NBA superstar LeBron James made an emotional return on Friday to the Cleveland Cavaliers, departing the Miami team where he became a world-famous champion to seek similar success with his hometown club.
Four years after leaving the Cavaliers to chase his first NBA title with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, an unapologetic James said he wanted to bring the long-suffering sports fans of his home region a championship.
James took a four-year deal worth US$88 million with Cleveland over a five-year Miami offer worth US$122 million and said that he intends to finish his career with the Cavaliers.
The dramatic move by the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player ended days of speculation about his free-agency choice, which had Cleveland fans in a frenzy of anticipation.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” James, who grew up in Akron just south of Cleveland, told Sports Illustrated in a first-person essay.
“I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home,” he wrote.
Celebrating in the streets of Cleveland, fans hailed “The Return of the King,” the same streets where James jerseys were burned in 2010 after he said he was ditching Cleveland for Miami.
By contrast, a mural in Miami depicting the entire Heat championship lineup had the face of James, the center figure of the mural, blackened out by disappointed fans.
The 29-year-old won NBA crowns with Miami in 2012 and last year, but lost in the 2011 finals, as well as to San Antonio in last month’s finals, after which he opted out of his Heat contract to consider other offers.
Thanks to NBA salary cap rules giving teams a financial edge in trying to retain talent, Miami offered better terms, but could not offer the prospect of going home.
James posted a photo of himself in a Cavaliers uniform on Instagram and Twitter with the phrase, “I’m coming home.”
James said he had followed his heart.
“I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy,” he said. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
Las Vegas Hotel and Casino Superbook oddsmakers quickly made the Cavaliers a 3-1 favorite to win next year’s NBA title, with Miami suddenly a 100-1 longshot.
However, James said: “I’m not promising a championship. 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. It will be a long process.”
James said bidding goodbye to Wade and Bosh and their Miami legacy was difficult.
“I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did,” James said. “The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys.”
Cleveland paved the way for James to return by opening salary cap space earlier this week in a three-team trade that sent veteran guard Jarrett Jack and guard Sergey Karasev to Brooklyn and forward Tyler Zeller to Boston.
James joins a young squad with new coach Dave Blatt, star guard Kyrie Irving and this year’s top draft pick, guard Andrew Wiggins, that could be a contender for years to come.
“Excitement. Exhilaration and over-the-top happiness,” Blatt said about bringing James on board. “He is the most versatile player in the world. He will help us determine what type of system we will play,” he added.