micky Arison to inform them. Soon after noon, Rich Paul called Dan Gilbert and told him, "Dan, congratulations. LeBron's coming home." At 12:13 p.m. EDT, SI.com published.

LeBron: I'm coming back to Cleveland [Sports Illustrated]