This is an excerpt from "Return of the King" by Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin.
This chapter details the secret conversations, meetings and movements that led to LeBron James' decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in July 2014. It was a process that was cloaked in secrecy and with moments that have remained private until now, revealed over the course of more than a dozen interviews with James, his agents Rich Paul and Mark Termini, Cavs owners Dan Gilbert and Nate Forbes, general manager David Griffin and other sources.
It was a painstaking process that played out from Cleveland to the Caribbean to Las Vegas to Africa to Miami over two tense weeks. Eventually the entire NBA became paralyzed while waiting for James' decision, with numerous teams and players waiting for any bit of news. Here's what was really happening:
"I'M COMING HOME"
Midnight on July 1 is the most frenzied moment on the NBA calendar, the official opening of free agency. After midnight on July 1, 2014, Rich Paul's phone went hot with calls and texts. Within a few hours, all thirty teams had made contact, letting him know they were interested in his client. In the league, where due diligence is demanded, it's not uncommon for a team to express interest in dozens of free agents after midnight merely to test the waters. In many cases, talks start directly or indirectly days or even weeks earlier despite rules against contact before July 1.
Over the previous ten days, James had several serious conversations with Paul and Maverick Carter, his friend who heads many of James's off-court ventures, and Randy Mims, who travels with him throughout the year. These three and James's wife, Savannah, are essentially his inner circle, and they would be the ones involved in making this major choice. Also involved was Adam Mendelsohn, who had been James's media strategist since 2011.
James knew for some time that he was going to exercise his option to become a free agent. And he had spoken with Paul, Carter, and family members about moving back to Ohio to play for the Cavs again at some point in the future. The reason the Cavs had even gotten their hopes up was because these feelings had trickled to them in various forms over the previous eighteen months.
But it was not a decision James had reached by the start of free agency. Just a few weeks earlier the Heat had been tied with the San Antonio Spurs 1-1 in the Finals after two games. Going home, with the home court advantage, it seemed like a third consecutive title was within reach. Had that played out, James would likely have elected to stay in Miami to defend another title. Instead the Heat lost three straight games and looked old and emotionally spent in doing so.
The outcome of the Finals had helped push going home to the front of James's mind. And that meant the hometown Cavs -- even if they didn't know it, and all of their actions showed they didn't -- were in the lead. They were there because James felt a pull to come play at home, where he could live in his Akron mansion and send his kids to Akron-area schools near all of his friends and family and his wife's friends and family. And he could try to change the course of his career by trying to lead the woebegone Cavs to a championship. He'd followed the team and its moves, and he thought it would be possible.
But everyone involved in the choice maintains when midnight struck on July 1, the race was still very much in progress. With a decision of this magnitude, more consideration was needed.
In the wake of how the process played out, not everyone believed this. Certainly not the Heat, who in retrospect felt like what happened over the next week and a half was a damaging wild-goose chase. But James maintained he wasn't fully sure if another option might be better. He also still wasn't sure if he could work for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert again.
By 2 p.m. on July 1, Paul had returned every call. There were twenty-four "thanks but LeBron is not interested" messages. Six teams were told James would consider them -- the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Phoenix Suns, the Chicago Bulls, the Miami Heat, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. By July 2, Paul had explained James's general timetable and invited most of the teams to Cleveland for presentations beginning the next day, Thursday, July 3.
Not only did these calls slow these teams' free agent moves, they effectively halted the market. It jammed players like Gordon Hayward, who went from a recruiting visit to an afterthought after a phone call expressing James's interest.
At Paul's suggestion, James made it clear he was going to stay physically removed from the process. A few days before the start of the frenzy, he left on a family vacation to the Caribbean. Using social media, he let the world know he was away. As the finalists for James learned they'd made the cut, he posted a short video of his oldest son, LeBron Jr., reeling in a nice-sized blackfin tuna off the back of a boat James had rented for a family fishing trip.
