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Return of the King
LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Greatest Comeback in NBA History
By Dave McMenamin
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What really happened when LeBron James stunned the NBA by leaving a potential dynasty in Miami to come home to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers? How did the Cavs use secret meetings to put together the deal to add star Kevin Love? Who really made the controversial decision to fire coach David Blatt when the team was in first place? Where did the greatest comeback in NBA history truly begin-and end?
Return of the King takes you onto the private planes, inside the locker-room conversations, and into the middle of the intense huddles where one of the greatest stories in basketball history took place, resulting in the Cavs winning the 2016 NBA title after trailing the Golden State Warriors three games to one.
You’ll hear from all the characters involved: the players, the executives, the agents, and the owners as they reveal stories never before told. Get the background on all the controversies, the rivalries, and the bad blood from two reporters who were there for every day, plot twist, and social media snafu as they take you through the fascinating ride that culminated in a heart-stopping Game Seven.
As told by Richard Jefferson
This is a story that not many people know.
Sure, they know how the Cavaliers became the first team in fifty-two years to bring a major championship back home to Cleveland. They know how the Cavs became the first team to overcome a 3–1 deficit in the NBA Finals to come back and win. They know how we beat the first team ever to win 73 games during the regular season to do so. They know we became the first team since the Washington Bullets in 1978 to win a Game 7 of the Finals on the road and hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy on the same floor that our opponents fought so hard to host the game on.
But they don't know what happened to the Larry O'Brien Trophy three days later when more than a million people descended upon downtown Cleveland for a championship parade the likes of which has never been seen before.
The story starts with me and Channing Frye.
We were supposed to be in our own individual cars to soak it all in during the parade route. Somehow, Channing ended up on a flatbed truck with his family. We both have little kids. I was like, "Yo, I'd rather jump in here with you guys than be stuck in a convertible." Because it was hot out. So me and my family, we jump in that car with the Fryes and we're just taking in the scene and it was mayhem.
People everywhere. Lined up fifteen–twenty deep wherever you looked. On rooftops. Climbing out of windows. Hanging on streetlamps. Everywhere. I realized the magnitude of what this day was. You could tell that the city had never planned a championship parade in, well, fifty years. They didn't know that they needed to have guardrails up. They didn't know what hit 'em.
Kind of like the Warriors, actually.
I remember about halfway through the parade, me and Channing look over and I see this guy running next to the car with a big towel covering up something in his arms. I was like, "That looks like the trophy."
And the guy, he's running—and he's not running fast because our cars aren't really moving—and he says to us, "Hey, do you guys want this?" And I'm like, "Yeah! We'll take it!" In my head, I'm thinking, "Oh, this is our turn. He's just taking the trophy from car to car and everyone gets some time with the trophy." So he gets on the truck with us and after a few minutes, after we've been raising the trophy, and after the crowd is going crazy every time we lift it up and the sun shimmers off its polished, sphered head, the guy was like, "You don't understand how happy I was to see you guys."
I mean, everyone was happy to see us that day. We just won a championship for Cleveland. But there was a different level of appreciation coming from this guy.
I was like, "What are you talking about? Didn't you just bring this over from another player? You've seen one Cavs player lift this thing up, you've seen 'em all, right?"
He was like, "Richard, the trophy was on the back of a truck that went the wrong way at the start of the parade route. So all of the sudden, it's me, the trophy, one million fans, and no security, no nothing."
He was panicked. He unbolted the thing and started running around looking for a place to put it. He said, "Your car was the first one that we happened to see and we latched on like Rose to the floating door in Titanic."
So that's the story of how it came to be that the only people with video or pictures with the trophy during the parade are me and Channing—two lifelong friends ever since I helped recruit him to our alma mater, the University of Arizona—because some guy ended up stumbling upon our truck in the parade route. He didn't bother bringing it to anybody else—you know, like that LeBron James guy.
It kind of felt like all the things that had to happen for us to become champions. I know the city of Cleveland can relate. While Northeast Ohioans lived through The Shot, The Fumble, The Drive, and The Decision, I had my own downfalls on the biggest stage before I finally had my championship moment.
