CLEVELAND – LeBron James could picture returning one day to the place where his NBA journey began.
Back in Cleveland.
After practicing in a gym where he refined his game for seven seasons, James said Thursday he would not rule out a return to the Cavaliers, a team he carried to the brink of a title before he spurned an entire region by leaving as a free agent in 2010 to chase a championship with Miami.
Asked if he could play for the Cavs again, James initially paused before giving his answer.
"I don't know. I think it would be great," he said. "It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot fun times in my seven years here. You can't predict the future and hopefully I continue to stay healthy. I'm here as a Miami Heat player, and I'm happy where I am now, but I don't rule that out in no sense.
"And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me."
James' comments may have been calculated, coming one day before the Cavs host the Heat for the third time since the superstar's infamous and messy exit from Cleveland. In mentioning a possible reunion, he may be trying to soften the negative response he'll get Friday night from fans who haven't forgotten what he did to them.
However, James appeared sincere when talking about a potential return to the Cavs, his fractured relationship with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and topics ranging from phenom Jeremy Lin to rookie Kyrie Irving following practice on the fourth floor of Quicken Loans Arena.
Perhaps it was because he was back in familiar surroundings that prompted James' remarks. Or maybe it's part of a larger agenda. Whatever the case, his past with Cleveland, and his decision to bolt from the Cavs, will always be a sensitive subject.
After all, James put Cleveland back on the NBA map by taking the Cavs to one finals and winning two MVP awards during his stay. He left the franchise during a summer in which he held an entire city at bay as it awaited his decision. After he announced he was joining the Heat during a nationally televised special, the Akron native was vilified by the same fans who cheered every one of his dribbles and dunks.
Time has healed some of the wounds — not all.
James said he has made no attempt to patch things up with Gilbert, who harshly criticized James in a scathing letter to Cleveland's fans. Gilbert promised to win a title before James, questioned his character and told The Associated Press he felt James quit on the Cavs during the playoffs.
James said he has no bitterness toward Gilbert. They have not spoken since James met with the Cavaliers on July 3, 2010, when they were one of several teams courting him to sign with them.
"I don't have any hard feelings. He said what he said and I've moved on," said James, who is under contract with the Heat for two more seasons. "But there's been no attempt to patch things up."
James, however, said he can envision being friends again with Gilbert.
"I don't hold grudges," he said. "I hold them a little bit, but I don't hold them that long. He said what he said out of anger and he would probably want to take that back. But I made a mistake, too, and there are some things I would want to take back as well.
"You make mistakes and move on."
But could he play for Gilbert?
"Dan is not the coach," he said. "I can play for any coach. We'll see what happens."
Attempts to reach Gilbert were unsuccessful.
It wasn't clear if by "mistake" James meant the way he announced his departure from Cleveland or joining the Heat. He insists he's happy in South Florida and committed to winning a title with the Heat, who are favored to win it all this season after losing to Dallas in the finals last June.
James acknowledged he's changed and enjoying hoops the way he once did.
"I'm back to how I was in Cleveland, having fun with the game, appreciating the game, loving the game and playing at a high level," he said. "I got away from that last year. It was a difficult year for me last year, making the whole transition, on and off the floor, going through everything I went through.
"I just got back to how I got to this point, back to playing the way I know how to play."
James' comments about a return to Cleveland — albeit unlikely — caught former teammate Antawn Jamison off guard.
"It surprises me that he's saying that now," said Jamison, who played 25 games with James in 2010 after coming over in a trade. "Three years down the road it wouldn't surprise me if he entertains the idea. But hey, after the first go-round, I don't think anything would surprise you as far as scenarios taking place."
Cavs guard Daniel Gibson can't envision Cleveland fans ever receiving James warmly again.
He may have moved on. They haven't..
"I don't think he'd be welcome," Gibson said. "Not with the way that went down. It was a pretty tough situation. I'm sure they wouldn't feel comfortable with that at all."
James knows what's coming on Friday. He's prepared for a rough reception, but not as hostile as the one the seven-time All-Star got on Dec. 2 last season. James expects to hear boos, but maybe not as many obscenities.
"It doesn't sting anymore," James said. "The booing isn't as bad as it was last year so it's not even a big deal."
James' comments about a hypothetical return to Cleveland didn't surprise teammate Dwyane Wade, his running mate in Miami.
Even Wade, who stayed with James at his home Bath, Ohio, could imagine his friend reuniting with the Cavs — some day.
"Anything is possible," Wade said. "Hopefully, I'm retired."