NBA superstar LeBron James made an emotional return Friday to the Cleveland Cavaliers, departing the Miami team in the hopes of bringing his hometown the same success he helped his Florida club achieve.
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 $88 million with Cleveland over a five-year Miami offer worth $122 million and intends to finish his glittering career at 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 just south of Cleveland, in Akron, told Sports Illustrated in a first-person essay.
"I'm ready to accept the challenge. I'm coming home."
Miami can look back happily on a mini-dynasty of four straight trips to the NBA finals that produced two titles.
In sunny South Beach, a favorite haunt of the rich and famous, the beat will go on, with soccer icon David Beckham and a Major League Soccer franchise on the way to fill the sports celebrity void.
For Cleveland, however, James's return is the unlikeliest of reconciliations after the ugliest of sporting divorces, a reunion that will re-energize a rust belt city still recovering from a painful recession.
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 announced he was ditching Cleveland for Miami.
In an open letter to fans, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert then blasted James as a narcissist and deserter, saying Cleveland would win an NBA championship before "the self-titled former 'king' wins one".
The 29-year-old won NBA crowns with Miami in 2012 and 2013, but lost in the 2011 finals, as well as to San Antonio in last month's finals, after which James 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 posting 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 the 2015 NBA title, with Miami suddenly a 100-1 longshot.
But James warned: "I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver."
Not since the 1964 Cleveland Browns won the National Football League crown has the city known a major sports champion.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, Reuters)
Date created : 2014-07-12