How the Cavs got LeBron back home

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 13 Cleveland Issue. Subscribe today!

YOU KNOW THE LeBron James story, about the triumphant return of the hero who couldn't stay away.

This isn't that story.

This is the Cleveland story, the one about the jilted, swooning franchise that hustled, schemed, tried and often failed its way to finally luring the King back home.

The Cavaliers began the unlikely process of getting James back to Cleveland roughly 12 hours after he announced his intention to leave.

It was the morning of July 9, 2010. Then-Cavs GM Chris Grant picked up his ringing phone. It was Pat Riley, and he wanted to trade for LeBron. The Heat could have signed James outright -- he was a free agent, after all -- but they were working on side deals to clear cap space for several other players, including Chris Bosh, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, and they needed a James sign-and-trade to make the math work out. Riley's initial offer: a single second-round pick in the 2012 NBA draft. The call ended unpleasantly.

Reeling in the wake of James' decision, Grant took Riley's offer to team owner Dan Gilbert, who just hours earlier had written a searing screed against James on the Cavaliers' official website, accusing him of a "cowardly betrayal."

Grant knew they had to do it. Fueled by some mix of anger and desperation, the Cavs countered: two first-round picks, 
two second-round picks and the option to swap picks with Miami in the 2012 draft.

It would be an unprecedented haul for an unprecedented player, a ridiculous counteroffer to make for a guy who already said he belonged to Miami. It was also a shrewd move.

Turns out, the Heat had a pressing self-imposed deadline: The team was throwing a party for its new Big Three later that night. It was a sold-out rock concert, complete with dry ice, hydraulic lifts and a light show.

The two teams found themselves in a high-stakes game of chicken, the Cavs desperate to make up for the loss of the NBA's best player and the Heat eager to celebrate a new era in Miami basketball. James and Bosh were sitting in the Heat's offices, waiting for the paperwork, excited to sign. Miami swerved first, giving the Cavs their four picks. It was the first time Cleveland had traded for a first-round pick in eight years.

As a businessman who's built an empire including mortgage firms, casinos, real estate holdings and venture capital funds, Gilbert subscribes to the maxim that money follows, it does not lead. Invest aggressively in assets, build your product, create an audience and thereby attract further investors. The Cavs took the same approach in their rebuild -- willing to take on costs and do anything they could to obtain future draft picks.

Like on Feb. 24, 2011, when they acquired the Clippers' 2011 first-round pick (which became 2012 rookie of the year Kyrie Irving) in exchange for also taking Baron Davis and the remaining $27 million on his contract. Or on March 15, 2012, when the Cavs took on $8 million in salary from the Lakers for a first-round pick in the 2012 draft. Or during the 2012-13 season, when Gilbert absorbed $6 million from Memphis for another future first-rounder. In total, between 2010 and 2013, Grant traded for six first-round picks.

Meanwhile, the team was struggling mightily. During the 2010-11 season, the Cavs lost an absurd 36 of 37 games, the single-worst stretch in NBA history. And to close out the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, they won just five of their final 27 games, while James won his first NBA title and third league MVP.

If "money" was following, it was taking its time.

Before a Feb. 17, 2012, game in Cleveland, James dropped a bombshell.

"I think it would be great," he said when asked whether he would consider returning. "If I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me."

For a year and a half, Gilbert had refused to utter his former All-Star's name in meetings. But James' candid comments about playing in Cleveland again, the result of an extended stay in Akron during the lockout, dramatically altered the tenor of their relationship.

Gilbert followed suit the next time James played in Cleveland, tweeting his own peace offering on March 20, 2013: "Cleveland Cavaliers' young talent makes our future very bright. Clearly, LeBron's is as well. Time for everyone to focus on the road ahead."

During warm-ups, James was applauded, at least by some, and midway through the game, 21-year-old James Blair, a self-described LeBron superfan, stormed onto the court wearing a shirt that read "We Miss You" on the front and "Come Back 2014" on the back. Fans cheered, and LeBron embraced him as he was escorted off the court.

As the Cavs looked at the collective age of the Heat roster and the promise of their own, the framing of their recruitment plan emerged. "There came a point," says David Griffin, who was the team's VP of basketball operations in 2010 and was named GM this May, "when we felt the door was open."

With Irving, power forward Tristan Thompson (the No. 4 pick in 2011) and small forward Anthony Bennett (the top pick in 2013), the Cavs embarked on the 2013-14 campaign believing they actually had a chance to re-sign James at the end of the season, when he was able to opt out of his contract with Miami. But they needed to look like a team on the rise, a destination worthy of six-month winters and high state income taxes.

