It’s Official: LeBron James Picks Miami

BY Larisa Epatko  July 8, 2010 at 11:20 PM EDT

Updated 8:00 a.m. EST

Fans in Miami rejoiced. The longtime faithful in Cleveland mourned, with some going so far as to burn his famous jersey. And many of the rest of us were bemused, amused, or irritated by the whole hype of the past few days and the prime-time event.

But it finally happened Thursday night. LeBron James announced on ESPN a short time ago he is joining the Miami Heat next season in the hopes of creating an All-Star team to alter the balance of power in the NBA.

The websites of the cities respective papers said it all – or at least what many of their fans are feeling tonight:

LeGone” — Cleveland.com

“Commence the march toward multiple NBA championships” — MiamiHerald.com

(And just for good measure because I can’t resist a New York tabloid headline, this from the New York Daily News: “Burned! LeBron Signs with the Heat.”)

James, the league’s two-time reigning MVP whose quest for a championship was stopped short with the Cleveland Cavaliers, told ESPN’s Jim Gray that the primary reason he was joining the Heat was because that team provided him “the best opportunity to win now and win in the future.”

“I never wanted to leave Cleveland and my heart will always be around that area,” James said when asked about he would explain the decision to fans in Cleveland and in his nearby hometown of Akron. “But I also felt like this was the greatest challenge to me is to move on.”

There was graciousness in some of the instant reaction on the web. One popular blog on Cavaliers hoops, “Cavs The Blog,” wished James well in his future endeavors and posted a bit of nostalgia with a Sports Illustrated cover that featured LeBron when he was still in high school and Cavs fans were expecting a championship in the near future.

But there was plenty of bitterness around Cleveland — and some of the harshest words came from Dan Gilbert, the majority owner of the Cavaliers.

After trying hard to persuade James to stay, Gilbert unleased an all-out attack in an open letter on the team’s website directed at Cleveland fans.

Gilbert wrote that James betrayed the region and pledged to make sure Cleveland would win a championship before James did.

And there was also a biting column from sportswriter Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer who wrote that James inflicted needless pain to the region where he grew up.

“LeBron James should feel a sense of shame and pain for putting together a self-serving ESPN special to inform the world that he no longer intends to play for the Cavaliers,” Pluto wrote in a column posted immediately after the announcement. “To sharpen the insult, he titled his switch to the Miami Heat as ‘The Decision.’”

“Yes, that’s just like The Fumble, The Drive, The Move, The Shot and other awful moments in the history of Cleveland sports — and he picked the name?”

James admitted that he felt “like you let a lot of people down,” but he also said “the real friends who love me for who I am” would come to accept it.

In Miami, where the Heat locked down James along with All-Star Guard Dwyane Wade and All-Star Power Forward Chris Bosh in one of the most frenzied free-agency seasons ever, writer Michael Wallace embraced the moment.

“In the span of two days,” he wrote, “the Heat and its fan base have gone from bracing for the devastation of Wade’s potential free-agency departure to embracing the possibility of winning perennial NBA championships.

“James, Wade and Bosh — or Wade, James and Bosh, depending on the preferred pecking order — have made a combined 17 All-Star appearances and all three were ranked among the league’s top-10 scorers last season.”

James’ decision was the biggest moment in a breathless and mega-hyped free-agency bidding season that began shortly after the Lakers won the NBA title. No fewer than six teams – including the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls — wooed James in elaborate efforts this summer that included spending hundreds of millions of dollars on future contracts, the trading or moving of current players and creating more salary cap space to pay him and other high-powered teammates. And it all takes place against the prospect of a potential lockout in just another season.

“In the history of the league, we’ve never seen this,” ESPN’s Stuart Scott told the television audience at the start of the prime-time special.

You might have thought LeBron had broken Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time scoring record for a single game. Or just stolen an in-bound pass to hit a championship-winning shot.
“I’m talking about a free-agency period that captivates and compels like this,” Scott said.

Ah, right. One of those nights you’ll remember forever. If you live in Cleveland.

And by the way, our own Paul Solman took a look at how James could impact Cleveland’s economic fortunes. Watch that here: