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For practical purposes, he’s in the Hall already. Now, LeBron James is back in Cleveland to build on his legend. What better time to reconnect with his roots?
It takes a few hours, but finally, with the arena buzzing and the end in sight, LeBron James is all warmed up.

It's a Friday, late September, and this particular arena is teeming not with teammates and opponents, but with reporters and camera crews. It's preseason media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts, the Cavs' practice home and, today, temporary workspace for 300 media members. That's about three times the usual turnout, and there's no doubting the reason: 6-8, 250, Lion Heart 12s on his feet, yellow-gold jersey with maroon 2-3 on his chest. In the flesh. What's old, new again. The return of the King.

He's smiling now, but yes, it took a while. Fifteen minutes at the podium in front of the overflow media contingent, segments with local TV and radio, time at the SportsCenter desk set up on the far side of the gym. He was stone-faced early on, anticipating questions he's already answered, treating this as the obligation it is, not likely an afternoon to be enjoyed. But he seems to loosen up as the afternoon goes on, clowning a bit with Kyrie and Kevin as they pose for photos, a new Big Three tasked with nothing less than matching the trophy-lifting ways of the power trio he was a part of for the past four seasons.

A Cavs PR assistant carries a folder with the afternoon's itinerary, and every one of LeBron's many media day obligations has been crossed off—all except one. SLAM Magazine. Photo. Corner of the gym, Jay Z bumping quietly, backdrop all black everything. And we don't mind telling you: He's good with this. Dap and hugs for a familiar face or two, a quick and painless cover shoot, another front page to add to the collection. The dude who coined #SlamIsFam on his Instagram more than a year ago always shows love. We go back a ways. With LeBron, that matters.

And for us, that's the thing: We can't think about LeBron James coming back to Cleveland without going all the way back to what was, for us, the beginning. The lanky, talkative sophomore we first met in his high school lunchroom, the young ringleader of a tight group of teammates and friends. The kid from Akron. And while he left the Cavs four years ago, leaving a trail of broken hearts and burning jerseys in his wake, he never really left home. Not entirely. Truly, he probably couldn't if he tried.
"The welcome home event in Akron... I got chills. The fans and everyone there just welcomed me back with open arms."
All of this is on our mind when we catch up at media day. The vibe is relaxed: Jokes about pulling out the Jordan All-Star jersey and SLAM headband for a throwback cover, his (and our) guy Jim Ice snapping the geometric highlighter soles of his 12s so the IG fans have something to like. Between shots, we tell him we've got our angle: We're going back to the roots. We've got calls in to his Akron people. We're going to put them on the spot. We're going to ask them how much he's changed.

LeBron smiles, that easy, c'mon-now smile. "You know," he says, "they're just going to tell you the same shit."

The implication is clear: I haven't changed. He has, of course—we all do—but the point is that he hasn't abandoned his foundation. In all the ways that really matter, he's the same dude. Ask his people. He never really left.
* * *
Romeo Travis checks in from Volgograd, Russia, the latest stop on a Euro-stepping professional career that includes playing gigs in Germany, Israel and Ukraine. The subject is a certain former teammate of his at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary HS. Romeo is one of those dudes who caught peripheral fame in LeBron's rise to hyper-fame, a terrific high school and mid-major college baller in his own right and a force in whatever European league he's played in since. He's also one of the dudes who has stayed in LeBron's loop, who knew him when and still does; one of those guys doing his own thing, living his own life, but still happy—and proud—to be in the King's orbit.

Romeo's an Akron dude, too, so of course he's biased, but in his mind there's no doubt LeBron is better off back home. "I think it helps him be more involved with his foundation, with LRMR (a management company that LeBron founded with friends)," Romeo says. "He wants to be considered one of the best businessmen in sports, and also one of the best philanthropists. Being home will help him do the things he wants to do for people off the court."


And the trump card: "Being back around his family, his people, he's just more comfortable," Romeo says. "I'm just happy for him."

Comfort level matters for LeBron, more than it has for most who've existed in similarly rarified air. He's always happiest when he's got his people around him; it's a fact that helps explain why he has the relationships he has with guys like Dwyane, Chris and Carmelo, and why, as an almost-30-year-old, world-famous multimillionaire, he remains so close with the guys he's been running with since middle school. It might also explain why Miami was always destined to be temporary.

Last year, we caught up with Keith Dambrot, the University of Akron head coach who first mentored LeBron and his snot-nosed running mates in Sunday night runs at the local Jewish Community Center. We were talking about LeBron's development, and how his game evolved after his move to the Heat, and it was Dambrot who brought it up. "I think that's probably why he was a little bit out of sorts when he first got to Miami," Dambrot says. "He wasn't comfortable with the situation yet."

Dambrot coached St. V-M during LeBron's freshman and sophomore years, seasons that ended in consecutive state championships, and his instincts where the young king is concerned have generally been on point: When LeBron was just a sophomore, Dambrot described him as a Magic-McGrady-Kobe hybrid, praise he wouldn't back down from because "I really think he's that good." (More than a decade later, Dambrot says, "I can honestly say he hasn't exceeded what I thought he could do.")

Dambrot understood LeBron then, and he thinks he still has a sense of what makes his former star pupil tick. One trait that hasn't changed, Dambrot says, is LeBron's innate loyalty, on and off the court. "I've always said this about him: There's no better teammate in the world," Dambrot says. "He's always had that aspect, always been one of the most unselfish guys I've ever seen. And he has my respect, not only as player but as person, because he takes care of his people."

