Erik Matuszewski (c) 2014, Bloomberg News
NEW YORK — LeBron James is returning to Cleveland, where fans burned jerseys after his 2010 exit and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert called the Akron, Ohio, native’s signing with the Miami Heat a “cowardly betrayal.”
James made the announcement Friday in a bylined article on SI.com. He said there would be no press conference or party.
After a four-year stretch in which James led the Heat to four straight appearances in the National Basketball Association Finals and won two titles, James has agreed to rejoin the rebuilding Cavaliers and try to bring a championship to his home state. He had opted out of the final two years of his contract with the Heat to become a free agent.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James said in the article. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
James’s return to Cleveland, where he’ll team with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and this year’s No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins, immediately transforms the Cavaliers into title contenders after four straight losing seasons. It’s been 50 years since the National Football League’s Browns brought the city of Cleveland its last championship in one of the four major professional U.S. sports leagues.
The NBA lifted its moratorium on transactions Friday, allowing players to officially sign contracts and teams to make trades. James, 29, could have received a contract from Miami that would have paid him about $129 million over five seasons.
James grew up about 40 miles south of Cleveland in Akron, and spent his first seven seasons with the Cavaliers — leading the team to the NBA Finals in 2007 and two 60-win seasons — before leaving for Miami. In an hour-long special televised by ESPN called the “Decision,” James announced his decision to join the Heat by saying he would “take his talents to South Beach.”
Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., wrote an open letter to Cavaliers fans that James’ decision was a “cowardly betrayal” that ended a “narcissistic, self- promotional” buildup to a spectacle that the sports world has never before seen. Gilbert was fined $100,000 by the NBA, yet former commissioner David Stern also said at the time that he understood Gilbert’s remarks were prompted by the hurt that James’s “ill-conceived” decision caused to the Cavaliers, their fans and the city of Cleveland. Some fans were shown on television burning their James jerseys.
James was widely criticized for the public nature of his announcement and later said he should have handled the situation differently.
In addition to his criticism of James, Gilbert had written that the Cavaliers would win an NBA championship before the “self-titled former ‘King’ wins one.” While the Heat had a 224-88 record during James’s four-year tenure and won NBA titles in 2012 and 2013, the Cavaliers went 97-215 and finished in last place in their division three times.
In his article, James said his emotions were mixed about returning after Gilbert’s letter and the anger of Cleveland fans. He said he met with Gilbert and talked out their differences.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” James wrote. “I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
The Cavaliers had the first pick in the NBA draft three times in the past four years, however, including this year’s selection of Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 forward from the University of Kansas. Irving, the first pick in the 2011 draft, on July 1 agreed to an extension that keeps him under contract with Cleveland for the next six seasons.
“I’m not promising a championship,” James wrote. “We’re not ready for that right now. No way.”
He said he was prepared to mentor Irving and help him “become one of the best point guards in the league” and improve the play of Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters.
Cleveland last month hired David Blatt as coach after firing Mike Brown, James’ previous coach, for a second time. Blatt, a 55-year-old Boston native who played point guard at Princeton University, is taking over an NBA team for the first time after coaching in Israel, Greece, Russia and Turkey.
James’ exit from Miami leaves the franchise in an uncertain position. Shortly after the Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs in this year’s NBA Finals, James opted out of the remaining years of his contract to become a free agent, as did Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The other two members of Miami’s “Big Three” have yet to make decisions on their future.
“I am shocked and disappointed in today’s news,” Heat owner Micky Arison said on Twitter. “However, I will never forget what LeBron brought us for 4 years. Thanks for memories.”
Online sportsbooks initially listed James’ odds of re- signing with the Heat at 1-6. The Cavaliers had the second-best odds of bringing James back, at 5-1.
James’s return brings two of professional sports’ most high profile players to Cleveland, which has the 19th biggest media market in the U.S., according to Nielsen Media Research.
The NFL’s Browns earlier this year drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel, who’s nicknamed “Johnny Football” and won the 2012 Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player. Manziel is backed by James’s marketing team and, like James, has endorsement deals with companies such as Nike Inc., the world’s biggest sporting goods maker, and McDonald’s Corp., the world’s largest restaurant chain.
A 10-time All-Star, James has averaged 27.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists over his 11-year NBA career.