In the days leading up to Game 7, in my head I ran through all of them. I've come up just short so many times. I lost back-to-back Finals with the then New Jersey Nets. I've been top 10 in the league in scoring multiple years and didn't make an All-Star game. I've been on the U.S. Olympic team, but it was the team with Larry Brown and a bunch of misfits, and we had to fight just to win the bronze. So it was just like always so, so close. This was my entire life. This was my entire career. I'm not Tristan Thompson who is twenty-five years old. I'm not Kyrie Irving who has his whole career in front of him. This could be it for me.
When I was a kid, I'd imagine what I'd do if I was fortunate enough to win it all. Somehow it worked out just the way I pictured it. As soon as the buzzer sounded, everyone takes off, jumping and hugging and piling on top of one another, and I was the one guy on the bench that just kind of froze there and just put my head in my hands and started crying. I wouldn't say I was sobbing. I wouldn't say I was weeping. It was just more of, "Wow, man." Not only have I been through so much in fifteen years in the league, but to feel it for those ten days just slipping through your hands again after falling down 3–1 and to come this close, it was something. After the amount of stress that was in all that, the championship feeling was a feeling of relief. The initial feeling wasn't that of joy for me, it was of relief.
But as the night unfolded, that scene was everything I wanted it to be. Everything I dreamed it would be. Everything I imagined it ever would be. It was all of those things. And so what did I do? My big mouth started telling anyone who would listen in the locker room, as my feet splashed through puddles of champagne, that I was retiring.
When I initially said it, I really was done. I was so emotionally spent. It was a wrap for me. Like, you're talking about not sleeping for ten days. I took Tylenol PM at 6 a.m. one time to try to get some sleep. You're going East Coast to West Coast and you're running on fumes at that point and time.
Three days later, I was at the rally downtown after the parade, standing in front of hundreds of thousands of people and shouting into a microphone that I was coming back.
I wouldn't say things calmed down, but you start to enjoy it. You start to think. Was I all the way out when I said I was retiring? No. But the same, I was thinking, "I don't know if I can go through this again," even being on the winning side of it. Even being on the winning side of it, I don't know if I could go through it again, just because it was that stressful.
And finally at the end I just thought about it and it was more about my family: They are enjoying it. My body: It felt great even in my midthirties after playing in 100-something games. And then the championship experience: It doesn't end at the parade.
Part of winning a championship is being there on opening night when they raise the banner. Part of winning a championship is getting your ring from Adam Silver before that first game. Part of winning a championship is going into every city and just feeling that respect and also trying to defend your crown. One of the reasons I always wanted to be a champion was so I could defend it. That was half of it. So the more I started thinking about it, the more I was just like, "Okay, I don't want to miss out on that experience." Because this is once in a lifetime.
And this team is once in a lifetime.
There's no way you could come back the way we did, from 3–1 down, unless you are tight, unless you are brothers.
It doesn't mean that you have to be best friends. It doesn't mean that all fifteen of you guys are out together at every dinner. We're all different personalities. Nobody could match my personality anyway, come on, let's be real.
The thing is, you have to be able to look each man in the eye and say, "Hey, I'm going to do my job. If you do your job, we're good. If you're struggling, I'll lift you up." And all year long there was always speculation about this dynamic and that dynamic and what this meant and what that meant. It was just like people would see LeBron and Kyrie or LeBron and Kevin get frustrated at each other, but they wouldn't see them at dinner the very next night cracking jokes.
We did get closer as the season went along. We did love taking part in social media and putting stuff on Snapchat for the fans to see how we really are. That did make us closer. I think for a while people saw us and thought, "How am I going to root for guys that hate each other?" They would rather believe that guys are awesome and hang out, because they want to believe that. And I think once we kind of showed that to the fans and allowed them to see for themselves that, yo, LeBron, as much as he's special on the court, he's a big goofball. And, man, Kev doesn't take himself too seriously. That's cool.
It was just like everybody was going to have fun with this ride and it didn't matter if we won 10 straight to the start the playoffs, if we had lost two in a row in the conference finals, if we were down 0–2 in the Finals, if we were down 3–1 and on the brink of elimination. We stayed pretty consistent throughout this whole thing.
