NEW YORK (AFP) - LeBron James announced on Friday that he will rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers next season, returning to the hometown club he spurned in 2010 after sparking the Miami Heat to two NBA titles.
The dramatic move from the 29-year-old James, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, ended days of speculation about his free agency choice, which had Cleveland fans in a frenzy of anticipation.
"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have," James, who grew up just south of Cleveland in Akron, told Sports Illustrated in a first-person essay.
"I'm ready to accept the challenge. I'm coming home."
James posted a photo of himself in a Cavaliers uniform on Instagram and Twitter with the phrase "I'm coming home" and the Cavaliers logo.
He nevertheless warned Cleveland fans not to expect instant success.
"I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver," James said.
"We're not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that."
James leaves behind a veteran Miami club with teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and joins a young squad with new coach Dave Blatt, star guard Kyrie Irving and this year's top NBA draft pick, guard Andrew Wiggins, that could be a contender for many years to come.
"I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head," James said. "But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn't know they could go.
"I see myself as a mentor now and I'm excited to lead some of these talented young guys."
The wait for James to make his decision shut down most other major free agency decisions in the league and kept fans in Miami and Cleveland spellbound to US sports television networks that provided non-stop coverage of his every move.
James was selected by Cleveland as the top pick of the 2003 NBA draft and won Rookie of the Year honors. He guided the Cavaliers to their only NBA Finals in 2007, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
In 2010, James became a free agent and staged a television show on ESPN called "The Decision" on which he announced he was leaving for Miami, a much-criticized move that prompted Cleveland fans to burn James jerseys in anger.
"I always believed that I'd return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn't know when," James said.
"When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn't had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what's most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."
Not since the 1964 Cleveland Browns won the National Football League crown has the city known a major sports champion.
Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner who called James a coward for leaving and joked about his "King James" nickname, praised James on Twitter shortly after the return was confirmed.
"Welcome Home @kingjames. I am excited for the fans and people of Cleveland and Ohio. No fans and people deserve a winner more than them," Gilbert said.
Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, whose team won the 2012 and 2013 NBA titles but lost finals to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and San Antonio last month, tweeted about his unhappiness.
"I am shocked and disappointed in today's news. However I will never forget what Lebron brought us for 4 years. Thanks for memories @KingJames."