When he was a first-time free agent in 2010, James hosted six teams at his business office in Cleveland over a three-day period in early July. The meetings quickly became public and led to a media horde surrounding the building. Cameras were ready at the airport, catching owners and executives filing off planes. Reporters knew the order of the team's pitches, and video of their arrivals and departures was on SportsCenter every night.
This time there would also be meetings in a Cleveland office, that of Klutch Sports, but it would be different. Minimal leaks. No waiting cameras. And no James. Paul and Mark Termini would hear the pitches and secrecy was requested. Representatives from teams began quietly arriving on July 3. Some surprised each other in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, where most visiting NBA personnel stayed in Cleveland. Gilbert, ironically, owned the hotel.
The Lakers were represented by general manager Mitch Kupchak. Suns owner Robert Sarver came with his front office. So did Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who inadvertently was spotted sitting in Public Square, which is adjacent to Klutch Sports' offices, drinking iced tea. The photo quickly made its way across social media. Cuban, who the night before had hosted free agent Carmelo Anthony in a pitch meeting at his home in Dallas, tried to cover it up and announced he was in town on business as part of his television show, Shark Tank. The Bulls were led by Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and front office leaders Gar Forman and John Paxson, who had come four years earlier to pitch James as well.
All of them had presentations explaining their plans for their roster and their teams going forward. Paul and Termini revealed nothing, taking notes and keeping their thoughts to themselves. The billionaires and executives tried to probe for info or read them. They got very little.
Beyond the team's shows, Paul and Termini had two topics to discuss. Each team got the same two. First, all were told James would only be accepting a full max contract. Unlike in Miami, where he'd taken less than the premium number, there would be no discounting, no matter how much it might help the team in building its roster. And this contract might range from one year in length to the maximum of four. While a four-time MVP still in his prime getting the highest salary possible may seem like a foregone conclusion, that was not necessarily the case.
Anthony, who is one of James's closest friends, said even before he became a free agent that he might be willing to take less than a max contract to help build a team -- essentially, the James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat plan from four years earlier. The New York Knicks, Anthony's team, seized on this statement.
"He's the one that opened that up that it wasn't about the money," said Knicks president Phil Jackson, who didn't take any discounts when he signed on to run the team for $12 million per year several months earlier. "So I challenged him on that because I want our fans to see he's a team player" -- the implication being that a "team player" would take less money.
Beyond maximizing James's earnings during his prime years, it also appealed to him to set a tone. If he accepted less than a max contract -- again -- it would set a precedent that was hurtful to his fellow stars. His doing so four years earlier had already affected the way fans and teams approached negotiations, as Anthony's situation showed.
Cuban, who had never been afraid to pay and pamper talent, hinted in interviews before free agency that he didn't anticipate giving out any max contract offers that summer, even though he was soon to pitch Anthony and James. The Bulls, with high-priced stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah on their roster, didn't have enough cap space to offer any player a max deal without making trades. Yet they also pitched James and Anthony with less than the max slot, which was slated to be $20.7 million that year.
The second topic from James's reps involved the NBA's luxury tax, which attached a monetary penalty for teams spending beyond established thresholds. Each team was asked whether they would be willing to pay the luxury tax and the repeater tax. In 2011, new rules were ushered in that made high payrolls more costly. The repeater tax was an even more punitive levy that was reserved for a team that paid the tax in four out of five years. As a result, teams had become more cautious in spending, especially the best teams with the highest payrolls.
It certainly affected the Heat. Owner Micky Arison was one of just five owners who voted against the new rules and he publicly said he felt it was unfair to his team. While he still paid the luxury tax in three of the four years (a total of $34 million) James played in Miami, he'd curtailed spending and the Heat made a series of moves to shave payroll over James's last year there. James and his team believed competing at the highest level meant owners would have to eventually pay the luxury tax, and so he made it a prerequisite of his signing.
On July 4, Cavs general manager David Griffin drove over to meet with Paul and Termini. His presentation was more informal. He talked about locking up Kyrie Irving on a five-year deal. He talked about how Andrew Wiggins, the prized No. 1 pick, could be an ideal partner for James. He talked about the extra draft picks the team had, a cupboard stocked by previous GM Chris Grant, that could be used as bait to trade for veterans.
