AKRON, Ohio -- The drive took about 35 minutes. Neither man in the car said a word. Everything LeBron James was feeling on that trip to the airport four years ago -- the pain, the angst, the loss, the fear -- was written on his face.
For weeks he had tried to find a way to stay, to recruit players to join him in Cleveland, so he wouldn't have to leave. Ray Allen said no. So did Chris Bosh, Trevor Ariza and Dwyane Wade. Sure, they wanted to play with him. Who wouldn't? But not in Cleveland. James was the one with a connection to the place, not them. If he wanted to win, he would have to sever those ties and go somewhere where other stars would join him.
The decision to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat had been made that morning. LeBron walked around with it uncomfortably all day. He knew it would hurt people, that nothing would ever be the same for him after he did it.
Somehow he got through the final day of his annual basketball camp in Akron without confessing. By the time Damon Jones drove him to the airport, where he would fly to Connecticut and reveal his infamous decision to the world, there was a lump in his throat.
"The ride from his house to the airport is 35 minutes," said Jones, who played with LeBron from 2005 to 2008 and remained a close friend. "Neither of us said a word. It was tough. You saw it on his face, just his emotions.
"Everybody thought that the Miami decision was planned a week, two weeks prior, but it was in the last minute. He exhausted everything to try and get players to come to Cleveland and play with him. I was there for the whole week, staying in his house. He was agonizing, 'I want to win. I want to win here, but can we?'
"I don't think the fans knew that. They think he just went to Miami and that was it."
LeBron went to Miami all right. He won two titles and evolved into the best basketball player on the planet. He answered his critics with championship trophies. He married the mother of his children, and they built a life in South Florida together. But he never truly left northeastern Ohio.
He kept his home in Akron. He started a foundation to help the city's kids and promised to be there until they were grown. When they missed a day of school, they often got a call from "Mr. LeBron."
The place never truly turned its back on him, either. Yes, fans burned his jerseys and cursed his name. They tore down his billboards and painted over his murals. But that was the hurt talking. LeBron isn't the first kid from a Rust Belt town to leave for warmer weather and starrier nights. Most return only for holidays and funerals.
But LeBron kept coming back. If anything, he planted his roots deeper into this place after he left for Miami. They took note when he spent his summers in Akron instead of at the beach. He built an office nearby and came in to work during the offseason. He trained at his old high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Jones was with LeBron again this week when he made the decision to return. After four straight NBA Finals appearances with the Heat, it was as surprising to the rest of the world as his first decision to leave Cleveland.
But this was an easy call. It felt right.