LeBron James grows home

There's so much more to LeBron James going home than wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform. The four-time NBA MVP spoke with USA TODAY Sports about his journey.

'They helped raise me'

Bringing a championship to Cleveland is top priority

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Home is a sense of place, where you feel you belong, where you need to be. It doesn't have to be the place you were born. But it can be.

For LeBron James, his sense of place is Akron and northeast Ohio and by extension, Cleveland.

James told USA TODAY Sports being back gives him a "sense of comfort and security."

"The fact that my kids love waking up every single day and going to school and that my family is comfortable, that makes it much easier on me," said James, who has two sons and a daughter born last week. "My wife and my kids and my friends and my family, they're all enjoying life. That's all I can ask."

James' homecoming is already a personal triumph, and now he's focused on making it a professional success: leading the Cleveland Cavaliers — where he spent seven seasons after being drafted in 2003 out of St. Vincent St. Mary High School in Akron — to an NBA championship.

"If there's any fans around the world that need a championship, it's these fans," James said, well aware that Cleveland hasn't won a major pro sports championship since Browns won the 1964 NFL Championship.

The Cavaliers open the season Thursday against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena. It was almost four years ago that James was greeted with deep anger in his first game in Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat. That all faded away when he announced in July he was coming back, setting the stage for a homecoming scene filled with uncontrollable excitement and joy, and even the potential of something bigger than sports itself.

For James and his fans in northeast Ohio and Cleveland, it is a sense of home that connects it all.

"The roads, the buildings, the people," James said. "They helped raised me. My mother always knew she had someone to help and that was the city of Akron. The grind, the struggle and everything is earned and not given. We always live by that phrase."

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USA Today Sports visits Lebron James high school St. Vincent-St. Mary to discuss the joy of having their hometown hero back

James, 29, looks at his life with a deep sense of gratitude for his home.

"That's part of the reason I am who I am today," James said. "It's that drive. Everything I've done, from having the pitfalls I had as a kid — not having a father around — but at the same time, the greatness of having my mother around being my mother and my father and having little league coaches and then becoming best friends with my four best friends still today. And then picking up sports and this city saved me from making the wrong turn. It gave me sports and it gave me mentors.

"It's everything combined — all the struggles and all the great that came with it."

The symmetry between James and northeast Ohio is obvious. Northeast Ohio struggled through Rust Belt economic gloom, and Akron and Cleveland have re-invented themselves with a variety of industries, including medical, biotechnology, arts, information technology, banking and manufacturing. This summer, Cleveland landed the 2016 Republican National Convention.

James rose from modest means to become an NBA superstar, then re-invented his game in Miami, adding a low-post game and a greater efficiency. He also had to rebuild his image after he left Cleveland in 2010, which he did by winning two championships and maturing on and off the court.

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Man of the city

James ingrains himself in Akron and northeast Ohio

Pretend it's late one night in Akron. Maybe sometime this season. It won't be out of the ordinary for James to drive through Akron.

By the Spring Hill apartment complex where he grew up. Past St. Vincent St. Mary where he became a teen phenom. Past Swensons, the drive-in burger joint where he sometimes stopped after football and basketball games. By the outdoor basketball courts at Stoner Hawkins Park, where James often played. By the Ed Davis Community Center, the local indoor court.

It's in those dead-quiet moments he can reflect. Where he's from. Where's he has been. Where he's going.

"If you happen to know if that's my car, you will catch me at the wee-hours of the night just driving around the city and reminiscing and seeing the places I used to go in, the basketball courts I used to play in and just get a breath of fresh air and decompress and understand what got me to this point," he said.

Few pro athletes resonate with a city and region more than James — for all they've gone through together and separately in a history beginning with James' very public high school career in Akron, his first stint with Cleveland, his departure to Miami and now, The Return.

Kobe Bryant is from Philadelphia but never yearned to play there. Dwyane Wade has not shown a feverish desire to return to Chicago. Dwight Howard's interest in playing in Atlanta is indifferent. Perhaps Chicago's Derrick Rose is close.

James' return is already endearing. But bringing a championship to fans in northeast Ohio? That would be fairy tale, fantasy and reality woven into immortality.

