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Kid from Akron returns home a King

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - For LeBron James the reasoning was as simple as it was sublime, just a kid from Akron coming home.

But for the rest of the National Basketball Association, James's decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the city he famously jilted in favor of the Miami Heat four years earlier, was something far more earth-shaking.

The homecoming announced by the 10-time All-Star on Friday triggered a seismic shift in the basketball landscape with tremors that are likely to continue for some time.

"I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there," said James in a first-person essay published in Sports Illustrated on Friday. "I just didn’t know when.

"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.

"I’m coming home."

Heat fans are unlikely to take James's departure as personally as Cleveland did in 2010 when the four-time NBA most valuable player made a grating primetime announcement that he was taking his talents to South Beach.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Miami can look back happily on a mini-dynasty of four straight trips to the NBA finals that produced two titles.

In sunny South Beach, a favorite haunt of the rich and famous, the beat will go on, next in line soccer icon David Beckham and a Major League Soccer franchise on the way to fill the sports celebrity void.

For Cleveland, however, James's return is the unlikeliest of reconciliations after the ugliest of sporting divorces, a reunion that will re-energize a rust belt city still recovering from a painful recession.

Four years ago Cleveland fans were united in despising the player they once lavished with love.

James's jerseys that were not burned or shipped off to Miami as gifts for the homeless were simply left forgotten in closets as Cleveland turned its back on the hometown prodigy who grew up in nearby Akron and betrayed them.

In an open letter to fans, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert blasted James as a narcissist and deserter, saying Cleveland would win an NBA championship before “the self-titled former ‘king’ wins one”.

The comments earned Gilbert a sharp reprimand and a $100,000 fine from then-NBA commissioner David Stern but the Cavaliers owner refused until recently to back away from his comments.

When it became evident that James was considering a return to Cleveland, Gilbert this week removed a link to the rant he wrote.

On Friday, all was forgiveness.

"Welcome Home @kingjames," tweeted Gilbert. "I am excited for the fans and people of Cleveland and Ohio. No fans and people deserve a winner more than them.....

"My 8-year-old: "Daddy, does this mean I can finally wear my Lebron jersey, again?"...Yes it does, son. Yes it does!"

TITLES MISSING

Taken with the number one overall pick in the 2003 draft, James spent the first seven years of his NBA career in Cleveland carrying the Cavaliers to the 2007 league finals.

But the championship Cleveland coveted remained out reach and James left for Miami still seeking a first title.

No Cleveland team has won a major professional league title in 50 years since the 1964 Browns won the National Football League crown and James returns with one goal in mind.

"When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two," said James. "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."

The James who returns to the Cavaliers is far different, far more mature and introspective than the self-absorbed young man who left in 2010.

When James chose Miami over Cleveland he was chastised for callously toying with fans by announcing on a TV special entitled "The Decision" that he was "taking my talents to South Beach".

This time, in stark contrast, James's decision was low key and humble delivered in thoughtful essay devoid of pizzazz.

Titles remain a driving force in James's life but he made it clear his return to Cleveland was about more than giving the city a championship parade.

"I feel my calling here goes above basketball," said James, now 29. "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."

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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