When Bob DeAngelo got the call, he almost died.
He’ll never forget it. It was July 4, 2010, and DeAngelo was following orders. His wife needed the windows washed. She didn’t care that he’d just got back from biking across the country to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich. The windows needed cleaning.
So there he was, up on the ladder, when his son handed him the phone.
On the other end of the line was a man he didn’t know, a man named Mark Dowley.
“He said, ‘I’m about to tell you a big secret you can’t tell anyone or I’m going to shoot you,” remembers DeAngelo, then the executive director of the Greenwich Boys and Girls Club.
Dowley was an associate of LeBron James’, and the secret was that he wanted to use the Greenwich Boys and Girls Club’s gym for The Decision, an ESPN-produced live broadcast of James announcing where he would play basketball next season, the most anticipated sports news in the world. And he needed it in four days.
“I nearly fell off the ladder,” says DeAngelo laughing. “The plan was, they wanted to keep it a secret and they were going to record it in our gym, from the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, basically.”
Dowley lived in Greenwich and LeBron would also be in the area attending Carmlelo Anthony’s July 10 wedding. And James had been working with the Boys and Girls Club of America, so the Greenwich location, a red brick building in one of the nation’s wealthiest zip codes, made the most sense.
DeAngelo was told not to tell anyone but just a couple of staff members. He wasn’t even permitted to alert the police.
One of the people DeAngelo told was Don Palmer, the Club’s Program Director at the time.
“He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but LeBron James is going to come up to the Boys and Girls Club with ESPN and he’s going to make his announcement on where he’s going to play on Thursday night,” remembers Palmer. “I was like are you kidding me?”
The announcement, of course, is best known as The Decision. A decision the entire basketball world had been waiting months for. Where was the greatest basketball player in the world going to play next season? And that decision would emanate from the gymnasium of a Boys and Girls Club in one of the toniest of neighborhoods.
“I was like ‘Holy Moly,’” says Palmer.
The news that was supposed to remain secret, though, got out a day before the planned event.
“On Wednesday, somebody leaked it,” says DeAngelo, who claims he never found out who. “But in a split second it just went crazy. Our phones went nuts. Emails went nuts. And then it became a big security issue.
“And that’s how it came to be.”
Ten years ago tonight, at a little before 9 p.m., Lebron James was escorted into the gym of the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich by two of its members, to announce his Decision, with 50 Club kids, Club staff, ESPN TV crews, interviewer Jim Gray and 2020 presidential hopeful Kanye West, looking on.
It was beyond surreal. Ten years later it’s still that.
“You didn’t understand the magnitude of it till you got there that night,” says Palmer.
Palmer first got to the Boys and Girls Club facility, which is just off Exit 3 on I-95, at about 6:15 a.m. that Thursday, and things had already started to percolate.
“When I arrived, ESPN already had a truck parked outside,” says Palmer. “There were a couple of police cars already stationed at the bottom of our driveway.
“People were coming in from all over the place to see this.”
Palmer remembers everything, from LeBron’s size, “When they say he’s 265, 270, he’s every bit of that,” to the scene outside and all the boldface names inside, like Robin Roberts, Hannah Storm and Kanye.
He remembers the rules with LeBron, one of which was no autographs. But Kanye was signing, surrounded by kids, signing T-shirts, shoes, signing anything and everything. But he had just one rule. No pictures. “I’ll shake your hand, I’ll sign autographs, but no pictures,” Palmer remembers him saying.
“He was really accessible to all the kids that were there that night,” says Palmer.
Camryn Ferrara was a senior in high school that night and was one of the two kids asked to escort LeBron into the Club and into the gymnasium . He’s 28 now, and an athletic coordinator at the Greenwich Boys and Girls Club. The Club has been a part of his life since he was 6 years old. And he was that year’s Youth of the Year.
He remembers all the people, the paparazzi and then the two vans that pulled up to the side entrance near the parking lot. LeBron was in the first van.
“He introduced himself and shook our hands,” says Ferrara. “And after that, he was strictly business. He didn’t really talk to anybody. You know, obviously he was making the most important decision of his life.”
ESPN had guidelines, only one of which Ferrara remembers, and that being not to talk to LeBron or say too much to him.
“I felt bad for LeBron,” says DeAngelo. “You know he was just really stiff. He obviously knew he wasn’t going to the Knicks or the Nets, people were hoping that was the reason it was in Greenwich, Connecticut.”
The Greenwich Club was allowed to have 50 kids in attendance, all ages about 10 and up due to the late hour, though there were some exceptions. They were Youth of the Year Winners, present and past, and members of the volunteer group, all rewarded with a night in the epicenter of the NBA Universe. During commercial breaks the kids would call LeBron, who would turn around and wave and whisper to them.
And when Gray finally asked LeBron where he was going to play next year, the gym was silent.
“When he said, ‘I’m going to take my talent to South Beach,’ there was no reaction inside the gym, nobody clapped, nobody did anything,” says Palmer. “I think everyone was waiting for him to say I’m coming to the Knicks.”
Outside the facility, across the street, where a massive crowd had assembled, with one estimate of there being over 6,000 people, there was an explosion of groans, says DeAngelo.
“About 10 seconds [after announcing it would be Miami] there was an eruption from all the fans outside,” says Palmer “You could hear screaming and yelling.
“And then the people in the gym started clapping.”
One moment Palmer won’t ever forget is what happened at the end of the night, when the interview was over and the cameras were turned off, all the kids rushed LeBron.
“They all surrounded him,” recalls Palmer. “He picked up one of the kids and put her on his shoulders. And then the NBA ushered him out.
“But it was unbelievable when all the kids rushed him and were patting him on the back and he was talking to them and high-fiving them. It was tremendous to be honest with you.”
The rest is history, LeBron James left Cleveland and took his talents to South Beach and won his first and second NBA titles. Cleveland fans burned his jersey in revolt, as James, in a single night went from hero to heel.
“I felt bad for him,” says DeAngelo. “He got killed in the ratings. It was really an awkward thing. It was just bizarre.
“But I would say I have a lot or respect for what he did.”
According to DeAngelo The Decision raised nearly $3 million dollars for the Boys and Girls Club of America, distributed to Clubs across America, particularly in cities in the running for LeBron. The Greenwich Club received $90,000.
“From that standpoint, what he did for kids was really, really great,” says DeAngelo.
Thanks to The Decision, all the Boys and Girls Clubs in Connecticut received 15 desktop computers and five laptops from various donors and sponsors. But the Greenwich Club also received that donation, money it used to refurbish the gym floor and added padding to the gym’s walls.
“We were able to upgrade the gym to make it safer and better for all our members,” says Palmer.
Says Ferrara, “It’s crazy, you know, [after it happened] everyone is hitting me up, but it doesn’t happen without the Boys and Girls Club.
“I’m very fortunate.”
DeAngelo is still asked about it regularly, “The brand recognition from that is phenomenal,” he says.
People who come into the Club to this day still remember its 15 minutes of NBA fame, asking. “Wasn’t LeBron James here?”
“I’ll take ’em to the foul line and say, ‘This is where it all happened.’” says Palmer.
“It’s a part of history. And the Greenwich Boys and Girls Club is a part of it.”