Yet as he delivered it, Griffin still wasn't sure the Cavs were truly in the running. Indeed, there had been some contact between Paul and the Cavs on this matter. Gilbert and Paul had direct discussions with each other, and at one point, Gilbert was a guest at Paul's Cleveland home. There were positive feelings and the impression of once bolted doors being unlocked. But nothing close to a promise. The Cavs, having been burnt by James in the past, were cautious in making any sort of leap. Griffin, a brand-new GM, had a brand-new coach and a franchise player with a brand-new contract, and none of them had to be tied to James at all.
That's why Griffin had been proceeding with other free agents. In addition to staying in touch with Hayward, he'd made some progress with the agent who represented Chandler Parsons and felt the Cavs could structure a deal that would enable them to have a chance to sign him. Griffin still was hedging that James probably would go back to the Heat, likely on a one-year contract, and he believed this meeting might lay the groundwork for 2015 when James could be on the market again.
During the meeting, Griffin was given the same two bullet points as those before him. He was easily able to commit to owner Dan Gilbert spending. Gilbert had spent $43 million in luxury taxes during James's first tenure. His willingness to lay out cash was legendary within the NBA, whether it was on players, coaches (both current and fired), or even tossing money into trades as a sweetener. The Cavs facilities and services were among the best in the league. Their training facility on a wooded hillside overlooking the Cuyahoga River valley is five-star even by NBA standards. From multiple chef-cooked meals per day to having someone to start players' cars in the middle of the night so they'd be warm when the team plane arrived home from road trips in the winter, Gilbert left no frontier unexplored when it came to pampering his team.
But the second issue, the max contract, was a factor. At the time of the meeting, the Cavs didn't have enough salary-cap space to pay James the max. In another example of how the team wasn't expecting to really get James back, they'd added some salary around the draft two weeks earlier and weren't in position to sign him to the big number at that moment. Griffin told Paul and Termini that if James were to commit to coming, he'd make trades to create enough room. This was not well received. Griffin was told if the Cavs wanted to stay in the game, they had to have the cap space. It was like poker and this was the ante.
After the meeting with Griffin, Paul called co-owner Nate Forbes and asked him to help arrange a face-to-face meeting between Gilbert and James. James and Gilbert had hurt each other, and they hadn't spoken for four years. James had flown back to Miami from the Caribbean the night before, and Gilbert was in Detroit for the July Fourth weekend.
When he left the meeting, Griffin still didn't fully know where his team stood. When he got back to the office he huddled with his team and they started brainstorming ideas on how to trade players to create cap space. They had laid the groundwork with some other teams to make cap-space-clearing trades, but they had been exploratory talks. Now it was time to get serious. And it was time for Gilbert to book a trip to Florida.
On Sunday, July 6, Gilbert boarded his Gulfstream IV jet at a suburban Detroit airport and took off for Fort Lauderdale. As he was in the air, a Cleveland radio host tweeted that he was flying to South Florida. Within minutes, reporters and fans had found his plane and its destination on tracking websites and speculation started flowing. Gilbert was going over what he planned to say to James as the plane traveled south when he heard the secret was out. His first move was to try to squash it, and he posted a lie on social media, saying he was actually in his backyard. Then he instructed his pilots to change the jet's destination from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to the more exclusive Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, thirteen miles to the north.
"I had a bunch of notes that I was going over on the plane. I really needed to make sure I knew what we could do with the roster and everything and how much cap space we had," Gilbert said. "Then it got out and I was talking to the pilots on how we could change airports. There was some drama."
Gilbert took a car to a condominium where Paul had set the meeting. Paul and Termini had flown to Miami ahead of it. Gilbert came alone, as was requested, and wasn't sure who would be there to meet him other than James. Only James's inner circle was there.
