-- 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.
"It was just from one end of the spectrum to the next, from the way it was in 2010," Jones said. "He was relaxed. He was laughing. He was happy."
The signs appeared on Market Street in downtown Akron within hours of when James' letter posted on the Sports Illustrated website Friday morning. The Highland Theater announced, "The King Returns" on its marquee. Walgreens and his favorite burger joint, Swenson's, wrote, "Welcome Home, LeBron." Someone placed a homemade poster saying, "Thank you, LeBron! Akron loves you!" in front of his old high school.
Longtime Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao was in Brazil when he heard the news.
"I was telling everybody like I was a little kid who found out something he wasn't supposed to find out," Varejao said. "'LeBron is coming back! LeBron is coming back!'"
Fans honked their horns as they drove by Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. Those who hadn't burned their old No. 23 James Cavaliers jerseys four years ago dug them out of drawers and put them on again.
Nobody in these parts will ever forget the way LeBron hurt them when he left in 2010, but they started forgiving him a long time ago.
Maybe not as much in Cleveland, which celebrated him but didn't raise him. In Akron, though, he was still family. To this day, he can walk into any store in town and not draw a crowd. He's just LeBron, Gloria's son, the skinny kid who bounced from apartment to apartment as a boy, sleeping on the couches of friends of his mom until finding prosperity and stability through sports.
"I've known LeBron since he was 8 years old," said Vikki McGee, who works for his foundation now. "He's been to fish fries and barbecues in my backyard. I'm just proud he's from the 330."
The healing started in 2011, when Akron embraced him after his meltdown in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. While the rest of the country seemed to delight in his failure, Akron wrapped its arms around him.
"When you break up with a girl, you don't go on the PA system of the school and say, 'I'm going to break up with you and start going with Suzy,'" said Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic. "But he'd done so much for this community in ways that most people don't even realize. We had to stand behind our guy."
Despite some public pressure to remove signs in Akron that proclaimed, "Home of LeBron James," Plusquellic insisted they remain.
"I had people mad at me for rooting for LeBron," Plusquellic said. "I'd go to a sports bar and it was horrible. But it's just life and how it unfolds sometimes. He made a decision that a lot of people make. They leave their hometowns. But he had done so much, and he continued to do things for Akron. I think that was the right way for us to handle this."
The common narrative goes something like this: In 2010, Miami Heat president Pat Riley put his five championship rings in front of James on a table, like, Come with me if you want to win some of these. In 2014, with two championship rings of his own, James met with Riley, and his stance was like, Tell me again why I still need you?
But that version suggests that the Heat had a chance to keep James. The truth is Miami was always going to be his temporary home. A place to grow, explore and test himself. Four years of sublime basketball that would change the NBA and the dynamic between owners and superstar players.
Once LeBron, Bosh and Wade demonstrated it was possible for three superstars to team up AAU-style, everyone wanted to do it. Chris Paul made his way out of New Orleans to play with Blake Griffin in Los Angeles. Dwight Howard tried to join Deron Williams with the Nets, ended up in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant and then bolted for Houston to play with James Harden.
But LeBron, Bosh and Wade were the pioneers, and the backlash that first season was severe.
"It changed me as a basketball player," James said. "It changed me as a person."
It wasn't just the backlash that first season in Miami that changed him. He was lonely. His longtime girlfriend (and future wife), Savannah Brinson, and their two children stayed behind in Akron when LeBron moved to Miami. When the Heat started 9-8 in the fall of 2010 and the hate rained down on them like a South Florida afternoon thundershower, he lacked a support system. He fought back, he turned his anger into armor, he started playing to prove people wrong, rather than with the joy that had always imbued his game.
"He started playing from a negative emotion, and it culminated in that loss in the Finals," said Dru Joyce, his high school coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary. "He had to recommit himself to playing with love."
But how could LeBron play with love if everyone who loved him was so far away?
He came home to Akron after that loss in the Finals with a battered spirit. Cleveland was still off-limits. The wounds were still too raw for him to go back there. The Cavaliers had made it clear he wasn't welcome the previous fall, when they wouldn't let his friends come into the arena before the Heat's shootaround prior to the first post-Decision game between the teams on Dec. 2, 2010.