And so did Cleveland. They got behind us like no fan base has ever gotten behind a team I've played for before. It was like, even if you weren't a basketball fan, if you weren't from Cleveland, the fact that you knew that the so-called story of the town was that there hadn't been a championship in fifty years, you were rooting.
For my son, Little Richard, there's now a connection to him and Cleveland. Little Rich learned how to walk in Cleveland. These guys, my brothers on the Cavs, they've watched him go from being carried, to taking his first steps, to running around, and now all of the sudden he's in the locker room and he loves basketball. I'd like to think we gave him a pretty good first taste of what the game is supposed to look like at its best.
Say what you want about LeBron, but not many people in a team sport can say, "Hey, I'm going to come back to my hometown, to a city that's never won a championship in half a century and a team that's never experienced a championship run, period, and I'm going to go and we're going to win one."
Actually, forget I said not many people say that. No one says that. No one in the history of a team sport has ever said that.
This is all LeBron has ever known. This is all he's ever known: basketball and being the best. That's all he's ever known since he was probably about fifteen years old. That will mess with your psyche a little bit. You can lose touch. Hell, maybe you need to have a messed-up psyche to do what he did and leave Miami to come back to the Cavs.
But I will say this about LeBron: At his core, all he wants to do is win. And he does it by wanting to be a good teammate and by wanting everyone to be successful. That's just who he is.
Oh, one more thing.
My wife is pregnant again. Our daughter is going to be born in Cleveland. Which I think is awesome. She'll come into this world in the city of champions.
ALL NOT FOR Z
The lights were shut off, and for a moment, the crowd of 20,000 roared with the sudden excitement of anticipation. Just as quickly they fell silent. A million-dollar 3-D video projection system, leased and installed in the ceiling for this moment, lit the arena with a mixture of visual tricks that made it seem like the hardwood floor was as liquid as water, followed by an incredible display of video highlights, graphics, colors, and audio clips that took programmers weeks to design.
Watching from the darkness at the edge of the room were dozens of men in suits, all flown in at great expense by the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise, to be tangential parts of the most elaborate jersey retirement ceremony the NBA had ever seen. Not even Michael Jordan had gotten the sort of treatment Zydrunas Ilgauskas was getting on this night.
It was March 8, 2014, a carefully selected date that was months in the planning and years in the plotting.
After speeches and congratulations from numerous former teammates, coaches, team executives, trainers, and friends—and after his father, who'd come from Lithuania, symbolically kissed the center-court logo—Ilgauskas's two sons punched a button that sent his No. 11 jersey to the rafters as smoke machines billowed to make it more dramatic.
Fans recorded it with their cell phones, many wearing giveaway T-shirts in the team's wine and gold color scheme that read "#AllforZ."
This was charming, but it also wasn't totally true. It wasn't all for Z, Ilgauskas's nickname. A lot of it was for someone else, one of the men in the sea of suits.
This was also for LeBron James.
The Cavs' thinly veiled strategy to recruit James back four years after his departure clicked into public action with this expensive investment. Retire Ilgauskas's number, yes, but also show James he could come home again and he would be loved again just like his peer.
In 2010, just three days after James announced he was signing with the Miami Heat on a national television broadcast and while Cavs fans and owner Dan Gilbert were still in a hot rage, Ilgauskas announced his intention to follow James to Miami as a free agent. After twelve years as a Cav, making two All-Star teams and setting a slate of franchise records, this move was seen as adding insult to injury.
Ilgauskas soon got in on the blowback James had gotten for his choice. There was plenty of vitriol from the Cleveland area to go around. James's departure, announced on an hourlong television show on ESPN, The Decision, had deeply scarred the region. It was devastating to the team, but James was also a local leaving for the glamour of Miami. That hit a lot of people where they lived. In an economic downturn that had lasted for decades, many children of Northeast Ohio had left home looking for success outside the rust belt. Ohio is home to numerous well-respected universities, both large state institutions and small liberal arts colleges. For years it had raised and educated young stars only to see them take their talents elsewhere because of limited opportunities at home. It was a compound problem. Now James, one of the state's most treasured citizens, was doing it too.
