ORLANDO, Fla. -- LeBron James is going home.
James, the four-time NBA MVP and top free agent on the market, shook up the league's landscape Friday by announcing in a first-person essay on Sports Illustrated's website, SI.com, that he's decided to return to his native state to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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After spending the past four seasons with the Miami Heat and winning two NBA titles, James explained his stunning decision. "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," James said on SI.com. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."
James, 29, was drafted No. 1 overall out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron by the Cavaliers in 2003 and spent his first seven NBA seasons in Cleveland. But the Akron native left in the summer of 2010, making his announcement on a much-hyped national television show that angered fans in Cleveland, some of whom burned his jersey.
"When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission," James said. "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."
James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to form "The Big Three." He helped guide the Heat to four consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals, winning two titles in the last three seasons. The Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs, 4-1, in their best-of-seven Finals series last month, dropping the final three games. James then opted out of his contract, which had two years and about $42.7 million remaining on the deal, late last month, sparking rampant speculation about his future.
The decision by James to return to Cleveland was the first major domino to fall in free agency. Carmelo Anthony, who opted out of his contract with the Knicks last month, is next up to make a decision. Bosh reportedly will stay in Miami, agreeing to a five-year, $118 million contract. Wade is also a free agent and could stay with the Heat.
James met with Heat president Pat Riley on Wednesday in Las Vegas. The meeting, however, did not change James' decision.
"While I am disappointed by LeBron's decision to leave Miami, no one can fault another person for wanting to return home," Riley said in a statement. "The last four years have been an incredible run for South Florida, Heat fans, our organization and for all of the players who were a part of it. LeBron is a fantastic leader, athlete, teammate and person, and we are all sorry to see him go."
James also told SI that he patched up his differences with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who ripped James in a scathing letter after his decision to leave for Miami in 2010. Gilbert criticized James for announcing his decision on national television, calling him "cowardly" for leaving.
"I've met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man," James told SI. "We've talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"
James now returns to a state happy to have him back and fans ready to embrace him again.
"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,'' James said on SI.com. "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."
The Cavaliers will attempt to bring championship-hungry Cleveland its first title since the Browns became NFL champs in 1964.
In the meantime, James isn't interested in any more hoopla.
"I'm not having a press conference or a party," James said on SI.com. "After this, it's time to get to work."