It was not a time of tearful apologies. It was a part of the process Paul and James had decided needed to be done. There were no promises made. There were no contracts offered. It was a look-each-other-in-the-eye clearing of the air.
The night James left the Cavs in 2010 was discussed. James's Decision show where he announced his intention to sign in Miami had insulted and deeply offended Gilbert. Gilbert's angry letter later had insulted and deeply offended James. Gilbert used a line he'd crafted, telling James they'd had five good years together and one bad night. Then he shifted to the future, talking about the talent on the team, the new coach he'd hired, the new deal Irving was about to sign, and his promise to surround him with talent. The two shook hands. Paul said he would be in touch. Gilbert went back to the airport and flew home. The next day, he had his plane blocked from public tracking services.
"I had no idea how long we'd have to talk about the past. The answer was not long, maybe ten or fifteen minutes," Gilbert said. "I'd gone over this in my head many times, and it was more comfortable than I thought it would be. We talked for two or three hours and that was it. I felt good about it and I thought we had a chance to get him to come back, but I didn't know what else he was doing or who else was bidding. When you're in something like this, you're always concerned about what you don't know."
On Monday, July 7, James filmed a commercial in Coral Gables, where he'd lived since moving to Miami. Later, he flew to Las Vegas, where he was planning to attend his annual Nike camp, the LeBron James Skills Academy, for top high school and college players. He was joined by Wade and some friends at Lavo, a pricey Italian restaurant inside the Palazzo hotel on the Strip. The fascination with their meeting was intense and the restaurant took advantage, putting out a press release saying they'd ordered steak and sea bass. In reality, it was not a strategy meeting but actually a large group that later adjourned to a nearby nightclub where one of James's other friends was DJing. There was no free agency discussion.
Meanwhile, back in Miami, the Heat made their first two moves of the offseason. As they waited on the decisions from their big free agents they agreed to a four-year, $23 million deal with free agent forward Josh McRoberts, who had played against them in the playoffs as a member of the Charlotte Bobcats that spring. They also signed veteran Danny Granger, a former All-Star forward whose career had been derailed by knee issues. These were seen as supplemental adjustments to replace some of the Heat role players who were retiring.
Paul remained in contact with the Heat but didn't invite them to Cleveland for meetings as he did the other teams. Because James had played there for the past four seasons, he didn't need to have as in-depth a presentation. Instead, the Heat were invited to come to Vegas for an in-person meeting with James that week during James's camp. The meeting was set for that Wednesday, July 9.
The Heat were uncomfortable as the days passed and their stars remained on the market, but Riley was always confident he could close. The Houston Rockets had made getting Bosh, a Texas native, a priority and offered him a four-year, $88 million max contract over the previous weekend. Bosh had been in Dubai riding camels, relaxing at a resort in the Maldives, and posing with elephants in Sri Lanka, and he had flown to Ghana to take part in a camp for NBA Africa. He waited for James's decision before making his own. Like everyone else in the process, he had guesses but no hard information from James and therefore had to leave his options open.
The Heat felt some relief when James started spending time with Wade, who intended to re-sign in Miami. James and Wade worked out together the day after their dinner at James's camp, which was held at a convention center north of downtown Vegas. James routinely worked out alongside high school and college players at his camp and often brought star friends to play in pickup games. Wade was still nursing sore knees but was able to spend time with James. Like everyone else, however, Wade was left to guess and try to read the situation as James was keeping his thoughts on free agency mostly to himself. Even though Wade had developed into an extended family member, he was not part of this decision. For his part, Wade decided he wouldn't actively attempt to recruit James to stay with him in Miami. By then, these two knew each other well enough that such a move would've felt shallow. James knew how Wade felt.
Paul let some of the other interested teams know that James was moving on from them. Within twenty-four hours, the Mavericks finalized a deal with free agent Chandler Parsons. Meanwhile, Hayward agreed to a four-year, $63 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Because he was a restricted free agent, the Utah Jazz matched the offer and retained him. Which probably would've happened with the Cavs as well. The Bulls, who had also pitched Anthony, started focusing on signing free agent Pau Gasol.
