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LeBron James returning to Cleveland, where he has unfinished business

By Jason Hanna, CNN
July 12, 2014 -- Updated 0357 GMT (1157 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James: "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball"
  • Four-time league MVP returning to Cavaliers after four years with Heat
  • James says he "talked it out" with Cavs owner who ripped him in 2010
  • James: "My goal is still to win as many titles as possible"

(CNN) -- Forget the burned jerseys. Never mind The Letter. LeBron James won titles in Miami but his heart was in Cleveland, and he's ready to go home.

James told Sports Illustrated for an essay published Friday that he'll leave the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers -- a sensational return to his home region that he devastated when he left via free agency in 2010.

"I always believed that I'd return to Cleveland and finish my career there," the four-time NBA MVP said in a piece he wrote with SI's Lee Jenkins. "I just didn't know when."

"I looked at other teams," the 29-year-old wrote, "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."

Basketball superstar LeBron James, one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, announced Friday, July 11, that he would be returning to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Click through the gallery to see James' career to this point. Basketball superstar LeBron James, one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, announced Friday, July 11, that he would be returning to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Click through the gallery to see James' career to this point.
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No terms were released, and the Cavs said no contract had been signed as of early Friday afternoon. When James will sign the contract has yet to be determined, Cavaliers Senior Vice President Tad Carper said.

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Numerous reports say that the maximum salary in the first year of a contract for an 11-year NBA veteran, like James, is $20.64 million, though there are exceptions.

His move marks the end of a four-year partnership with stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami -- a run that saw James get his first two NBA titles.

But the return to the Cavaliers, which drafted James in 2003, allows the prodigal son and his native community to reconnect after a separation that shook both. The lakeside city that is long starved for a professional sports championship embraced him Friday.

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Fans drove past his Cleveland-area home and honked horns after the news spread. Patrons at a restaurant gushed when a reporter asked what they thought of the move.

"LBJ's coming home! Can't wait! Championship!" a man told CNN affiliate WEWS.

"Cleveland fans are trying to figure out how to unburn their LeBron jerseys," Twitter user nic_johnston44 wrote.

Pat Riley, the Heat president who lured James away in 2010, said Friday that although he was disappointed, "no one can fault another person for wanting to return home."

"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," Riley said.

What about The Letter? "We've talked it out"

In 2010, James and marquee free agent Bosh left their teams to join Wade in Miami -- with James, looking for NBA championships, famously announcing his move in an ESPN special called "The Decision."

After reaching four straight NBA finals with Miami, James exercised his contract option this summer to become a free agent two years early.

James was a Cleveland hero, growing up some 45 miles away in Akron and starring seven years with the Cavs. But his 2010 departure -- and the way he did it, telling ESPN that he was "taking my talents to South Beach" -- rankled the people of Cleveland, with fans burning James jerseys and stomping on his likeness.

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If those fans torched the figurative bridge, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert vaporized it with a scathing letter blasting James' "cowardly betrayal" and, in a forecast that didn't quite pan out, promising that the Cavs would win an NBA title "before the self-titled former 'king' wins one."

How could James return to the team after that?

"I've met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We've talked it out," the Sports Illustrated story reads. "Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?

He also addressed Cleveland fans' negative reaction to his Miami move.

"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," he wrote. "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?"

Twitter reacts

So he felt OK to return to Cleveland, where he feels he has unfinished business. In his first Cavs stint, he won two league MVP awards and went to the NBA finals once, but won no ring.

The interest was mutual, and the Cavaliers made their intentions known when they shipped off Jarrett Jack, Sergey Karasev, Tyler Zeller and a future first-round draft pick to clear the salary cap space necessary to sign James.

James joins a Cavaliers team that has struggled, making no playoffs and picking first three times in the NBA draft since James' departure. Those picks were two-time All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, UNLV's Anthony Bennett and University of Kansas phenom Andrew Wiggins, all currently in Cleveland's possession.

James: Miami was "almost like college"

In the SI piece, James said he'd still have left for Miami if he had to do it all over again. It could be described as the college experience that he never had.

"Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids," James, who went pro straight out of high school, said in Sports Illustrated. "These past four years helped raise me into who I am."

His ties to his home, he said, pulled him back.

"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

Bringing trophy to Cleveland "most important"

James' Instagram account Friday had a photo, showing him in a Cavaliers jersey, said: "I'm coming home."

In the SI piece, James wrote that his "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," he wrote.

"I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver," James added. "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."

White House takes notice

The news generated intense interest as soon as it broke, around 12:30 p.m. ET Friday. Three of the top 10 trending terms on Twitter were almost instantly related to James.

It even came up in the daily press briefing at the White House. When asked, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he didn't know if noted NBA fan President Obama had a reaction to James' move.

But Earnest added: "The fact that he has made this decision is a testament to the kinds of values that he has incorporated into his life and he says that he is interested in instilling in his children."

"I think it is a pretty powerful statement about the value of a place that you consider home," Earnest said.

Professional athletes weighed in. From Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on Twitter: "Congrats to my man @KingJames on Cleveland! Too bad we don't have the #Sonics #NoPlaceLikeHome."

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said on Twitter: "I'm happy Lebron is going to CLE....not that he owes anyone anything but he means more to that city than anywhere else in the world! Iconic."

CNN's Michael Pearson, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Jason Durand and Jill Martin contributed to this report.

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