First, they rehired James' ex-coach Mike Brown, hoping he would improve the Cavs' 27th-ranked defense, a trait they believed LeBron would value.

Second, the franchise searched for tone-setting veterans, signing Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark in a two-week span in July 2013. And despite badly needing a small forward, the Cavs left that roster hole unfilled, no doubt aware of how it would look to a certain someone in Miami.

They remained roster and salary cap flexible and aimed, either by a playoff appearance or something close to it, to sell James on their emerging core.

On Nov. 27, 2013, James returned to Cleveland for his first visit of the year.

In the locker room after an 11-point Miami win, Heat officials arranged to have a platter brought in from Swensons, LeBron's favorite burger joint in Akron. Maybe it was the hometown meal, or the idea that he'd be hosting his teammates for Thanksgiving at his home in Akron the next day, or maybe it was that some small part of him already knew what he wanted to do, but as he sipped a milkshake in front of his locker, James offered a surprisingly hopeful take on the Cavs' roster.

"They've got some really good pieces here. We'll see what happens."

The Cavs also made a heartstrings play they hoped would persuade James to visit Quicken Loans Arena. Alone.

They would retire the jersey of former center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, one of LeBron's all-time favorite teammates. In so doing, James would see that departed players, even those who left acrimoniously -- as Ilgauskas did in 2010, when he followed LeBron 
to Miami -- would be loved upon their return. Grant found a Saturday in March when the Cavs hosted the Knicks and the Heat were off in nearby Chicago. He contacted James' representatives, who advised LeBron to accept.

"It was special, a special time for Z, and I'm happy I was able to be a part of it," James said later.

The table was set.

Until the legs buckled. Bynum was so limited on the court and so disruptive in practice that the team traded him midseason. Jack failed to mesh with Irving and Dion Waiters and put up paltry numbers. Clark, forced into the small-forward role, never fit in. Brown couldn't sell the team on his defense, and Bennett arrived at camp out of shape and ended up out of the rotation.

The Cavs did win seven of their last 12 games, but it wasn't enough to keep the season from going down as an abject failure; with 33 wins, they finished five games out of the final playoff spot. Grant was fired in February, Brown at the end of the season.


With so little going right on the court and perhaps buoyed by James' subtle signals, Griffin, serving as the interim GM, knew he needed to secure his one sure asset: increasingly disillusioned point guard Irving. Within days of taking over for Grant, Griffin began taking meetings with the All-Star and his father, Dred, telling them he was committed to them, and to winning.

After firing Brown in May, Griffin daringly announced a new strategy: "target acquisition mode." "[Grant] had worked very hard to keep us flexible and put us in position to strike when opportunity knocked," he says. "But we'd been reluctant to say, 'Now is the time.'"

After Gilbert named Griffin the official GM on May 12, he designated him the team's representative at the NBA draft lottery. Their plan for wooing LeBron in tatters, they went to the lottery with just a 1.7 percent chance of winning the top pick in the best draft since 2003, the year they drafted James. But pingpong balls are funny things. And luck smiles on acts of industry and new GMs who show faith. On May 20, Cleveland claimed its third top pick in four years.

Had even some of the Cavs' moves panned out, the team would have 
risked falling out of the lottery. Instead, Cleveland failed its way to the top of 
the draft, and to the front of the pack in the race for LeBron.

"Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," Griffin says.

On June 20, Cleveland hired David Blatt as its head coach and peeled Tyronn Lue from the Clippers as the team's top assistant.

Six days later, Cleveland took Kansas standout Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 pick. On July 1, at a late-night dinner in Manhattan, Lue earned every penny of his record $6.5 million contract, giving an impassioned presentation to Irving, along with Gilbert, Blatt and Griffin. By 2 a.m., Irving had signed a five-year extension.

Mere days later, James met with Gilbert, face-to-face for the first time since 2010. On July 11, James announced his homecoming on Sports Illustrated's website, then signed a two-year deal two days later. "I'm excited to lead some of these talented young guys," he wrote.

Not all of those young guys would stick around, of course. On Aug. 23, 
the Cavaliers acquired All-Star power forward Kevin Love in exchange for Wiggins, Bennett and a pick they received from the Heat the morning after they lost James. A franchise that was flatlining just a few months earlier suddenly had become the odds-on favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2015 NBA Finals. "Money" was finally following.

Just the way they drew it up.