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SI Exclusive: Closer look at LeBron James's return to Cleveland

In an SI exclusive, Lee Jenkins takes a closer look at LeBron James's return to Cleveland.

This story appears in the July 21, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Fifty-eight stories above the Las Vegas Strip, LeBron James sat on a beige sofa in his suite at the Wynn hotel, summer haze obscuring the floor-to-ceiling view of the Spring Mountains in the distance. Between bites of scrambled eggs and sips of carrot juice, James unspooled what sounded like a modern fairy tale. A boy grows up in a hard-bitten Rust Belt town, shuttling from one apartment to another with his single mother; he meets teachers, coaches and friends who help him become the most prominent basketball prodigy of all time; he is drafted by the pro team that plays 45 minutes away, elevates it to heights unseen and then abruptly bolts for a tropical paradise in a manner that devastates his supporters and wracks his soul. Four years pass, and he finds in paradise exactly what he sought, validation in the form of two championships, but home still pulls at his heart. He starts to recognize that, despite all his success, he means more where he was than where he is.

So he leaves the celebrated executive who lured him with his rings, the innovative coach who highlighted him with his system and the bedazzled supporting cast that reached four straight Finals and was a safe bet for a fifth. He trades all that, plus the mansion in Coconut Grove and the 70º January nights, for a rookie general manager, a coach who has been in the NBA for less than a month and a roster that has just one player of significance older than 23. He doesn’t take recruiting trips. He doesn’t personally listen to pitches. The only negotiation unfolds within. He makes the sentimental choice, not the pragmatic one, and that doesn’t happen much in pro sports these days. He risks championships, the ultimate currency for the megastar athlete, but he returns to the Rust Belt secure in the realization that a trophy resonates deeper at home.

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“I don’t know if it’s a fairy tale,” James says. “But I hope it ends the way most of them end.” Dressed in a black stocking cap, blue tank and shorts, he looks so different from the way he did at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010, when his gingham dress shirt might as well have been a straitjacket. “Way more at ease,” he says. Fifty-eight stories down, a media armada tracks flight patterns, moving vans and entrée choices at LAVO. Is he 60% to Cleveland and 40% to Miami? Or the other way around? Did he meet with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert or not? Did he confide in Heat guard Dwyane Wade over dinner or not? Caroline’s Cupcakes, apparently an emerging news source in Canton, Ohio, reports he is headed to the Cavs. NBA free agency grinds to a standstill, an entire league waiting on its King, as if anticipating a plume of white smoke from the Wynn.

James is 29 now, a husband and a father, with two boys, and a girl on the way. He is at that age when a man -- whether doctor or plumber or best basketball player in the world -- decides to keep drifting or drop anchor. He insists he had no plan when he walked off the court in San Antonio, shell-shocked after the Game 5 loss to the Spurs, but over these past four years he left a heavy trail of bread crumbs leading back to Northeast Ohio. There were the tweets about how much he missed Cleveland fans and how Cavaliers broadcasters made games more fun. There were the wistful sound bites (“You talk about chemistry, we had chemistry”) and the regretful ones: “I could only imagine how the parade would have been down East 9th Street. It’s just unfortunate I wasn’t able to do it there.”

He never stopped calling Ohio “home,” never moved his corporate headquarters out of the Akron suburbs and never replaced the city’s skyline on his website. Two days after he won the 2013 title, he talked about seeing James Blair at a club the night before. Blair was the 21-year-old who charged up to him on the court in Cleveland during a game in March ’13, wearing a shirt that read "We miss you" and "2014 come back." Instead of recoiling, James patted him on the head and followed him on Twitter. “That’s my guy,” he said. He couldn’t cut the cord.

When Miami played at Minnesota last December, the Heat watched the end of the Big Ten championship football game in their locker room, and James rooted hard for his beloved Buckeyes. He shook his head in mock anger when asked why most of his teammates cheered for Michigan State instead. He sported a Johnny Manziel Browns jersey after the NFL draft, followed the Cavaliers from afar and occasionally called players to check in. “The King returns?” Cavs forward Tristan Thompson asked, 2½ years ago. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Of course, James was hurt by Gilbert’s Comic Sans screed and by the fans’ barbecued jerseys, but he also recognized the blurry line separating love and hate. James and Cleveland were the couple that couldn’t be together yet couldn’t stay apart. On July 6, James met with Gilbert in Miami, James apologizing for the Decision and Gilbert for the Letter. Last Friday, shortly after James told Heat president Pat Riley of his choice, SI.com posted his first-person account. It closed with the lines: “I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.” The words were a verbal fist bump to the area that molded him and defined him.

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The Cavs were in the middle of a shootaround at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas for summer league. Players heard a single shriek emanate from the stands. Multiply that joyous cry by a few hundred thousand and you’d approximate what it sounded like in Northeast Ohio.

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Twenty-three-year-old Melanie Muñoz was driving on Interstate 90 from Toledo and wept as she read her phone. “I know it was unsafe,” Muñoz says. “I don’t care.” Fifty-year-old Vicky Lewis was working at a McDonald’s in East Cleveland and interrupted the lunch crowd with an announcement: “He’s back! The King is back!” Thirty-eight-year-old Chad Zumock called an ex-girlfriend from Cleveland he broke up with around the time James left. “We talked for 45 minutes,” he says. “It was really nice.” Thousands of cars crept along the street outside James’s house in Bath, turning it into a Midwestern Sunset Strip. “They mainly just took pictures,” says Dave Ellinger, an off-duty detective working security at the home. “They want to remember this.” The Cavaliers needed so many extra phone lines for ticket sales that they instructed staffers to use their cells. Season tickets were gone in 10 hours.