As summer turned to fall and the lockout threatened the 2011-12 season, LeBron used the time to heal.
He jumped into passing drills at his former high school's football practice. He invited Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant out to train, and they ran sprints up the steep hill in the back of the school that has always been the gauntlet for elite athletes at St. Vincent-St. Mary. Run down that hill too fast and you could end up face down in the parking lot below. A single misstep on the way up and you could roll back down. LeBron and Durant trained while the students in the classrooms across the way studied chemistry. One day they played a flag football game and streamed it live over the Internet.
Over time, LeBron healed. He proposed to Brinson and invited her and her parents to come live with him in Miami. The next season, with his family by his side, LeBron led the Heat to a championship.
"When someone you love is not there -- they might be a phone call away, but you can't put your arms around them -- as a young guy, it's an awakening," Joyce said. "You know that you love them, but that distance takes it to another level."
After the Heat won their second title in 2013, he and Brinson were married in San Diego.
LeBron kept his wife's pregnancy with their third child private as long as he could this spring. He was overjoyed. He loves children. But there's only so much the world needs to know about his personal life. So whenever he was asked about it during the playoffs, he shut down the question with a simple, "That's a private matter."
Riley, though, never got that memo. At his season-ending news conference after the Heat's loss to San Antonio in the Finals, Riley disclosed that the couple was expecting a baby girl.
In the same breath that he referred to this team as a "family" and its players as "brothers," Riley revealed that he was unaware the James family had preferred to keep this news in-house.
James was already vacationing in the Caribbean by the time Riley was famously telling everyone to "get a grip" and arguing that this superteam needed to be retooled, not rebuilt over the summer. It was a speech he would have preferred to give to LeBron directly. But their exit meeting two days earlier had been remarkably short, as LeBron seemed itchy to leave and begin his vacation with the families of teammates Ray Allen and James Jones.
LeBron opted out of the final two years of his contract on June 23, one day after returning from that vacation. It was a week earlier than required, but at the time, the gesture was perceived as a courtesy to the Heat, the rest of the league and teammates Wade and Bosh, who also had to decide whether to opt out.
The trio met for a long lunch in a private dining room at the chic South Beach restaurant Soho House on June 25. All three expressed a desire to return to the Heat and a willingness to work together on a financial structure to make that happen. But Wade and Bosh left without knowing LeBron's exact plans.
Still, at that time it was assumed that all three would simply re-sign with Miami. Bosh left on a four-week vacation around the world on June 30, traveling to and posting pictures from the United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and Ghana along the way.
LeBron stepped back to weigh his options. He and his advisers knew this time around that they had to do things differently from 2010. Yes, people would be disappointed after he announced his decision. The teams he spurned would be angry. But there was a right way to let them know -- and the awful way they did it in 2010.
The plan was for his agent, Rich Paul, to handle all the business matters while LeBron got away to clear his head and reconnect with his family. Cleveland had always been in the back of his mind. A return to the Heat was still possible. Paul also took meetings with the Bulls, Lakers, Suns, Rockets and Mavericks.
The opt-out gave Riley the opportunity to retool, maybe add a point guard like Kyle Lowry or a small forward like Luol Deng or Ariza. They traded up to draft Shabazz Napier, a feisty point guard whom James had tweeted admiration for during the NCAA tournament.
Still, Riley knew he needed to do more to connect with LeBron and make sure they were on the same page. On June 28, he attended the wedding of LeBron's trainer, Mike Mancias, in Coconut Grove. But when Riley tried to speak to LeBron, the conversation was again short. Despite Riley's hopes, the only thing James signed that night was Mancias' marriage certificate as the official witness to union.
This was not an indication of anything amiss. LeBron has always liked to keep a distance from management. He was like that in Cleveland, too. The Cavs would want to consult with him on personnel moves, but LeBron requested they communicate those items through Paul or his other associate, Maverick Carter.
