"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," James told SI.com in a first-person essay. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."
For James, it marks a complete turnaround from his original free-agent decision in 2010, when he bolted Cleveland for the Miami Heat, creating a "Big Three" with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that went on to win two NBA titles in their four years together.
"The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys," James said. "I've talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished."
The Heat were in the mix for James again this time around. Team president Pat Riley traveled to Las Vegas to meet James on Wednesday in an attempt to lure him back to Miami after the All-Star opted out of his contract following the team's NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
But James said no to Riley and the Heat, instead choosing a Cleveland team that picked him No. 1 overall in the 2003 draft out of St. Vincent-St. Mary, where he starred as a high-school player in his native Akron, Ohio.
In the days leading up to LeBron's decision, much was made of the infamous letter Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert issued in the wake of James' departure in 2010, calling James a "coward" for leaving.
"I've met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We've talked it out," James said. "Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"
James spent seven seasons with the Cavaliers, averaging 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists and leading them in 2007 to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Spurs. The goal for him now will be to get there again with a Cleveland team that boasts All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and former Kansas star Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in last month's NBA draft.
James wrote an essay to Sports Illustrated (as told to Lee Jenkins):
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.
Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, This is really tough. I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.
I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio. I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did! The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys. I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished. We are brothers for life. I also want to thank Micky Arison and Pat Riley for giving me an amazing four years.
I’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted. I don’t want anyone thinking: He and Erik Spoelstra didn’t get along. … He and Riles didn’t get along. … The Heat couldn’t put the right team together. That’s absolutely not true.
I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.
When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.
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.
To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough. The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned -- seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, “OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.” But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?
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, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. 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. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.
But this is not about the roster or the organization. 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. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. 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. 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.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.