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CLEVELAND – For LeBron James, the journey begins anew.
Right back where it began.
Nearly four months since proclaiming "I'm coming home" and shifting the NBA's balance of power, James will play Thursday night in front of family, friends and the Cleveland fans who had their hearts broken four years ago.
This is a homecoming like no other.
A crowd of 20,000-plus that is expected to include several celebrities will be inside raucous Quicken Loans Arena to welcome home James, the Akron native and son of Ohio who has come back to his hoops roots to deliver a title to a city that has known mostly sports misery for the past 50 years.
When James is introduced after new teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as Cleveland's final starter before the Cavs tip off against the New York Knicks, Cleveland fans will be able to put four painful years without him behind them.
This a fresh start for everyone.
"It means everything to be able to open our NBA campaign here in Cleveland with these fans," James said Wednesday following practice. "For these fans it means everything. Not only for the people that are going to be here, but people that can't financially afford to be here watching the game at home — and all parts of Ohio, it's going to be a special moment.
"You don't get moments like this. They don't come around every day."
No, they don't. And although James won't be able to soak in the spectacle surrounding him, a fun-filled day of activities will be followed by an emotional night and the first game of what James hopes will be a memorable season.
"I am going to be extremely excited and happy to be back on this floor," James said. "But as far as what the meaning is all about the meaning is still the same: it's about me preparing for a long journey to try to win a championship — and that's my mindset."
On Wednesday, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, whose ability to patch up his rift with James in July paved the way for the four-time MVP's return, opened his first news conference since February by welcoming the media.
"Hope you guys had a great summer," he said. "Ours was pretty interesting."
Guess so. The Cavs were transformed. A team that went 33-49, missed the playoffs again, hired its third coach in three years and was all but irrelevant, became almost an overnight favorite to win it all. Expectations are soaring.
James made it all possible. He came back a different person and different player from the one who left in 2010 to win championships in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He's home now, and determined to end Cleveland's championship drought dating to 1964.
Gilbert said James' impact on the area is immeasurable — economically and emotionally. It's created new jobs and other growth, giving the city a substantial shot in the arm as it undergoes an urban renaissance. Beyond that, James has renewed hope that Cleveland can help generations of Clevelanders forget well-documented, nicknamed misery: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, and, of course, The Decision.
"For us, the thing that drives us the most is delivering this for the fans of Cleveland," Gilbert said. "It will be 51 years, and that's what the emotion is really about that. Delivering for them, and hoping that day comes whether it's this year, next year or the following year, whenever it comes, and we believe it will."