Riley preferred a direct audience. He is persuasive and charismatic in person. But LeBron didn't grant that to him until July 9, when they met in his suite at a hotel in Las Vegas. By then, James had already had a face-to-face meeting with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in Miami. Meanwhile, the free-agency market ground to a halt as the rest of the league was paralyzed in wait of LeBron's decision.
The meeting with Gilbert was in Miami for a reason. LeBron and his advisers were rightly sensitive to leading the Cavs on, and no one would have known about the meeting had fans not started tracking Gilbert's private plane over the Internet. Gilbert had just recently bought the plane and was surprised it was able to be monitored. He had it removed from tracking services the next day.
But the visit, which included Paul, Carter and attorney Mark Termini, had been fruitful. Gilbert left his meeting with James much like Riley did, with no assurances about the future. But there was no doubt he boarded his jet to Michigan feeling optimistic, while Riley and general manager Andy Elisburg left Vegas concerned about the silence.
Gilbert apologized for writing a letter ripping LeBron's decision to leave in 2010. LeBron apologized for the way in which he left, but not for leaving. He hadn't wanted to leave, but he needed to and was stronger for having done so. They didn't exactly hug it out afterward, but they left knowing they could coexist again if the opportunity arose.
When you call the Akron office of LeBron's marketing management firm, LRMR, whoever picks up the phone will greet you with, "It's a great day in Akron."
"Six out of 10 calls that come in," Michele Campbell said, "will respond by saying something to put Akron down."
Campbell has been the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation since 2006. She left a job at the University of Akron to help James and his childhood friends, Paul, Carter and Randy Mims, get their company off the ground before the 2008 Olympics.
The offices are immaculate. Inspirational quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. are on the wall. Everything is in its proper place, in keeping with James' fastidious nature. His office is next to Maverick's and Mims'. Employees eat lunch together and do puzzles when they need a break.
"He's behind all of this," Campbell said. "We just help him to have more hands in the pot because he only has two."
The year James left for Miami, he had Campbell reach out to the Akron Public Schools to start a program with at-risk third-grade students that would have a lasting impact on the dropout rate.
"This isn't just a one-and-done event," said Desiree Bolden, who coordinates the school district's programs. "Every kid feels like they know LeBron. He's consistent."
When folks in town heard LeBron was considering returning to the Cavaliers this summer, they didn't quite know what to make of it.
"In some ways, he'd never left," said Akron businessman Todd Stein.
Joyce knew he could ask his son, Dru Joyce Jr., who was in Las Vegas with LeBron as he ran his annual skills camp.
This time there was no strain on his face. LeBron made a point of jumping into pickup games with each of the players in camp, rotating from court to court so they could one day say they played with him.
Wade dropped by the camp with James on Thursday, causing a stir among the crowd of college coaches in the stands. He caught a ride back to Miami with his friend later that night. James and Wade were friends before they were teammates. They parted late that night on the tarmac in Miami as family, as Wade would later write.
He was never in a hurry to go anywhere or get off the court. On the night after he met with Riley and the Heat, LeBron came to the gym and played pickup ball for about 45 minutes then sat with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. He put his arm around the Olympic team coach and had what appeared to be a heart-to-heart conversation
Who knows what was said? Had he already decided to return home? As far as Joyce was concerned, it was always just a matter of time.
"I tried to stay far enough away from it, because I didn't want to get caught up in this tsunami of hope and then it didn't happen," Joyce said. "I always thought that he would come home eventually. This is home. And I always thought that he didn't want to leave this thing undone."
Sometimes you have to leave a place before you realize how much it means to you. That may sound like a song lyric or a page from a Nike marketing campaign. There are those who will inevitably see LeBron's homecoming in a cynical light. Miami is a great city to ditch, the kind of place for which you get wholesome points for leaving by the side of the road to return to your Rust Belt roots.
Maybe it is that. Or maybe he was really worried about Wade's knees or underwhelmed by Riley's additions of Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. A straight basketball calculation that he stood a better chance of winning with the Cavaliers' youth than an aging roster in Miami. But leaving home tends to help a man understand himself, what's in his heart and what matters in the end.
"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," James wrote in his SI letter. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."