After the workout, James went to the Wynn, the hotel where he'd gotten comfortable as his base in Vegas over the years because that was the home for USA Basketball when he played with the team over four summers between 2006 and 2012. There he continued to seriously discuss the upcoming decision with Paul and Carter.
A topic throughout the process was how this choice might end up defining his legacy. Could going back to Cleveland put him in position to change the way millions felt about his career? It was also a type of challenge that he hadn't faced before -- to be a part of the building of something and not just a hired gun, like he sometimes felt he was with the Heat. As they examined the options -- which had essentially become Miami or Cleveland -- the phrase that started to be used by the group was that going back to Cleveland would be "a legacy play."
James had paid close attention to the Cavs' moves. He knew a lot about their roster. One of the little hints he dropped was the previous fall when the Heat made a visit to Cleveland for a game. Miami won as the Cavs were off to a bad start in what would become a lost season, but James went out of his way to compliment the team. He praised Irving as "an incredible talent," and talked about how the Cavs "have some really good pieces." He knew that if he chose the Cavs he would have input on the roster, and his team started talking about those choices.
James didn't have much of a relationship with Irving. They'd been together at Team USA training camp in 2012 and both were represented by Nike. But Irving was more drawn to Kobe Bryant, whom he idolized. Nonetheless, James believed he could succeed with Irving because of his immense talent, and he believed he could mentor him. James never sought much counsel from older players when he came to the NBA but had come to enjoy mentoring younger players, whether they wanted it or not. Most did, as James had been in the league eleven years and many young players had grown up as fans of him.
But James felt he'd need a big man who could shoot to help him on the Cavs. The trio of him, Wade, and Bosh, a power forward who could defend centers and open floor space by shooting from outside, had been a championship fit in Miami. James and his friends discussed who could be that player in Cleveland with him. They came up with three names: LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, and Carmelo Anthony, who could play as a forward alongside James.
Aldridge was under contract in Portland and it wasn't clear the Cavs could trade for him. Anthony was in the process of a national free agent tour, visiting Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles. But James didn't think he'd leave New York, much less come to Cleveland. That brought them to Love, who was coming off his best season and was available on the trade market. And James knew the Cavs could get him. The concept had been brought up by Griffin and Gilbert. But they needed Love's support, something James thought he might be able to deliver.
The Cavs remained hopeful but were getting nervous. Channing Frye, another of their free agent hopes, agreed to a contract with the Magic. They were thrilled to be in it with James but nervous that they'd be left with no one to sign if he re-upped with the Heat. Meanwhile, the James camp's communications were giving them nothing solid. Instead, they kept asking why the Cavs hadn't cleared cap space for a max contract yet.
As the process was unfolding, Mendelsohn reached out to Lee Jenkins, a feature writer for Sports Illustrated who had done several cover profiles on James over the previous few years. In the spring, Jenkins and Mendelsohn had discussed how James might announce his free agency choice. Several months earlier, Jason Collins had used a first-person essay in the magazine to become the first active NBA player to announce he was openly gay. In addition, rookie-to-be Jabari Parker wrote an essay in SI announcing he was leaving Duke and turning pro.
Regardless of what James would do, handling the announcement was of paramount importance. James had been badly burned by the Decision broadcast in 2010, even though he and his team still believed it was a forward-thinking idea that put the power in the player's hands. It had raised seven figures for charity and changed the nature of the way athletes looked at making big announcements. The execution, however, was obviously flawed. In what had become a 140-character and soundbite world, James's utterance of "I'm taking my talents to South Beach" defined the entire ordeal and destroyed the chance to give the choice context. The handling of the drawn-out broadcast was also a mistake. Mendelsohn, who built his career working in the political arena, had worked with James to consider a way to improve on the presentation with the lessons of 2010.