Targeting James for the way he announced his decision was a convenient excuse for amplifying the symbols of hatred. Many would've hated James for leaving no matter how he'd done it. Ilgauskas was proof of that. After deciding to leave, Ilgauskas bought a full-page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer thanking the fan base for taking him in when he arrived from Lithuania and supporting him so it would become his home. If it dimmed any of the negativity, it was hard for him to notice.
It was hurtful to Ilgauskas, who had actually been traded away from the Cavs the previous season, only to get a buyout from his new team, the Washington Wizards, before ever playing a game so he could immediately re-sign in Cleveland. Having already been traded and after losing his starting job when the Cavs acquired Shaquille O'Neal the previous year, Ilgauskas felt he'd been given a pretty good indication the team was moving on from him as a core player.
Perhaps the worst was when it started to affect his wife, Jennifer, who owns successful healthcare-related businesses in the Cleveland area. Her business started suffering when standard referrals began drying up, which Ilgauskas believed was a kind of retribution. He was also booed mercilessly when he returned with the Heat.
But after his retirement in 2011, Ilgauskas proved how he felt about the city when he moved back. He later went to work for the team's front office. This was a minor miracle, because Ilgauskas was also offended by an infamous letter to fans Gilbert released the night James announced he was leaving, calling James's move a "shocking act of disloyalty" and a "cowardly betrayal." Ilgauskas felt like some of those accusations now essentially included him as well.
Ilgauskas and Gilbert had never been very close. In 2005, four months after Gilbert bought the Cavs for $375 million, Ilgauskas thought he'd have to find a new home. He was a free agent and got the impression Gilbert wasn't interested in retaining him. In early July of that year he was about to leave on a planned trip to Asia, figuring he might be on another team by the time he got back.
Danny Ferry, a former Ilgauskas teammate who'd just been hired to be the team's general manager, convinced Gilbert to re-sign Ilgauskas. Ferry was concerned about the owner-player relationship, so he asked Gilbert to close the deal personally. This led to a fascinating little chase as Gilbert and newly hired coach Mike Brown left the Cavs' Summer League team in Las Vegas on Gilbert's plane to fly to Los Angeles to catch Ilgauskas during a layover before he left for Hong Kong.
When they landed at LAX's private terminal, Gilbert ran into Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks and later the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics. Gilbert blanched, knowing the Sonics were a team rumored to be interested in Ilgauskas as well. He wondered if he was being beaten to the punch. Out of a movie script, Gilbert ordered his driver to follow Schultz's car to see where he might be headed. But Schultz got on the freeway; Gilbert and Brown breathed a sigh of relief and went to the international terminal, where they bought tickets on Ilgauskas's flight so they could get through security. Nervous they had nothing to present, they bought cheap flowers and balloons at an airport gift shop to bring to the meeting. When it was over, Ilgauskas had agreed to a five-year, $50 million deal.
That ended up being the high point of the relationship, especially after Gilbert's behavior when Ilgauskas and James left. Yet not only was Ilgauskas back working for the team, here he was being adored by fans at a ceremony.
That was the understated but serious message to James. The two had commiserated in Miami about how they'd been treated for their business decisions. They'd cursed Gilbert and the shortsightedness of fans who'd once claimed to love them. They'd basked in the winter sun and wondered how they'd lived through so many snowstorms.
But Ilgauskas was back in the cold North and happy to be raising his family there. And here he was being honored, the fans already having forgotten his foray to Miami. That is what those in the Cavs organization wanted James to see personally—that when it really mattered, Cleveland had the ability to move past what happened in 2010. It was to show that James too could come back and be happy raising his family at home and be embraced again by his home fans.
The display was funded by Gilbert but was the brainchild of Chris Grant, the Cavs' general manager, who had replaced Ferry in 2010. During James's second season in Miami, he took the surprising step of indicating publicly that he could see himself returning to play in Cleveland sometime in the future. In what would turn out to be a crucial moment, he opened the door and extended an olive branch on a snowy day in February 2012.
"I think it would be great, it would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot fun times in my seven years here. You can't predict the future, and hopefully I continue to stay healthy. I'm here as a Miami Heat player, and I'm happy where I am now, but I don't rule out returning in no sense. And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me."
