The wait was exhausting and even excruciating in some ways for fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was also well worth it. LeBron James is returning home, and he is doing so to (hopefully) bring a championship to a city that hasn't had one in five decades.
It was a long road that brought James back to where his professional career began many years ago before he was even a thought in the minds of NBA personnel. The story of James signing with the Cavs for the second time didn't even begin following this past season. It's a tale that kicked off one year after he broke Cleveland's heart.
Here are 10 events that resulted in LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
10 The Apology
That James chose to leave the Cavs to join the Heat in the summer of 2010 was not, on its own, what infuriated so many who follow Cleveland professional sports. “The Decision” rubbed so many within northeast Ohio the wrong way because of how it was a backhand slap to both the city of Cleveland and to the Cavaliers.
Players leave the clubs that had drafted them every offseason. There are right and classy ways to do so, and James instead chose a different route. His admitting that “The Decision” was a mistake was the first step in what was ultimately a healing process that took four years to complete.
9 The Firings
After watching his team finish the 2013-14 NBA regular season with a disappointing 33-49 record, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert fired head coach Mike Brown for the second time in five offseasons. This move came roughly four months after Gilbert showed then general manager Chris Grant the door.
Whether or not James would have returned to Cleveland if Grant had remained in the front office of the Cavaliers will likely never be known. While James has, in the past, said positive things about Brown and the coach's time spent in Cleveland, it had been heavily rumored among knowledgeable NBA insiders that LeBron was not interested in once again playing under Brown.
8 The Lottery...AGAIN
Momentum for the return of King James to Cleveland began to truly swing in the favor of the Cavs when the club won the NBA Draft Lottery on May 20. It was the second year in a row and the third time since 2011 that the Cavaliers won the rights to the first overall pick of a draft.
The jury very much so remains out on certain members of the Cavs, most notably Anthony Bennett. Bennett did not impress in his rookie NBA season, and some have suggested that he could be moved in a potential trade for Kevin Love.
7 The Final Finals
The 2014 NBA Finals did not go LeBron's or Miami's way. James earned headlines following Game 1 of the series, and not for his stellar play. Severe leg cramps, possibly caused by the air conditioning system at the AT&T Center in San Antonio failing early on in the game, slowed James down in the second half, to the point that the superstar was sidelined for the final four minutes of the contest. This predictably resulted in James' toughness being questioned by analysts and fans alike.
Things wouldn't get much better for either James or the Heat. Following a Game 2 victory on the road, the Heat would suffer back-to-back home losses to the San Antonio Spurs, both of which were double-digit defeats.
Game 5 was arguably the biggest, not to mention the last, shame for the so-called “Big Three” of the Heat. San Antonio out-scored Miami 55-29 over quarters two and three of the game, and the Spurs would cruise to a 104-87 victory to close out the series and defeat the Heat for good.
James finished Game 5 and the series as a spectator sitting in a chair on the sideline. His dream of matching living legend Michael Jordan with a three-peat of his own had died a death, possibly forevermore.
6 The Call-Out
Heat team president Pat Riley was, like LeBron and those wearing Heat jerseys during the Finals, upset with how the season ended. He vented his frustrations when speaking with reporters, calling James and the other members of the “Big Three” out.
“This stuff is hard,” Riley explained. “And you’ve got to stay together if you got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.
“We’ll find out what we’re made of here. It’s not about options. It’s not about free agency.
“There’s just looking around the room now and finding out who’s going to stand up. This is time that you go home and take care of yourself and look at yourself and what are you going to do to come back and make the team better? Because we have a tremendous opportunity here for long-term success. But don’t think we’re not going to get beat again. So, just get a grip, everybody. That’s my message. That’s my message to the players.”
The belief, at the time after that press conference and in the days following July 4, was that Riley's words did not sit well with LBJ.
5 The Opt-Outs
James, as most insiders expected him to do, opted out of his Heat contract before the NBA Draft. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade soon did the same, leading some to believe that all three were going to restructure their deals so that they could remain in Miami for at least one additional season.
That, as we now know, was not to be. James was, from the very beginning, seeking for a max contract with eyes always on Cleveland first. Bosh, meanwhile, is on the verge of cashing in on a major deal with the Houston Rockets. Wade could have an intriguing decision to make over the next week or weeks:
Does he want one more massive contract, does he want to return home to Chicago and to the Bulls, or does he maybe want to try to win one more ring with James?
4 The NBA Draft
Rumors had swirled about in the days and weeks leading up to the draft that the Cavaliers had shopped around the first overall selection. The drama increased on draft night when Cleveland used every available second and then some before their pick was turned in.
Logic won out in the end, as Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas went first overall to the Cavs. Wiggins was the highest rated player on the majority of big boards released before the draft, and there had even been speculation that James fancied Wiggins over other potential draftees.
3 The First Rumors
Chris Broussard, who covers the NBA for ESPN, ended the July 4 holiday weekend with quite the splash when he reported on the night of July 6 (Sunday) that the Cavs were frontrunners to land James in free agency. That rumor only heated up when veteran NBA reporter Chris Sheridan claimed that he was “90 percent” sure James was returning to Cleveland. Sheridan took it one step further on the night of July 9, reporting via his website that LeBron to the Cavs was a done deal.
Hints had been dropped earlier that same day that Sheridan would be proven right. Cleveland had that morning agreed to a three-team trade that, most importantly for the Cavs, freed up the cap space necessary to give James the max contract desired by the player. That deal may have even been partially set up by LeBron's agent.
Meanwhile, James and Riley met in Las Vegas, where the player was holding a basketball camp, on the same day. The meeting reportedly lasted for about one hour, and little of note, other than the fact that James hadn't committed himself to any team, was said of that get-together.
2 The Crazy Rumors
July 10 was nothing short of crazy for Cleveland fans. The morning began with all kinds of rumors being dropped on local sports talk radio stations.
- James and his camp had managed to sneak into northeast Ohio by way of a private jet.
- Kevin Love had agreed to join the Cavs via trade upon learning that James had signed his new Cleveland contract.
- LeBron's children had been enrolled in Akron schools.
- The James camp was set to make an announcement at 3:30 pm. 330 is the area code for Akron, LeBron's home town. This led to local police and also fans heading to LBJ's Ohio home.
Then, silence. No news came at 4:00. Not 4:30. Not 5:00. Not: 6:00. Not 7:00. Not 8:00.
An interesting report, somewhat out of nowhere, hit Cleveland sports talk radio airwaves a little after 9:00 pm ET. The belief was that Riley had, during their meeting, managed to grab James' attention and keep him from putting pen to paper on a deal with the Cavs.
Panic hit the airwaves and hit the Cleveland Twitter sports world. Fans, jaded by “The Decision” and by the Browns leaving the city of Cleveland for Baltimore in the mid-90s and by the fact that the city hasn't seen a professional sports championship since 1964, began to expect and prepare for the worst; because it's all they've known for five decades.
The story went from intriguing to downright bizarre at 8:06 am on the morning of July 11. The previously mentioned Broussard reported that James was, four years after the fact, still hung up on the infamous letter penned by Gilbert immediately after “The Decision.”
Broussard was wrong.
1 The Return
July 11, 2014 at about 12:30 pm ET. An event that will live in the minds, memories and hearts of Cleveland sports fans for decades to come was announced through Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated.
LeBron was returning, and not just to the Cavs. James, the kid from Akron, was going home.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. 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. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
James continued: “I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. 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.
“I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”