Jenkins was asked to come to Vegas from his home in Los Angeles, though he wasn't told why or even promised an interview with James. If James decided to re-sign with the Heat, it might not have been seen as a choice that needed explanation. If he chose the Cavs, James knew he needed a way to explain his feelings with some depth and space. Jenkins booked a flight and took the forty-five-minute trip unsure of what he was going for.
On Wednesday, July 9, the Cavs finalized a three-team trade with the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets. They traded Jarrett Jack and the remaining three years on his contract to Brooklyn. Jack had been a failed signing the year before, and getting his money, $6.3 million, off the team's books had suddenly become a priority. To do the deal, the Cavs had to pay with their 2016 first-round pick, which went to Boston. Also the team traded Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev, two of their young prospects, to shed salary. When the dust settled, the Cavs had dumped $9.5 million and reached enough cap space to sign a max player. Their ante was finally and officially in the middle of the table.
Shortly after the deal, Paul finalized a meeting with Gilbert and Forbes in Vegas the following day. Gilbert was in Sun Valley, Idaho, at the annual Allen & Co. Media Conference. This was a transitional place for Gilbert and James. The event for billionaires, CEOs, and politicians is one of the most exclusive gatherings every year. In 2009, Gilbert had arranged for James to be invited -- Allen & Co. had helped arrange the Cavs purchase for Gilbert in 2004 -- and hoped to use the time to talk to James about a contract extension. The meeting didn't happen. The following year, Gilbert was in Sun Valley when James announced he was going to Miami, and he'd written his hot-blooded letter from there. Now here he was in Idaho again on the verge of getting him back.
That afternoon, Riley and Heat general manager Andy Elisburg arrived for their meeting with James. This was Riley's chance to make his personal case to James. His message included selling the stability of the Heat organization, which is almost unmatched in pro sports as Riley was in his twentieth year with the team, Elisburg was in his twenty-sixth, and coach Erik Spoelstra was in his nineteenth. The Cavs, meanwhile, had their third coach in three years and third GM in six years. Riley also talked about how he saw McRoberts and Granger, the new signees, fitting into the team alongside James's favorite player in the draft, Shabazz Napier.
As the meeting was going on, two large semis pulled up to James's mansion back in Coral Gables. They were from an Orlando-based exotic car transport company and they were there to load up some of James's cars to be shipped north, including the red Ferrari that he loved to drive around the city. James shipped some of his cars to Akron every summer, but with tension building as his free agent choice lingered, it jolted Heat fans.
When the meeting wrapped, James and Paul gave no hint to the Heat of their intentions. This unsettled Riley, who had hoped to close the deal. In the wake of it, both sides would have separate viewpoints. Riley felt like he'd wasted his time flying to Vegas when James had been in Miami for several days the previous week. There were also indications the Heat felt James had already made up his mind and was attempting to make Riley grovel. ESPN media personality Dan Le Batard, who is close with Riley, later said on his Miami radio show that Riley was offended that a World Cup soccer game was on television in James's hotel suite during the meeting and Riley felt he didn't even have everyone's full attention. In a press conference a year later, Riley made a vague but pointed reference to his opinion of James and his team's behavior during this period, saying it had been "smiling faces with hidden agendas."
Bottom line: Riley felt disrespected.
From James's perspective, Riley had been afforded a chance that no other team had. James didn't meet face-to-face with any of the other front offices. The Gilbert meeting didn't include Griffin. And James wanted to give Riley a chance to go last. In the immediate aftermath and years into the future, James and Paul insisted no final decision had been made when the Heat arrived for the meeting. James was indeed seriously considering a Cleveland return but was giving the Heat a final chance to make a compelling case, which supposedly Riley had always wanted.
Bottom line: James felt this was paying Riley respect.
Here was a reality that wasn't arguable: The years of competing for titles had exhausted the Heat of many of their assets to build a team. They were older, thinner, and had few options to add players. Especially when compared to the Cavs. Miami was at this disadvantage because it'd pressed so hard over the previous four years to surround James with a championship team. But the Heat were not going to be given favored status for these past actions.
