When the months of suspense peaked, LeBron James delivered a few words that rocked the NBA and changed two cities and franchises. At 9.27pm on Thursday (yesterday morning in the UAE), James, looking nervous and somewhat unsure, announced his plans from a small stage in Greenwich, Connecticut.
"This fall - and it's very tough -" James said to a national TV audience, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat." In Florida, there was rejoicing. In Ohio, only heartbreak and tears. Then anger. The most wanted man in league history announced that it was time to leave the comforts of home to chase a championship in Florida. The two-time MVP, a player with supreme skills but without a title, decided to join forces with fellow superstars, good friends and Olympic teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh ? a dominant threesome that could rule the league for years to come.
"I can't say it was always in my plans, because I never thought it was possible," James said of this union with the two perennial All-Stars, players he has known for years. "I've looked forward to it. Those are two great players, two of the greatest players that we have in this game today. You add me, and we have a really good team." Landing James was a huge victory for Pat Riley, the Heat president, who was able to corral the top three stars in an unprecedented free-agent class and now faces the temptation to leave the front office to coach them.
James's announcement ended weeks of speculation and capped a media circus that in this age of social networking spun out of control. It also concluded a somewhat embarrassing courtship of a player by cities, celebrities and franchises who fawned over James, 25, a player without an NBA championship on his resume. New York, Chicago, New Jersey, Los Angeles and every other NBA franchise came up short, finishing out of the money. So did Cleveland. As it so often does.
This time, losing was tainted with bitterness. Once James shared his secret, fans poured out of the same downtown bars and restaurants that have thrived during these tough economic times. A few set fire to his No 23 jersey while others threw rocks at a billboard featuring James with his head tossed back and arms pointing skyward. "We Are All Witnesses," the mural said. This was something Cleveland never thought it would see.
Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner, was as upset as anyone. He posted a letter to fans on the team's website that was harshly critical of James. Cleveland could offer James US$30 million (Dh110m) more than any other team, but that was not what interested James this time. He was willing to make less for something else ? a championship. Maybe several of them with Wade, 28, and Bosh, 26, also in their primes.
"It's about a team," James said. After leaving Connecticut, James touched down at a private terminal at Miami International Airport early yesterday morning. He was met by Heat officials, shook Riley's hand and was driven away while a small group of fans, photographers and other news media waited outside. Meanwhile, outside the W Hotel on Miami Beach, more photographers and a few dozen fans lurched toward every SUV that neared the hotel entrance, eager to get a look at the two-time MVP.
Also inside the hotel was Bosh, who walked in virtually unnoticed earlier in the evening. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, supporters so accustomed to disappointment were let down again - this time, by one of their own sons. No Cleveland team in the four major American sports has won a championship since 1964. James said leaving behind his hometown and home state of Ohio was difficult. "I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James ? At the end of the day, I feel awful.
"I feel even worse that I wasn't able to bring an NBA championship to that city. "I never wanted to leave Cleveland. My heart will always be around that area. But I also felt like this is the greatest challenge for me, is to move on." Even one of James's teammates, Mo Williams, was distraught. "I feel like my heart has been pulled out," the Cavaliers guard posted on his Twitter account. "But I'm happy for my friend."
James's decision ends nearly two years of posturing and positioning by teams hoping to add the 2.03m, 118kg force of nature to their roster. He famously announced at New York's Madison Square Garden in November 2008 that "July 1, 2010, is going to be a big day." It was not an idle boast. When the clock struck 12.01am on July 1 a free-agent frenzy unlike any before it - in any professional sport - got under way with enough speculation, rumour and second-by-second intrigue to last a lifetime, capped by James's announcement on Thursday night.