Dambrot's point is true on a macro level, as well. "I try not to ask too much," Dru Joyce says with a laugh, "but I know he'd do whatever we ask." Joyce knows LeBron better than most: He coached him along with his son, Dru III, as part of the pre-pubescent "Fab Four" on grade-school AAU squads, then took over at St. V-M after Dambrot left for the college ranks. Dru is still at St. V-M, where he won state titles in 2009 and 2011. Last year, his program's shabby gym was renovated thanks to the generosity of his most famous alum. His players hit the court in Nike gear that leaves most of their opponents burning with envy. Few can better appreciate LeBron's largesse.

Dambrot sees it, too—LeBron's hook-up ensures the Zips field the best-dressed squad in the MAC—but the real impact goes beyond suiting up the hoop teams at his actual and virtual alma maters. The Akron-based LeBron James Family Foundation, with its St. V-M-inspired green and gold color scheme, promotes education and fitness for the city's youth, and it goes well beyond a feel-good front to score PR points. Check the LJFF's three-tiered advisory board featuring dozens of local educators. Check the constant updates on initiatives like Wheels for Education and the Akron "I Promise" Network, both aimed at cutting into school dropout numbers. Check how personally involved LeBron really is. In September, the city's welcome-home rally for its favorite son packed tens of thousands into the University of Akron football stadium; it was timed to promote the foundation's work.

"The welcome home event in Akron... I got chills," LeBron says. "The fans and everyone there just welcomed me back with open arms. That was the only time it felt surreal."

In his basketball career, at least, there is probably only one other thing that might make him feel the same way.
* * *
You have read this far without reading much of anything about basketball, which is the game LeBron James plays better than anyone else on the planet, not to mention the reason you're reading at all. And yes, basketball reasons did come into play here; we don't mean to paint LeBron as a marauding do-gooder who moved back to Ohio to focus on charity work and hang with his kids and maybe show up for a Cavs game now and then. Coming home made sense because home is Akron, and as we (and he) have written, home matters a lot to LeBron.


But winning can happen in Cleveland, and yes, that matters, too. As he starts his 12th NBA season, we're willing to believe LeBron when he says nothing matters more. What small portion of his legacy that remains malleable will be shaped not by points scored or MVP trophies shelved; for LeBron, truly, there is nothing left now but to hang a banner—just one banner would do so much—from the rafters at Quicken Loans.

"People in Northeast Ohio need something to be happy about," Romeo Travis says. "He can run for mayor of Cleveland if they win the Championship. Hell, he can be governor."

He's on record admitting he might have stayed in Miami had they managed to beat the Spurs last June, a task that looked feasible when the 2014 Finals began but seems almost laughable in retrospect. The Heat, it's now clear, had peaked a year prior; LeBron could stay, hope to will Miami into reaching the heights of 2012-13, or he could move on. For the aforementioned basketball reasons, the Cavs' Draft lottery luck helped make his homecoming a much more pragmatic possibility. By the time training camp opened, one of the League's historically least-desirable player destinations had drawn the game's best player, arguably its best power forward and a collection of veteran role players with a trunk-full of NBA championship rings.

If you were in Northeast Ohio on media day, or probably any day since, you heard it on the local sports talk shows: confidence. Swagger, even, a very un-Cleveland-like emotion among opining fans, laughing in the face of decades of sporting disappointment as they wonder aloud how, possibly, these LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers can possibly be stopped.

On media day, and not for the last time, LeBron had a message to these new-swag-havers: Chill.

"Everyone wants to see the end result, and they don't quite understand what goes on from the start to the finish," LeBron said. "We can't try to play November and get to June or May right now."
"People in Northeast Ohio need something to be happy about. He can run for mayor of Cleveland if they win the Championship. Hell, he can be governor." —Romeo Travis
It's about the process, a word and concept beloved by Erik Spoelstra, and a philosophy LeBron immersed himself in while in Miami. In Cleveland, under first-time NBA head coach David Blatt, and with a roster whose players are largely unfamiliar with each other, it will be about the process once again. On paper? Pshhh. Yes, of course the Cavs should run the East; of course a Finals appearance is a foregone conclusion. But the process won't allow that sort of thinking, and motivated squads in Miami, Chicago, Toronto and Washington will have something to say about it as well.

"If we don't shortcut the process, we're going to give ourselves a good chance of competing at the end of the year," LeBron says. "But it's going to be tough. We're a new group that's coming together. We have a new coaching staff, a new system for all of us. It's not going to be easy at all."

For so many reasons, it's different than it was in Miami, but there are plenty of precedents, too. The Big Three. An unproven but clearly savvy head coach with terrific references. An Eastern Conference still ripe for a relatively easy run. The biggest difference is that this, clearly and undeniably, is LeBron's team. When he landed in Miami four years ago, it was Wade who had the ring and the city's undying love; Kyrie is the Cavs' returning All-Star, and LeBron has rightly played up the talented guard's vital importance to the Cleveland offense. But we all know what it is.

"One thing LeBron does, everything he attaches himself to becomes a success," Dambrot says. "You can look at the high school—that school was dying before he got there. He took an old, beat-up coach like me and resurrected me. In Cleveland the first time, he gave it everything he had, and they became successful. And Miami, obviously."

The man with the Midas touch is once again clothed in gold. Just 29 years old, and already, where the grand narrative is concerned, he has accomplished everything but, well, that one last thing. He spent the first seven years of his career trying to reach it, and he came close; he found it elsewhere and came back, tougher and smarter. He has help now that he would've killed for before he left. That grand narrative has everything, including a prodigal return.

All that's left is for the King to establish a throne. His people are waiting. Ask anyone who's known him long enough, and they'll tell you: LeBron takes care of his own.


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