LeBron James rumors have been besetting the NBA fans since the start of the offseason, but that's in part due to the participation of the masses. The LeBronathon didn't come from nowhere, though; it stems from the legacy of Michael Jordan.
The defining moment of the James saga came when Cleveland Cavaliers fans assembled at his empty home in Ohio, waiting for an announcement that wasn't coming, but the media was there to "cover" it anyway. It was the Seinfeld-ian epitome of a story about nothing.
Twitter responded in all its magnificent, satirical glory, and "LeBron's Lawn" was born.
The juiciest bit of all this is that everything happened utterly independent of James himself. He had no TV shows this time around. He had his agent discreetly handle most of the meetings with teams. He did everything he could to stay out of the spotlight.
Yet the spotlight shone on his absence anyway.
This article, just like the story of LeBron's Lawn, is not about James or Jordan. It's about the fans and the media and how we interact with the story.
It's by considering where we were, where we are and how we got from there to here that we can truly appreciate the comical, yet wonderful mess of it all—and what an even more wonderful mess it could have been with Michael Jordan.
It's a bit of a forgotten piece of history, but the New York Knicks made a run at signing Jordan in 1996.
It remains one of the most delicious rarely told stories in the NBA, and an object lesson for those teams, the Bulls included, who have dreams of stealing away one or more of the great free agents of 2010.
It was the time Michael Jordan was a free agent and almost signed with the New York Knicks.
Well, perhaps not almost, and Jordan's agent, David Falk, still denies it ever was serious or under discussion. But it's part of NBA lore, and Knicks and Bulls insiders at the time remember it as what was portrayed then by Falk as a strong possibility.
Back then, perhaps because the offseason wasn't covered with the same kind of frenzy, or maybe because no one believed it would really happen, it wasn’t much of a story.
Jordan played in the perfect time. His career fell in the sweet spot for athletes, between the start of SportsCenter and the arrival of the Internet. Sure, the web technically existed in 1996, but it was very different.
That means Jordan got all the glory that came with the Top 10 highlights, but he also got none of the criticism that comes from trolls bent on destroying the NBA's most iconic players. So this little tidbit got brushed aside.
If it happened today, we could be telling a different story. In order to understand why, though, we need to know the history.
Where We Were
It was 1979 or 1980, and I was in junior high. When I got home from school, as was my habit, I made myself a cotto salami sandwich and went to turn on the TV set. On top of it was a new, funny-looking box with three thick black buttons, labeled "A," "B" and "C."
I flipped on the TV and pushed A, which provided the usual broadcast and cable channels we’d previously had. Then I pushed B, which had a small set of new ones, like HBO. But there was one in particular that made me fall in love: ESPN. ("C" did nothing, just in case you’re wondering.)
My family called ESPN the Kelly channel, because it's what I watched.
Back in the day before the Internet and before ESPN, all your sports news came in two ways: the print media and the local news. Sometimes, because they were running over, the local news wouldn't even go through all the scores for the major sports.
So, you'd have to wait until the next morning when the paper came just to see who won. I had a paper route, and I'd deliver in the mornings.
Did I mention that I lived in North Dakota? Winter mornings there can get pretty frigid, like 20 below zero. But that didn't stop me.
I remember standing outside, desperate to know if the Lakers had won (yes, I grew up a Lakers fan), flipping through the sports page at 5 a.m. and reading box scores in the soft glow of the porch light. Dawn was still hours away.
There would be no more of that! Now, with the wonders of ESPN, all I had to do was wait for SportsCenter to come on, and I could not only find the scores, but I could actually see the highlights! Oh joy!
There are three entities: the story (scores, etc.), the media (the local news and paper) and the fans (me). Back then, they were very distinct and far removed from one another.
How We Got Here
ESPN started a journey toward bringing those three things together.
There were 24 hours of sports available—or close to it, anyway. For a while there was some other programming. Remember BodyShaping? (I may or may not have had a small crush on Kiana Tom for a while.)
But gradually ESPN grew, adding more legitimate sports programming and weeding out all the other stuff.
The time between what happened and when you learned about it was reduced to a crawl at the bottom of the screen. Granted, you didn't get all the information, but you knew if your team won or lost.
And then, the Internet happened.
You could log on to your AOL account, wait for it to connect and sort of keep up with live scores. Oh, sure, you had to refresh pages and monitor your minutes, but you didn't have to wait for SportsCenter to come on to see how many points Jordan scored.
Then broadband came out. I got my first broadband account in 1999, and yeah, I partied like it was. I had a dedicated line! No more dialing! And the speed! Pages refreshed almost instantly!
Newsgroups and forums emerged. Not only could you find out what was happening in sports, you could also talk about them with other fans.
Websites like ESPN.com let you access statistical data so you could instantly know who was leading the league in the various categories. Websites like Sports-Reference.com cropped up and gave fans access to advanced stats.
Increased awareness of such things led to more research and analysis and a deeper understanding of the game.
As a result, the fanbase got smarter. The cross-pollination caused by debates and discussions, coupled with the availability of data, made it better informed than ever before. That gave rise to two things in the late '90s and early aughts.
