CLEVELAND (Reuters) - LeBron James is closing in on what would be the greatest feat of an already storied NBA career after putting his Cleveland Cavaliers in position to end a half century of heartbreak for the city.
Five years after he was vilified in Cleveland for leaving the team for Miami in pursuit of championships, James has the Cavaliers two wins away from an upset victory over the top-seeded Golden State Warriors in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
“It was a bitter moment when I left the first time, but it’s a sweet moment here now that I’m back,” James told reporters on Wednesday a day before the Cavaliers host a pivotal Game Four.
“Both sides had an opportunity to kind of miss each other, and they say if it’s worth having and it’s supposed to be there, then it will always come back.”
When James, who grew up in nearby Akron, Ohio, infamously announced in 2010 that he was leaving the Cavaliers after seven years to sign with the Miami Heat, a 10-story-tall mural of him was promptly removed.
The image of James, his arms outstretched and head thrown back after doing his pregame powder toss, had dominated the Northeastern Ohio city’s skyline for years.
His decision to bolt for sunny Miami resulted in an immediate backlash as James was cast as a villain in a city that had once revered him.
Cavaliers supporters immediately took to the streets after James announced his plans on primetime TV, many burning his replica No. 23 jersey and throwing rocks at the giant billboard.
And when James played his first game back in Cleveland as a member of the opposition, he was booed heartily throughout by a hostile crowd while he led his team to a blowout win.
But after winning two championships with Miami in four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, James felt a responsibility to be a leader, not just on the court but back in his home state.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James said last year in announcing his return to the Cavaliers. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
Fans immediately embraced him and a new image of him now hangs in the same place as the old one, this one showing James from behind, again extending his arms outward as a puff of white powder lingers in the air. “Cleveland” is boldly displayed on the back of his jersey.
James has carried a relative cast of unknowns throughout the playoffs after injuries to a pair of key team mates, throwing aside his usual desire to be the most efficient player for one who is playing outside the box with a win-at-all-costs style.
His dominance on the court has the Cavaliers on the cusp of a maiden championship and the city drooling over the prospect of celebrating its first title since the 1964 Cleveland Browns of the National Football League.
“I’m happy to be back. I know the fans are excited and exuberant about me being back,” James, an 11-time NBA All-Star, said after practice.
“Not only just about me, this team, putting this team back in the position where they can compete and have something to talk about from our side, the basketball side.
“And it’s been pretty cool so far.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes