But on Friday, in a column for Sports Illustrated, a much more subdued James told those he once had spurned, “I’m coming home.”
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” James wrote in yet another anxiously anticipated, dramatic announcement of where he’ll take his talents, which most agree are the greatest on the planet. “People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son.”
Unlike what many saw as a preening, self-absorbed production four years ago in a suspense-enhancing ESPN special, James's announcement that he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers next season was in personal, wistful terms – just short of an apology.
“It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart,” wrote the global superstar, who is often called “King James.” “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
James spent the first seven years of his career with the Cavs, who picked the home-grown basketball star straight out of high school, choosing him first overall in the 2003 NBA Draft. In 2007, James led Cleveland to its first NBA Finals appearance – though his team was swept in four by the San Antonio Spurs, the same team that took apart his Miami Heat in this year’s Finals.
As a Cavalier, James became the youngest player to win the All-Star Game MVP in 2006, and he also won two league MVPs with the team, in 2009 and 2010.
But frustrated with early exits from the playoffs after 2007, James left his hometown in a quest for championship rings, joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a “Big Three” for the Miami Heat.
In another slickly produced and raucous introduction in Miami, James infamously boasted that the team would win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships, suggesting even more. His reputation suffered after such a flip display from a player who had yet to hoist a trophy.
Still, the “Big Three” did indeed lead the Miami Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances, winning championships in 2012 and 2013.
But after winning “only” two rings in Miami, James, now in the prime of his career just shy of turning 30, is returning to a city that hasn’t had a championship team in any major sport for 50 years.
“I’m not promising a championship,” James wrote in his subdued Friday announcement. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now.... I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. 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.”
The National Basketball Association has been in a virtual standstill during what should be a busy time of year for signing contracts, but front offices and players have been waiting to see what James would decide. The coveted superstar’s agent, Rich Paul, had been entertaining offers from the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Lakers. On Wednesday, James also met with Heat president Pat Riley to discuss returning to Miami.
Many had speculated that James would again join forces with other superstars now entertaining contract offers, including Bosh, Wade, and the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony.
But James sounded almost sentimental as he explained the reasons for his second free-agent decision, joining a young and unproven team in Cleveland, which has had one of the NBA’s worst records since he left, going 97-215 without a playoff appearance. The Cavs feature Kyrie Irving, a talented young point guard, and Andrew Wiggins, the University of Kansas star that the team picked first overall in the NBA Draft last month.
“But this is not about the roster or the organization,” James wrote on Friday. “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.”
“I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up,” he continued. “Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”