We’ve known since his announcement what LeBron James’ return to Northeastern Ohio would mean for the state. We got our first glimpse Friday of what it will mean for LeBron James.
Speaking at his charity event here before greeting thousands of fans welcoming him home in the University of Akron’s football stadium, LeBron marched into a packed press room, turned to several stunned children arrayed on the small stage before him and offered his first public comments since returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers: "What up, what up!"
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From that moment on LeBron was as happy, comfortable, funny and, yes, lithe as he’s been since I moved to Miami four years ago to cover his first year with the Heat. He was so at ease he quickly said he plans to stay in Cleveland the rest of his career.
He charmed the fans who’d come to see him, the young people staring wide-eyed and the older folks vocally gasping at his presence. He made a room of sometimes-grumpy and cynical reporters laugh again and again, at one point breaking off an answer to joke at a media member who’d lost a cell phone, "You dropped something." Pause, then approvingly: "It’s a Samsung." Another pause. "I tell you, it won’t break!"
He also dropped some news, starting with what sounded a lot like a pledge that he will always remain a Cleveland Cavalier after a reporter asked if he was here for good: "Yeah … I don’t plan on going anywhere." Another pause, another joke that drew laughs: "I don’t have the energy to do it again."
This wasn’t a new LeBron, not really, but it was a LeBron rarely glimpsed in public, certainly when surrounded by such a cluster of media members.
He also offered the deepest insights yet on his thinking on his new life as a Cav, as he discussed:
* New head coach David Blatt: "I think coach is going to be great. Obviously I’m going to spend more time with him. The first thing I did when I decided to come back was I went online and I looked up David Blatt’s offense and I heard he was an offensive guy. And I watched all his clips and kind of broke them down in terms of how I’d fit. Obviously I can fit into every position on the floor."
* Kevin Love, a lot: "The early reports that we’re going to acquire Kevin Love, obviously we can’t get too far into it because of the league rules and things of that nature. I’m not getting my hopes too high at this point because I don’t know what could happen between now and [August] 23rd. If he comes on board I can tell you I’ll be very excited. He’s one of those guys. I don’t even care about the 26 (points) and 12 (rebounds). I care about the basketball IQ. And his basketball IQ is very, very high."
*What it would mean to bring a championship to northeastern Ohio: "On the court, that’s what means the most to me. That’s my drive. It’s my only drive."
* And what, specifically, he thinks about what he called his mostly haven’t-proven-it-yet-but-talented new teammates: "I love Kyrie (Irving), I think he can be one of the best point guards in the game. I love the chip on Dion (Waiters’) shoulder, what everyone else looks at as a negative I look at as a positive and I look forward to getting with him. I love how active Tristan (Thompson) is, running the floor and setting screens and finishing at the rim."
But it was LeBron James exuding such an authentic happiness — minus the spin that often comes with him, minus the calculation that you can sometimes find in his big moments — that was the most striking. His entire demeanor exuded a genuine and compelling joy at being home.
He talked about his mother and how, when he wrote in Sports Illustrated that in northeast Ohio you earn everything you get, he learned that from her.
"For me, growing up in a single parent household, everything was earned and nothing was given to my mother," he said. "And the way she approaches life is she doesn’t care about anything as long as her son benefits from everything. She grinds for it. That’s basically where it came from. I saw my mother struggle a lot and as I saw her struggle I never wanted for anything. I don’t know how she did it."
When he finally stepped on the stage at the center of Akron’s football field, and the people cheered and flashed their cell phones and a random fan somehow got up there to greet him, thousands saw what several dozen had a few hours earlier: One of the happiest people, at least right now, in sports.
"This is amazing," he said. "You people right here, you made this possible. Oh my God."
Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.