(Reuters) - Five years ago, Cleveland Cavalier fans were burning their LeBron James souvenir jerseys after he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.
Now King James, the greatest basketball player of his generation, is hailed for his renewed quest to lead the Cavs to an NBA championship that would end a 51-year title drought for major professional teams in Cleveland.
James deserted Cleveland in July 2010 as a free agent to join the Miami Heat and forge a ‘Big Three’ with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They went to four successive NBA Finals and won two of them.
Last July, the Akron, Ohio native announced a return to Cleveland.
“My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question,” he wrote in an essay in Sports Illustrated that proclaimed his decision. “But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
Cleveland fans have not celebrated a trophy from one of their professional sports teams since the 1964 Cleveland Browns and legendary running back Jim Brown steamrolled the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the days before the Super Bowl.
James, winner of four NBA Most Valuable Player awards, is a unique force — a muscular 6-foot-8 player able to dominate as a scorer, as a playmaker and as a defender, with the ability to shift focus as strategy dictates.
His impact is undeniable.
The season before he left the Cavs, after carrying them to their only NBA Final in 2007, the team was 61-21.
In his four seasons away, Cleveland compiled a record of 97-205. Once back, James led them to a 53-29 mark this season and now four wins away from that elusive title.
James joined guard Kyrie Irving and Cleveland traded for power forward Kevin Love to form a ‘Big Three’ of their own.
But Love has been sidelined by a shoulder injury and Irving has been hobbled by tendinitis in his left knee, leaving the Cavs as underdogs to the Golden State Warriors and putting an even greater burden on James.
James, however, has embraced the challenge and taken his leadership to new levels, coaxing best efforts from team mates and taking tactical charge on the floor even if it goes against what rookie NBA coach David Blatt has drawn up.
After Blatt called for James to inbound the ball for a last second shot in the playoffs against the Bulls, the King interceded.
“Give me the ball and get out of the way,” said James, who hit a jumper from the corner at the buzzer for an 86-84 Cavaliers win.
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes