UPDATE: Gray denies the report that Team LeBron covered his expenses for his interview of James Thursday night.
"I didn't take a penny from LeBron or any entity connected to him," Gray told the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, calling the report "100 percent inaccurate, wrong, totally false" and "irresponsible. . . . I would never take a nickel from somebody I'm interviewing."
Original Post: LeBron James' decision to join the Miami Heat may have made Florida residents happy, but ESPN's handling of the announcement has drawn widespread criticism, with many saying that the network allowed James too much control over the hour-long special where he announced his choice. Now, CNBC is reporting that James--not ESPN-- even paid Jim Gray, the freelance journalist who interviewed him.
It was widely known that Gray--who, according to CNBC, claims he came up with the idea for the hour-long program--was selected by James as the journalist who would interview him. Gray was formerly a reporter for ESPN, but is now a freelance correspondent. But ESPN told CNBC that it wasn't aware of the extent to which Gray was connected to James' camp:
...the network didn't say, and now says they didn't know, that Gray's travel and payment for "The Decision" show was being paid by the entity set up by Team LeBron and not by ESPN, as CNBC has learned.
"We aren't privy to Gray's arrangement," said ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys. "He came as part of the package. We accepted Jim knowing that we would have extensive time for our people to interview LeBron, which was bulk of the show."
The arrangement between James and Gray was just one example of the wide latitude given to the NBA superstar by ESPN. Among other things, James chose the location of the interview and even some of the sponsors of the special. These arrangements, as well as the overall special, have led to a torrent of criticism for ESPN in the press.
Besides coming under fire for his monetary arrangement with James, Gray's questions--and especially his decision not to ask James where he would be headed until his 19th question--were roundly criticized. New York Times sportswriter Richard Sandomir called the interview a "debacle" and "a major disservice to NBA fans."
New York's Will Leitch wrote that "ESPN, it feels, will never quite be the same: there were surely thousands of employees there who rubbed their eyes, aghast at what they were watching, guilty to be a part of it."
Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik pronounced the special to be "some of the most debased sports coverage I can remember seeing," and Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara said that "ESPN's new coverage model has less to do with sports analysis than the habits and characteristics of your average 'Twilight' fan."
Equally scathing was Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch, who called Gray's intital questions--which included "are you still a nail biter?--"a decision that defied logic, reason, drama and journalism."
Of course, ESPN may not be too worried about such criticism: the special reportedly drew some of the biggest ratings in the network's history.