CLEVELAND – LeBron James returns older, more mature. He's got a little less hair, and a ton more experience.
Like anyone, he changed in four years.
The NBA's biggest star left four summers ago on poor terms, despised by fans who burned his jersey and scorned by an owner who felt betrayed. Cast as a villain, James was on a mission to win an NBA title — "not just one, not two, not three ... " — in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and he got two rings.
James has come back home to do something bigger, to do something no one has done for nearly 50 years. He wants to do something that would stamp his legacy and just maybe separate him from basketball's immortals.
He wants to deliver a championship — to Cleveland, the city where sports heartbreak is as predictable as cold winters.
"Our city," the Akron native said, "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."
Four years after he announced his decision to leave Cleveland on a poorly conceived, hour-long national TV special, James told the world he was going home in a powerfully written essay for Sports Illustrated. It wasn't about "taking his talents" anywhere this time. It was from the heart.
James said it all in three words.
"I'm coming home," he said.
And with that, the balance of power shifted in the Eastern Conference, other free agents started looking for new teams and Cleveland, without a pro sports title since the Browns win it all in 1964, is again home to the best player on the planet.
James knows nothing is given, and the Cavs have a long way to go before they can challenge for a crown. But he's joining a young team with an All-Star in Kyrie Irving, No. 1 overall picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins and plenty of potential.
The Cavs, too, might look to add another star and have had preliminary discussions with Minnesota about forward Kevin Love, who played with James on the U.S. Olympic team in London two years ago and has just one more year on his contract with the Timberwolves. Love can be gotten, but it might take Wiggins to get him.
Cleveland also may try to land sharpshooters like free agents Ray Allen and Mike Miller, who both played with James in Miami.
However the roster ends ups looking, James needs to help the Cavs grow up.
"I see myself as a mentor now and I'm excited to lead some of these talented young guys," he said. "I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can't wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates."
Varejao is the only Cavs player left from 2010, when James bolted after his seventh season in Cleveland. He had promised to deliver a championship, but came up short after one trip to the finals in 2007. He was under pressure, and buckled. He wasn't ready. He needed some help.
But after maturing as a player and person, and learning under Heat president Pat Riley's tutelage, James feels he knows what it takes to do it this time in Cleveland.
"I'm not promising a championship," he said. "I know how hard that is to deliver. We're not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head.
"But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn't know they could go."
Before he decided to come back, James said he met with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who had eviscerated the four-time MVP on his way out of town in 2010. Gilbert had written a letter to Cleveland fans, calling James a narcissist, coward and "self-proclaimed King." But the two reportedly cleared the air during a meeting in Florida last weekend.
The backlash of his departure scarred James.
He has healed.
"It was easy to say, 'OK, I don't want to deal with these people ever again.' But then you think about the other side," he said. "What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I've met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We've talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"
Gilbert welcomed James back with a posting on Twitter, and said he and his youngest son had a moment that probably wasn't unique on a day Clevelanders won't forget.
Gilbert said his 8-year-old asked, "Daddy, does this mean I can finally wear my Lebron jersey, again?" he wrote. "Yes it does, son. Yes it does!"
Cleveland has forgiven him.
When the news broke at 12:17 p.m., strangers hugged and high-fived on the streets outside Quicken Loans Arena, which will likely be sold out for every game next season now that James is back. The Cavs are once again the hottest ticket in town.
For Cleveland, the pain is gone. Hope has returned.
The kid from Akron, dubbed a "King" in high school, is back on his throne.
James considered going elsewhere, but there really was only one choice.
"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now," he said. "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."