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LeBron James exits Miami for Cleveland homecoming

Basketball superstar LeBron James during Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs in Miami on June 19, 2013
Basketball superstar LeBron James during Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs in Miami on June 19, 2013

NBA superstar LeBron James made an emotional return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, departing the Miami team where he became a world-famous champion to seek similar success with his hometown club.

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.

An image of Lebron James is displayed on a billboard in downtown Cleveland just hours after the basketball star announced his return to Cleveland on July 11, 2014
An image of Lebron James is displayed on a billboard in downtown Cleveland just hours after the basketball star announced his return to Cleveland on July 11, 2014

"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."

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.

By contrast, a wall painting in Miami depicting the entire Heat championship lineup had the face of James, the center figure of the mural, blackened out by vandals.

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.

Fans wearing Lebron James shirts gather at a bar in downtown Cleveland on July 11, 2014
Fans wearing Lebron James shirts gather at a bar in downtown Cleveland on July 11, 2014

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."

- 'Bigger than basketball' -

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."

New Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt pictured at a Euroleague Playoff match in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 24, 2013
New Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt pictured at a Euroleague Playoff match in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 24, 2013

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.

"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."

James said bidding goodbye to Wade and Bosh and their Miami legacy was difficult.

"I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that's exactly what we did," James said. "The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys."

Cleveland paved the way for James to return by opening salary cap space earlier this week in a three-team trade that sent veteran guard Jarrett Jack and guard Sergey Karasev to Brooklyn and forward Tyler Zeller to Boston.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert (L) pictured in Detroit, Michigan on May 21, 2014
Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert (L) pictured in Detroit, Michigan on May 21, 2014

James joins a young squad with new coach Dave Blatt, star guard Kyrie Irving and this year's top draft pick, guard Andrew Wiggins, that could be a contender for years to come.

"Excitement. Exhilaration and over-the-top happiness," Blatt said about bringing James on board. "He is the most versatile player in the world. He will help us determine what type of system we will play."

James becomes the central figure on the rising Cavaliers team that has owned the first overall pick in the draft three of the four years since he left.

"I see myself as a mentor now and I'm excited to lead some of these talented young guys," James said.

The wait for James to make his decision shut down most major free agency decisions in the league, and kept fans in Miami and Cleveland riveted to US sports television networks.

"I always believed that I'd return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn't know when," James said.

- Cleveland boost -

Not since the 1964 Cleveland Browns won the National Football League crown has the city known a major sports champion.

Employees of The Tilted Kilt hang a banner to welcome back LeBron James on July 11, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio
Employees of The Tilted Kilt hang a banner to welcome back LeBron James on July 11, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio

But the once-derided "Mistake on the Lake" on the southern shore of Lake Erie is making a comeback, named this week as the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention and already the new home of American football star rookie Johnny Manziel with the Browns.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who once called James a coward for leaving, tweeted: "My 8-year-old: "Daddy, does this mean I can finally wear my Lebron jersey, again?" ... Yes it does, son. Yes it does!"

James said he and Gilbert had made peace.

"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 guided the Cavaliers to their only NBA Finals in 2007, where they were swept by San Antonio.

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