First, ESPN started hosting more debate shows. Cold Pizza, the predecessor to First Take, was the first to air in daytime programming. Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn were on in the early evening. However, viewers could only engage the debate by yelling at their TV sets.
Second, analysts became prevalent. The sports reporter couldn't stay ahead of his audience in every sport. King Kaufman, the writing program manager for Bleacher Report, shared how his experience changed as a general sports columnist:
When I began writing a general sports column for Salon around the turn of the century, there wasn't that much competition. Not many writers were aiming at—and reaching—a national audience with a regular sports column. It felt like we could have met for breakfast.
By the time I stopped writing that column in 2009, there were thousands upon thousands of such people. There was even a word for the collection of them, or us: the "blogosphere." When Salon ended my column, I didn't go looking for a similar gig. I felt like the world didn't have any particular need for one more generalist sports column. The business had changed. Readers who had enjoyed my take on, say, the NBA playoffs, could go read, say, Bethlehem Shoals. We were both entertaining writers, but he knew a lot more about the NBA than I did.
There are many fans today who have a more thorough grasp of their sport than most sports anchors did in the '80s or '90s. That’s given rise to analysts who spend their entire time working on one specialty.
The web also factored into the rise in popularity of fantasy sports. Cable packages like League Pass led to fans becoming knowledgeable of players from other teams by watching more games. YouTube compilations let you see what all the stars were doing.
All those things meant fans weren't just better informed; they were also broader and less localized.
The gap between the story, the media and the fan was being erased.
Where We Are
Now we live in the age of social media. The advent of Twitter has arguably had as big an impact on sports journalism as ESPN.
ESPN's great impact was that it cut down on the time between when the story happened and when the fan found out about it. As the network grew, it didn't just tell you what happened; it told you why things happened.
But Twitter does three things that take sports journalism to the next level.
First, it allows fans to communicate back to the media. When Skip Bayless says something you disagree with on First Take, you can instantly tell him why he's wrong. (And if you're a good journalist, you’ll realize that sometimes you can learn from your audience.)
Second, it changes the very nature of sports reporting. It's no longer just about what did happen, or why it happened (though that is still a part of it); the emphasis now is on what will happen.
Third, it removes the middle man. Fans can follow their favorite players on Twitter. Sometimes the players even follow back. You no longer need the media to find out what your favorite players are thinking or doing; they're telling you directly.
The story, the media and the fans are still distinct groups, but they're all simmering together in the same pot, and the pot is Twitter.
In many ways, that's wonderful. A smarter, more involved fanbase interacting with the media is good for the sport and for the press. It pushes the media to learn and stay ahead of its audience. Sometimes the results aren't so positive, though.
Reporters, trying to anticipate the news, tweet speculation. Fans gobble up speculation and treat it as rumors. Then things get reworded and conveyed as fact.
Speculation, rumor and fact all get the same treatment on Twitter. And that's how you get to the point where a tweet causes a bunch of misled fans to wait for an announcement that doesn't come on the lawn of the empty house of basketball's best athlete.
All the while, the cameras are there covering the "non-news."
And this is what is tremendously important to realize about all of this: On Twitter, belief is everything. Faith matters more than reality. It's Wag the Dog on steroids.
Michael Jordan, New York Knick
But what if we'd had the same kind "Twitter-pot" culture then that we do now? Would more people know about it? Would we perceive Jordan differently? Could it have even changed the outcome?
How many times would "I'm back" have been retweeted?
And what would have happened when Jordan was contemplating going to the Knicks? The first and obvious thing is that it would be the biggest sports story ever, not a mere obscure footnote to history.
Forget breaking the World Wide Web; it might have broken the actual world.
The other possibility is it might have actually changed history.
Consider the present: When ESPN was covering the "events" that weren't unfolding at James' empty house, the narrative was, "If James isn't coming, he has a responsibility to dispel the rumors. Otherwise, he's just breaking Cleveland’s heart again."
And it occurred to me: What if he was completely undecided, sitting at home, watching? Maybe, in that moment, James was thinking, "You're right. I can't do that again."
What if that narrative is what actually broke the tie? Oh, the irony!
A false rumor started on Twitter leads to a series of events, which in turn cause the false rumor to be fulfilled, and it all gives birth to a parody Twitter account. Tickles the brain, doesn't it?
Flash back to 1996, with a hypothetical Twitter-troll universe bashing Jordan, complaining that the Bulls were almost as good without him and that he couldn't win a title without the help of Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen.
And what if Jordan, being Jordan, accepted the challenge and actually bolted for the Knicks? How different would the story be then?
Maybe you'd argue he was never seriously contemplating the Knicks, and it was just a play to get a bigger check (which he did) from Jerry Reinsdorf. But remember, belief matters more than reality on Twitter. The story would have still picked up steam and, potentially, had an impact on the outcome.
The world has changed. The news itself has become an interactive event. Yes, it has its comical side at times, with gatherings on the plush grounds of vacant domiciles, but it also has the fascinating side of having the potential to shape the news—and, in turn, history.
You have the power, tweeps. Use it wisely.