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. Home. Four years after he left the Cavaliers for the Heat, 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 and try to end Cleveland's half-century title drought. A native of nearby Akron, he is returning to his basketball roots, to the people who know him best, to make good on a promise. James made the announcement Friday in a first-person piece for Sports Illustrated. His decision ended two weeks of speculation, with the entire league waiting on his move. When he 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. "The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy."
James had not signed a contract — he is likely to get $88 million in a maximum four-year deal — but he made it clear he will wear a Cavaliers jersey next season. "My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question," he said. "But what's most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."
For Cleveland, accustomed to sports heartache as the Cavaliers, Browns and recent Indians teams have come close but failed to win it all, news of James' return triggered a spontaneous downtown celebration during lunch hours. Car horns blared, and strangers high-fived on the sidewalks outside Quicken Loans Arena.
Four years ago, some fans burned his jersey. On July 11, 2014, all was forgiven. The Cavaliers told ESPN they were all but sold out of season tickets, at 12,000-plus, by Friday night.
"Just bring us a championship," said deli owner Lynn Taylor, 51, who called James a drama queen for the way he left in 2010 but said she'll take him back.
James announced his 2010 departure to Miami in an ESPN special called The Decision that struck many viewers as self-serving, particularly when James stated that he was going to "take my talents to South Beach." A day later he was elaborately welcomed in Miami and boastfully spoke of how many titles the Heat would proceed to win: "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …"
This time, James, 29, was far more modest and circumspect: "I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process."
Staying in Miami would have been easy. The four-time MVP could have made another run at a third title and a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance with close friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the other members of a "Big 3" who have been the Heat's core since their arrival in 2010.
Still, last season concluded in sobering fashion for James. The Heat was swatted aside by the Spurs in an NBA Finals that lasted only five games and exposed the Heat's lack of depth. The series also made it clear that Wade, at 32, is a diminished player on chronically aching legs.
In the wake of the defeat, James opted out of his contract so he could explore free agency.
The Cavaliers were considered a long shot when free agency opened. But as the days went by, they emerged as the leader, especially after clearing salary-cap space to offer James a maximum contract. While he was in Las Vegas this week, James met with Heat president Pat Riley, who made a final pitch.
"While I am disappointed by LeBron's decision to leave Miami, no one can fault another person for wanting to return home," Riley said in a statement.
James' departure from Cleveland in 2010 left deep psychic wounds on the city. Owner Dan Gilbert posted a vitriolic letter to the city on the team's website in which he referred to James as "our former hero" and described his move to Miami as a "cowardly betrayal." Gilbert also pledged that the Cavaliers would win a championship before James did.
The letter remained online until early this week, when it was removed. By then, James had secretly met with Gilbert in Miami to clear the air and allow Gilbert to make amends.
"We had five great years together and one terrible night," Gilbert said he told James, in discussing the meeting with Yahoo Sports. "I told him how sorry I was … and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away.
"I'm grateful that we all get another chance together now."