At that stage of his career, James had become all business when it came to his decision, the same way an organization might look at a once valued player who was cut or traded when he passed his prime. From James's perspective, he was holding the Heat to the same standard. In short, there was no home team discount being offered. Riley and Elisburg believed they could manage these challenges and keep the team in position to reach a fifth consecutive Finals. That was a feat that hadn't been accomplished since the 1960s, by the Boston Celtics, and with good reason -- it's very hard to keep refreshing a team without taking a step back. But Riley and Elisburg's track record was strong and they had reason to believe in their plan. At that point, because of the circumstances, James needed to be blown away. Unlike in 2010, the Heat simply weren't able to do so. It wasn't the Heat's fault; they were competing for titles over the previous four years, while the Cavs, who had the worst cumulative record in the NBA over that span, were restocking. But it was the situation.
On July 10, 2014, James called a morning meeting in his hotel suite with his inner circle. After the Heat meeting the previous day, he told his friends that he was close to making up his mind but wanted to sleep on it. The group spoke for forty-five minutes, going over the situation one final time. At the end, James came to his choice. He would return to Cleveland.
The meeting broke up. James called his wife to tell her. Mendelsohn called Jenkins, who was in his room below. Jenkins took the elevator up to James's suite on the fifty-eighth floor. For the next twenty-four hours, he was going to be brought into the circle of trust.
As James ate breakfast, Jenkins interviewed him. James would assemble a first-person essay that would be published in Sports Illustrated, and Jenkins would help him write it. The goal was for James to be able to explain himself in full and not be subjected to chopped-up highlights from a press conference. In fact, he had decided there would be no press conference. Jenkins is a gifted and award-winning writer, but the thoughts were James's. He talked about how his four years were like a college experience, one he never had. He discussed what it was like to grow up in Northeast Ohio. He discussed his emotions the night he announced he was leaving Cleveland. Jenkins recorded the conversation, and it didn't last long. He immediately went to his room to transcribe James's words and start putting together the essay.
As Jenkins was holed up, James went to check in on his Nike camp. When he arrived, Wade was with him. Their presence there together a day after Riley had personally given his pitch suggested he was headed back to Miami. Just as the Cavs' deal the day before had rattled the Heat -- there were questions about whether the Cavs had gained a commitment from James before making the deal -- seeing Wade and James hanging out again left the Cavs wondering where they stood.
As James and Wade watched the teenagers, Gilbert and Forbes arrived at the suite and had a four-hour meeting with Paul. In particular, Paul told the Cavs what type of contract James would be signing. He would sign a one-year deal for $20.7 million and would retain a player option for a second season at $21.5 million.
This move stopped Gilbert and Forbes cold. It meant that James would retain not just maximum flexibility but maximum leverage. If he was unhappy with the Cavs or if they broke a promise -- such as spending on the payroll -- there was no long-term commitment to protect them. He could walk in a year. It was a massive power move, one made because of James's financial security and his realization of the market. Termini, who specialized in contract negotiation and construction, had intensely studied James's choices and believed projected increases in the salary cap for the next few years meant locking into a long-term deal in 2014 might cost James money. It might not be wise to be locked in for 2016, when a new television deal was expected to flood the league with new revenue and push salaries upward.
In 2012, after James's departure had reached the acceptance stage and Gilbert had a chance to do a postmortem, the owner believed he'd made a costly mistake. He accepted some fault that the franchise had been devastated when James left. He vowed he wouldn't let it happen again.
"The big lesson was if a player is not willing to extend [his contract], no matter who they are, no matter where they are playing, no matter what kind of season you had, you can't risk going into a summer and having them leave in unrestricted free agency and get nothing back for it," Gilbert said at the time. "It's not the player's fault. That's on ownership."
Now here he was, just a few years later, and Paul was telling him James would only be giving a one-year promise. No negotiation. Those were the terms. Gilbert and Forbes talked about it and tried to understand it. But ultimately the two veteran businessmen realized in this situation they had no leverage, and they agreed they'd be willing to do such a deal. At that point, Gilbert felt like he was on the verge of getting James to come back, and several times Gilbert pressed Paul to give him an answer so the team could start making preparations. Paul remained mum. Gilbert still didn't know for sure. James had already made his mind up -- the Cavs were getting him back. Jenkins was writing it up. Paul still did not tip his hand.
