LAS VEGAS — Four years after he left Cleveland for Miami in pursuit of the NBA championships that had eluded him, LeBron James is returning home.
At age 29 and with two NBA titles in his possession, James decided Friday to rejoin the Cavaliers, for whom he played in the first seven seasons of his storied professional career.
Vilified in Northeast Ohio when he decided to leave for the Heat and mocked by the Cavaliers’ owner, James is likely to find all is forgiven, and more, as he embarks on an effort to bring a championship to a city that has not celebrated one in any major sport in 50 years and that, in recent weeks and days, was almost comically looking for any clue to divine what James might be thinking.
In the end, everyone found out together when James, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, and is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of his generation, made the announcement through Sports Illustrated’s website.
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“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,’’ the four-time league most valuable player said at one point in the statement. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
In the statement, which he prepared with sportswriter Lee Jenkins, James compared his time in Miami with going to college — an experience he never had after jumping straight to the NBA from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. But now, he wrote, he felt prepared to return and take a responsibility to be a leader, not just on the court but in his home state.
It was all in stark contrast to the way he announced his departure in 2010 — in a televised special on ESPN, called “The Decision,” that struck many viewers as self-serving, particularly when James stated he was going to “take my talents to South Beach.’’
And a day later, when he was elaborately welcomed in Miami, he boastfully spoke of how many titles the Heat would win, saying: “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …’’
This time, James was far more modest and circumspect.
James’ departure from Cleveland in 2010 left deep psychic wounds on the city. On the night of his televised decision, fans burned replicas of his jersey and tossed memorabilia in dumpsters.
Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner, 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 the Cavaliers would win a championship before James ever did.
Gilbert was incorrect. But 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 told Yahoo Sports. “I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back.”
James, meanwhile, told Gilbert he also had made mistakes; he wished he hadn’t done “The Decision” on ESPN.
On Twitter on Friday, Gilbert essentially opened his arms to James and said no city was more deserving of a winner than Cleveland. Gilbert also wrote that his 8-year-old son had asked if this meant he could wear his LeBron jersey again. “Yes it does!” Gilbert wrote.
In James’ four-year absence, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst franchises, compiling a 97-215 record without making a playoff appearance. But the team has a young, talented core led by Kyrie Irving, a 22-year-old point guard who recently signed a long-term extension.
In his statement, James said, “I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league.”
James’ decision to return to Cleveland — where he is likely to be paid $88 million in a maximum four-year deal — came after a long run of rumors and speculation in which every little detail or oddity became a clue.
In leaving Miami, and the Heat, James is ending a remarkable four-year partnership with Pat Riley, the Heat’s president, and with teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It was Riley who figured how to team up the three players and fit them within the league-imposed salary cap.
Once he did, it all quickly came together. The Heat went to the NBA Finals for four straight seasons and won the championship in 2012 and 2013.
Along the way, James emerged as the league’s most unstoppable force, with an almost superhuman blend of speed, strength, skill and savvy.
But the past season concluded in sobering fashion for James, with the Heat being swatted aside by the San Antonio Spurs in a best-of-seven NBA Finals that lasted a mere five games and exposed the Heat’s lack of depth. The series also made it clear Wade, at 32, was 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. It did not necessarily mean he was leaving the Heat — he could always re-sign — but it seemed apparent he wanted to see what sort of moves Riley was capable of making to reshape the roster.
Other teams, meanwhile, got busy clearing financial space so they could potentially sign James and accommodate his salary. He delegated his agent, Rich Paul, to meet with officials from the Cavaliers, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I looked at other teams,” James said in his statement, “but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland.”