By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; D01
The most highly anticipated and celebrated free agent decision in NBA history finally was resolved Thursday when LeBron James ended nearly two years of speculation by choosing to sign with the Miami Heat. Seated in a chair and flanked by dozens of children, James made his announcement at a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., during an hour-long primetime special on ESPN.
James, a native of Akron, Ohio, ended a failed seven-year quest to deliver a championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers by declaring his intentions to form a super team with friends and former Olympic teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
"I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat," said James, the two-time reigning league's most valuable player, as the Heat completed one the greatest free agent coups by collecting the three best players on the market.
Bosh and Wade, a former NBA Finals MVP, had both already declared their plans to sign with Miami. But the acquisition of James, the crown jewel of this heralded class, solidifies the Heat as a league powerhouse for years to come and possibly fulfills team President Pat Riley's plans to establish a dynasty in South Florida.
"Winning is a huge thing for me," James said of his commitment. "The major reason in my decision was the best opportunity for me to win, to win now and in the future also. I've done some great things in my seven years and I want to continue to do that."
James, who arrived in Cleveland as the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, fulfilled much of the promise that surrounded his heralded arrival by making six all-star teams and leading the Cavaliers to their only NBA Finals appearance in 2007.
But they came up short in winning a title the past two seasons, despite posting the league's best regular season record and one of the highest payrolls. The Cavaliers were eliminated by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in the second round this season, with James having a regrettable, forgettable performance in a critical Game 5, which will now serve as his final home game in that uniform.
James met with six teams in the first three days of the free agent negotiating period -- New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Miami, the Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland. Leading up to the unprecedented telecast, rumors had been swirling about James departing the only NBA franchise that he had called home.
He said he came to his decision to leave Cleveland on Thursday morning after having a discussion with his mother, Gloria. "I went day-to-day, I woke up one morning and it's one team, I woke up another and it's that team," James said. "This morning, I woke up, had a great conversation with my mom, and once I had that conversation with her I was set."
James's decision to leave became the latest letdown for a city that knows despair, having experienced several major disappointments. But it also has far reaching ramifications for the franchise, which built a multi-million dollar facility near James's home in Bath Township and made every move imaginable to assemble a championship team. Some fans in Cleveland burned his garnet and yellow No. 23 jersey in effigy.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a scathing letter to fans on the team's Web site, calling James's televised announcement a "cowardly betrayal" and "a narcissistic, self-promotional build up." Gilbert promised that the Cavaliers would have success without James, claiming that he took the "curse with him down South."
"I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE," Gilbert declared. "You can take it to the bank."
When asked about the difficulty of leaving Ohio behind, James said: "I never wanted to leave Cleveland. My heart will always be around that area. I felt it was time to move on. It's not about leaving Cleveland."
Wizards Coach Flip Saunders, a native of suburban Cleveland, said he was more disappointed for his home town than for his team having to face the Heat four times as a Southeast Division opponent. "We're going to have to face them no matter what. What happens is, two teams, Cleveland and Toronto, they lost players," Saunders said. "Cleveland was the No. 1 player in the East, they are not going to be as good without him. Miami has been a playoff team, they got stronger. Having been from Cleveland, and everything that we've gone through, you'd like to see your home town do well and so I'm disappointed from that standpoint."
James made a huge financial sacrifice to leave Cleveland, with the Cavaliers capable of signing him to a maximum six-year contract for about $125 million. He would have to settle for less money to join forces with Wade and Bosh, with all three forced to take slightly less than the maximum allowed in order to play together. If James signed a five-year deal with Miami, he could actually make more money than a similar deal with the Cavaliers because there is no state income tax in Florida.
"I can't say it was always in my plans, because I never thought it was possible," James said. "I easily could have taken the money. It wasn't about the money. It was about uniting with two guys, uniting with a franchise that I believe we can compete for not one year, but like I said, for these five years and maybe so on after that. So it had nothing to do with money."
"A team and a championship team is not built on just three guys or just one superstar," James said. "It's built on the whole organization and everybody having the same goal and the same goal in mind."