"Rich was the best poker player ever. We had no idea what was really happening, and he played it straight down the middle," Gilbert said. "He said to me, 'Dan, we're in the decision cave right now.' I said, 'Rich, what's the decision cave? Is that next to the bat cave?'"
Downstairs, Jenkins toiled on the biggest assignment of his career. He wanted to make sure it was in James's voice. When James talked about his Heat teammates he used their nicknames, calling Udonis Haslem "UD," Bosh "CB," Mario Chalmers "Rio," and even Riley "Riles." He'd never written anything like it before, because the two most important paragraphs were at the end.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I'm ready to accept the challenge. I'm coming home.
Jenkins finished the first draft of the essay within four hours, sent it to James's team, and waited for revisions and comments. He went to the hotel lobby to get some food and felt like he was suddenly in some sort of spy movie. He pulled his San Diego Padres hat down low over his eyes, concerned that he might bump into a reporter he knew and it might tip his hand.
While he was on his way back to his room, an attractive woman stopped him. She asked if he would be interested in having her tuck him into bed. Jenkins froze, his mind raced, and he started to think this was some agent sent to try to steal his secret. Maybe to try to drug him and grab his laptop. He had to shake himself to get back to reality -- she was just a prostitute propositioning him, as happens all the time in Las Vegas. He took the snacks to his room, not the woman.
After watching the afternoon sessions of his camp, James went to McCarran International Airport and boarded a Nike-owned jet. Its destination was Miami, and Wade joined him on the flight, which had been previously arranged as he got a ride back home. Two days later, on Saturday, he was scheduled to go to Rio de Janeiro for the conclusion of the World Cup as part of a Nike promotion. On the plane were Nike personnel, some of James's staff, and Wade. As the plane traveled east as night fell, James reviewed and made some changes to Jenkins's first draft. But Wade was still not told.
"You can't ask Dwyane to carry that [secret]," Paul said. "He couldn't. It would've put him in a terrible position."
They arrived in Miami late and Wade and James hugged before getting in separate cars. A local Miami TV station captured footage of the arrival on the tarmac and fans immediately tried to break it down like the Zapruder film. Wade, however, felt James's distance and began to believe that indeed he was leaving to return to Cleveland. But like Gilbert, Griffin, Riley, and others, he went to bed not knowing for sure.
Back in Vegas, Jenkins worked through the night to finish the essay as a select few Sports Illustrated editors began preparing the release. A photo that had previously been used as a cover when James was named the magazine's Man of the Year in 2012 was repurposed with the headline "I'm Coming Home." Paul and James had a protocol they had to go through in the morning to inform people. A release was planned for around noon eastern time on Friday, July 11, 2014.
That morning, James called Wade and told him what his plans were. He sent a text to Bosh in Africa telling him. After he was criticized for his impersonal delivery of the bad news to the Cavs in 2010, James personally informed Arison and Riley what his intentions were, an interaction that would end up being burned into his brain for years.
At just after noon Eastern, Jenkins was advised that James was ready. Jenkins had the link. He was at the airport for a flight to Cleveland, where he would be working on a follow-up story. He'd barely slept. His fingers were shaking as he typed a tweet into his phone. At 9:17 a.m. in Vegas he tweeted the news and James's essay. Then he turned off his phone and boarded the plane.
Just as he'd done four years and three days earlier, Paul called the Cavs to inform them of James's decision. Gilbert was overwhelmed. At the end of the call, Gilbert asked Paul how James was going to announce the news.
"Don't worry, Dan," Paul said. "It's already out."
Excerpted from Return of the King: LeBron James, The Cleveland Cavaliers and The Greatest Comeback in NBA History by Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin. Copyright © 2017 by Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.