James said this after a Heat practice inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on an off day. Within seconds, the words had reached Grant's ears ten miles away at the team's training facility. The concept of a James return had been whispered about, especially after he admitted he struggled with the transition to Miami. But here he was saying it, that he'd consider coming back. Though some dismissed it as James attempting to reduce the vitriol in Northeast Ohio, where he still lived in the offseason, some took it quite seriously. Especially Grant, who was perhaps the first, and for a while the only, Cavs employee who truly believed the franchise could get him back.
The following summer, a content James went even further. After winning his first championship in five games over the Oklahoma City Thunder and shedding the burden of never having won a ring, he was in London and on the verge of winning a second gold medal with the Olympic team. It was the most triumphant few months of his career. Getting wistful in an interview with the Associated Press, he again referred to missing Cleveland. "I wish I could have won one there. I could only imagine how the parade would have been down East 9th Street. Of course I thought about it because Cleveland helped me get to that point. The days that I spent there helped me get to the point where I was able to finally win one. It's just unfortunate I wasn't able to do it there."
This was seen as salt in the wounds to some in Cleveland, which lamented seeing James win elsewhere. And Cleveland indeed saw it. Ratings reports from the 2012 Finals showed the strongest local ratings outside the South Florida and Oklahoma City markets were in Cleveland. But others, including those daring to dream inside the Cavs offices, saw it as another gesture.
Gilbert responded with his own coded message. The next time James visited Cleveland for a game, in the 2012–13 season, Gilbert put out a message to fans on his social media: "Cleveland Cavaliers' young talent makes our future very bright. Clearly, LeBron's is as well. Time for everyone to focus on the road ahead."
Even with all the time that had passed, the polite tone from the man who essentially championed an anti-James movement was revealing. Gilbert had been fined $100,000 by NBA commissioner David Stern for sending out the letter in 2010, but had said in subsequent interviews he had no regrets. After James left, Gilbert hired Jones Day, one of the largest law firms in the nation, to investigate whether the Heat had been engaged in long-term recruiting of James, which would've been a violation of NBA rules. In 1995, the Heat essentially admitted they were guilty of this sort of tampering when negotiating to bring Pat Riley in to run the franchise while he was coaching the New York Knicks. The Heat ultimately agreed to send the Knicks $1 million and a first-round draft pick to settle the matter, which might've been the best deal Miami owner Micky Arison has ever made considering Riley's positive influence on the franchise.
Gilbert eventually decided not to file formal charges against the Heat. The burden of proof for such things is quite high and the gray area teams operate in is quite wide. Grant was also against it, wanting to move on and not extend the issue. It wasn't bringing James back at that point anyway. Plus the Cavs had held firm in working on a sign-and-trade deal with the Heat for James, getting two first-round picks and two second-round picks as a return for helping the Heat construct their superteam that included Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Not only was that a haul greater than the Cavs probably would've gotten had they been able to prove a tampering charge, but the Cavs agreeing to trade James to Miami undercut any potential argument.
Gilbert had continued to stew, though, and in meetings he refused for several years to say James's name. So his sending out a message encouraging the fans to move on from the James hate was relevant. It also worked. For the first time that night, some fans at the arena applauded when James was introduced. It was far from the majority, but it sure was a departure from previous visits. During the game, a young fan named James Blair wandered onto the court in the middle of the game and approached James. He wore a T-shirt that read "We Miss You" on the front and "Come Back 2014" on the back. The 2014 reference was the first year James could be a free agent, more than a year away.
Security swarmed Blair, but before they could take him off the floor, James disarmed the situation and went over to embrace him. It was a symbolic moment—there was a thaw happening on both sides. Blair was banned by the Cavs from attending future games, but the moment quickly became famous. The Heat, who can be masters at public relations, soon invited Blair to a game in Miami and gave him Heat gear in an effort to swing the situation. But it only revealed that the Heat had started paying attention to the James-Cleveland developments.
The following summer, James made another significant move when he left his agent at Creative Artists Agency, Leon Rose, and hired his longtime friend Rich Paul as his basketball agent. CAA had played a significant role in helping James go to Miami two years earlier, as it also represented Wade and Bosh and negotiated all of their contracts in concert. From its inception as a Hollywood talent agency, CAA had always been about "packaging" clients on films and shows to maximize commissions. This was what they did with their three biggest basketball clients, wrapping them up in a bundle. Business was business, but this left some level of animosity between the Cavs and CAA.
