LeBron James turned his big bash into a surprise party.
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With thousands of hometown fans already gone or leaving "LeBron Appreciation Day” on Saturday, James stunned everyone by walking through a side gate into nearly empty InfoCision Stadium on the University of Akron’s campus — after the event officially ended.
As fans screamed and pushed to get closer to the two-time NBA MVP, James, who lives a short drive from the school, made his way down to the playing field. James was then presented with a gorgeous crystal trophy, which had to be pulled out of a box after being packed away.
"Akron is my home, it’s my life,” James told the crowd after accepting the city’s first Hometown Hero Award. "Everything I do is for this city. I’m going to continue to do great things. I love every last one of you all. Akron is home.”
James was then escorted through a door to the football team’s locker room and waved to fans before disappearing almost as quickly as he arrived.
Before James’ shocking entrance, nearly 4,000 fans celebrated all things LeBron.
They came to honor the local kid, who has put Akron on the map but who will soon decide if he wants to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers or sign with another team. James has remained noncommittal about his future, and is not expected to address his plans before free agency begins on July 1.
The 25-year-old did not commit to organizers that he would be at the event, which was sponsored by local businesses and the city. He did not address free agency during his 10-minute stay, his second public appearance since his season ended with a second-round playoff loss to the Boston Celtics.
James and his agent, Leon Rose, recently met with Cavs officials and have been in communication with the team throughout the offseason.
While making plans to attempt to re-sign James, the team is also in the midst of a coaching search. Earlier this week, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo turned down an offer to coach Cleveland, saying one of the reasons was the uncertainty about James’ future.
The Cavs have had contact with other candidates and hope to interview former New Orleans Hornets coach Byron Scott.
For a while, the closest thing to a James sighting was Danny Hopkins, a 27-year-old from Akron who won a LeBron-look-alike contest.
"People always come up to me and say, ‘Hey you look like LeBron,” Hopkins said. "I can’t help it.”
During the one-hour ceremony, fans listened to proclamations from city leaders and watched a video message from Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, a former Cavs ballboy who revealed that he keeps a LeBron James bobblehead on his office desk in Columbus.
"Everyone in the state of Ohio wants you to be a Cavalier forever,” Tressel said. "We have great things we can do down the road and we can’t do them without you.”
Hundreds of fans waited on a line snaking around the stadium before the gates opened at 10 a.m. Once inside, they received free T-shirts commemorating the event and watched "More Than A Game,” a documentary about James and four childhood friends on the stadium’s scoreboard.
Several fans sported James’ No. 23 jersey and there were signs pleading with him to re-sign with the Cavs, who can offer James more money than any other team on a maximum contract.
Ken Metz brought a home-made flag with the word "Hope” spray painted on it.
"There’s no way he can leave,” Metz, a 19-year-old from Parma, Ohio, said as he surveyed the crowd. "It’s all here for him. He built his empire here.”
For some in the crowd, the thought of saying goodbye to James is hard to fathom.
"We have watched him grow up,” said Krista Stakleff, who came with her brother, Brandon. "You just feel like he is family. You don’t want to see him go.”