CLEVELAND – If LeBron James was going to win another NBA title, heal broken hearts and continue building his legacy, he knew there was only one place to go.
To Ohio. Home.
Four years after he left for Miami, a widely criticized departure that damaged his image and crushed a long-suffering city’s championship hopes, James is coming back to play for the Cavaliers to try and end Cleveland’s half-century title drought. He’s returning to his basketball roots, to the people who know him best, to make good on a promise.
James made the announcement Friday with a powerful essay written for Sports Illustrated. His decision ended two weeks of speculation with the entire league waiting on his move.
When he finally made it, Cleveland was his choice over re-signing with the Heat.
“I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland,” he said to SI. “The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”
James had not yet signed a contract, but he made it clear he will wear a Cavaliers jersey next season.
“When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission,” James said in the SI first-person story. “I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
The talented kid from Akron, now a homecoming king.
Cleveland is thrilled to have him back. James is the league’s best all-around player, a four-time MVP who was dubbed “The Chosen One” as a can’t-miss high school star who learned the game on the playgrounds of Akron, about 40 miles from Cleveland. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, he can score from all over and is one of the game’s best passers and defenders.
Staying in Miami would have been easy. He could have made another run at a third title and fifth straight NBA Finals appearance with close friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the other members of a “Big 3” who have been the league’s team-to-hate since 2010.
Instead, James picked the young, unproven Cavs, with a rookie coach in David Blatt, who spent the past two decades coaching overseas. Almost unbelievably, he’ll again work for owner Dan Gilbert, who torched James on his way out the door in 2010.
For Cleveland, a city accustomed to so much sports heartache — as the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians have come close but failed to win it all — news of James’ return triggered a spontaneous downtown celebration during Friday’s lunch hours.
Car horns blared and strangers high-fived on the sidewalks outside Quicken Loans Arena, where James had so many big moments during his first seven seasons as a pro.
Four years ago, some fans burned his jersey. On July 11, 2014, all was forgiven.
The Cavs were considered a long shot when free agency opened. But as the days went by, Cleveland emerged as the leader, especially after clearing salary-cap spaces to offer him a maximum contract. While he was in Las Vegas earlier this week, James met with Heat president Pat Riley, the architect of Miami’s back-to-back championship teams.
Riley made a final pitch, but he had nothing to match the overwhelming lure of home.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” James told SI.
“People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me.”
James’ exit ends an era in Miami, but it’s not the end for the Heat. Bosh agreed Friday to a five-year contract worth about $118 million, two people familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because neither the team nor Bosh had publicly announced the deal.
The Heat are negotiating with Wade, who learned of James’ departure on a flight to Miami late Thursday.
He may be gone, but part of James will forever be in Miami.
“I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB,” James told SI. “I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did! The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys.”
James was scorned for turning his back on Cleveland in 2010, announcing his decision on a poorly conceived TV special. His critics said he wasn’t good enough to win a championship by himself, and that he needed to surround himself with All-Stars.
James may never surpass Michael Jordan’s six titles, but his legacy could be bringing one to Cleveland, devoid of a championship in any sport since 1964.
“I’m not promising a championship,” he said. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic.”
He’s starting fresh with Gilbert, who famously wrote a blistering letter condemning James and calling him disloyal, narcissistic and cowardly.
At some point, the two worked out their differences.
“I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man,” James said. “We’ve talked it out.”
Gilbert, too, has moved on.
“I am excited for the fans and people of Cleveland and Ohio. No fans and people deserve a winner more than them,” Gilbert said on Twitter.
Like a kid who spent four years away at college, James is coming back home.
James comes back a different man, more mature for his encore. He grew up in Miami. He’s a proven champion, married with two sons and his wife, Savannah, has a daughter on the way. He wanted to raise them in his hometown.
James has “loyalty” tattooed on his body. Akron is everything to him, “there’s no better place to grow up.” Scarred by economic woes, the area needs his help, and James intends to make it a better place.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” he said. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge.
“I’m coming home.”
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Las Vegas contributed to this report.