Paul worked for CAA at the time as a junior agent, but he'd managed to stay on good terms with the Cavs. The first game the Cavs played in the post-James era, a home game in October 2010 against Boston, Paul attended in his role as a CAA agent. He lived in Cleveland and represented one of the Cavs' 2011 first-round draft picks, Tristan Thompson, which meant he was around the team frequently. It was Paul who called the team to inform them that James would be going to Miami, a move that was professional. Grant believed Paul operated in good faith and felt he could work with him.
When Paul established his new agency, Klutch Sports, he partnered with Mark Termini, an experienced Cleveland-based attorney and agent who'd dealt with the Cavs dating to the 1980s when he represented star Ron Harper. As it would turn out, James's new representatives had both history and respect from the team.
So as James headed into the final year of his Heat contract at the start of the 2013–14 season, Grant started to put plans into action. The Heat had now won back-to-back titles and James had won two Most Valuable Player awards and two Finals MVP awards. He looked not only to be thriving in Miami but entrenched there, the concept of his leaving seemed far-fetched. But Grant wasn't deterred, especially once the Heat released Mike Miller, who was one of James's closest friends, to reduce luxury tax payments the following season.
When James signed in Miami, CAA worked with Heat president Pat Riley to reduce the stars' salaries from the max level down to make room on the payroll for a couple of role players. One was Udonis Haslem, a CAA client, and the other was Miller. Ultimately James, Wade, and Bosh were in agreement to take less money, but James was not deeply involved in the process. The Heat were eventually able to work complex sign-and-trade deals to make all the math work.
As time passed, the way it unfolded ended up upsetting James and contributed to his decision to leave CAA. Shortly after doing so, he signed with William Morris Endeavor, CAA's Hollywood enemy, to represent him in film and television work. So he was also displeased when the Heat released Miller, a move that saved the team $17 million in luxury taxes, because he was still receiving a smaller paycheck to pay Miller's salary.
The Heat's roster was aging—they'd traded so many draft picks to acquire James and Bosh that they'd been unable to bring in many young players—and their heavy spending had made their luxury tax bills start to pile up and challenge their ability to keep the team together.
- "On the surface, this story may seem like it would only appeal to Cavaliers fans -- don't be dissuaded. The work illustrates the highs and lows necessary to reach the level of a champion, and will be the basketball book to own in 2017."—Library Journal Starred Review
- "[A] dishy and fun narrative...With lively writing and rich anecdotes that reveal the struggles that made the triumph anything but inevitable, Windhorst and McMenamin provide the definitive account of the greatest accomplishment of one of the game's greatest players."—The Washington Post
- "I've always admired Brian's acumen and his seasoned perspective. This story with Dave McMenamin of LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers' championship run is captivating and filled with spectacular detail."—Tracy McGrady, 7-time NBA All-Star
- "Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin are courtside and in the locker room for the most improbable comeback in NBA history. Through exhaustive, incisive reporting, the duo have delivered an important, essential book for all NBA fans."—Jonathan Abrams, New York Times bestselling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution
- "This account of how a championship was built is the best NBA book in many years."—Booklist
- "Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin don't just cover the NBA. They live it. And in RETURN OF THE KING, their storytelling has never been better. From the decision-making process in the Cavaliers' front office which led to LeBron James' return, to the assembly of a championship roster, to the players-only email from GM David Griffin with the Cavs down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, to the candid exchanges between LeBron and Tyronn Lue, there is nothing left uncovered. Man, what a compelling read!"—Ernie Johnson, studio host of TNT's "Inside the NBA"
- "On the court and off, the LeBron James journey back to Cleveland and back to a championship is one of the most intriguing stories in NBA history. Brian and Dave do a masterful job of adding context, details, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes to the signing, the season, and the series. RETURN OF THE KING is a great way to remember all that led up to the Finals and the greatest comeback."—Mike Tirico, NBC's Thursday Night Football play-by-play and Olympics host
- On Sale
- Apr 3, 2018
- Page Count
- 296 pages
- Grand Central Publishing