"They've been part of one of the biggest championship droughts in professional sports history," James said. "I feel like I can get them there. Will it be this year? I can't guarantee that. Will it be next year? I can't guarantee that. But I can guarantee that I'm going to do everything I can to put us in the position."

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USA Today Sports' Jeff Zillgitt spoke with LeBron James about his unfinished business in Cleveland

Yet if there is a sense that a winner is coming together, that a Cavaliers championship is inevitable, James knows better.

He has tempered short-term expectations, even with a roster that includes three All-Stars (James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love), young talent (Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson) and championship experience (Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, James Jones, Brendan Haywood) and Cleveland favorite/rebounding monster (Anderson Varejao).

The Cavaliers are a new team with a first-time NBA coach in David Blatt.

"The potential is there," James said "But we haven't been together. This is our first year together. It's the first year for our system — new coaching staff, new players. So we have a lot of work to do and it's not going to be overnight."

As James likes to say, it's not given, it's earned, and he gained a keen appreciation of that in Miami. Four consecutive Finals appearances is impressive, and the Heat were just the third team in more than 30 seasons to do it, winning championships in 2012 and 2013.

Homegrown leadership

The Cavaliers are relying on James for more than his play

James is bringing several of the lessons he learned in Miami to Cleveland, starting with leadership. Irving, Love, Waiters and Thompson have never played in a playoff game — they've rarely played in games that have true meaning.

"The fans have to be patient. The players, the coaches, we all have to be patient," James said. "Be patient because there's 29 other teams that are trying to compete as well.

"As a leader, I understand that, and it's going to be very tough on us. I'm excited about the opportunity we have, I'm excited about the team we have and the great thing about it is that we have a great group of guys who want to learn."

James led in Miami, but it was different. Wade had won a championship before James arrived, and Wade, James and Chris Bosh were peers, all drafted in 2003. James needed to keep improving his game and be accountable, and he needed to lead.

He's as much mentor as leader with the Cavs, and Irving, Waiters, Thompson and Love have said they're willing to listen and put in the work.

Miller, the veteran forward who joined Cleveland this offseason, played with James on the Heat championship teams. The two forged a friendship that prompted Miller to forsake money for a shot at another title.

"The one thing about LeBron, his presence, the way he does things, practice-wise, locker room-wise, it really is a domino effect. They see it. You have to match it," Miller said.

At the end of most practices, James makes sure Waiters shoots free throws at the same basket where James is shooting. During the team's trip to Brazil for a preseason game, James made sure Waiters and Thompson joined him for a morning run on the beach.

"Leadership is on an ongoing basis and it's an everyday thing," James said. "I go in there every day trying to lead my group either by command or by example and all the above. I think it's been well-received. I hope so.

"But I don't do it to get publicity or get praise. I do it because I want to and because I need to. I need to have these guys prepared and ready to battle on and off the floor. Hopefully, it sinks into everyone's mind and hopefully they challenge me as well."

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USA Today Sports' NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt discusses LeBron James' plan as the preseason winds down.

Said Miller: "He's a great teammate because he makes the job easy for you. But he also cares about his teammates. That's a credit to him because of the style he plays and that carries over. He demands a lot of you. But that's to be expected. He understands missing shots. What he doesn't understand is guys not understanding what their role is."

James has challenged himself, too. To see how long he could go without eating carbs, James shed pounds and returned lighter — more on the Michael Jordan side of the MJ-Karl Malone hybrid of grace and strength. He has worked on his fade-away shot from the low post and his three-point shooting.

"LeBron is one of those guys who has continued to work even though he has had success," said University of Akron coach Keith Dambrot, who coached James in high school.

Two years ago at the London Olympics, after James won his first title, a reporter asked if he was disappointed he never led the Cavaliers to a championship and a parade through the streets of Cleveland. He wasn't sure then he'd be back in a Cavs uniform, but in his first seven years in Cleveland, all he wanted was a championship for the city and the region.

"He'd rather win here than anywhere," Dambrot said.

That's true.

"The greatest achievement in my career other than just being the best role model while I play this game is to be able to have a parade down East Ninth Street. It would be an unbelievable achievement," James said. "I'm working toward that every single day. I will command it out of my teammates, out of my coaching staff and I hope they do the same to me.

"Hopefully at some point before my career is over, we can have that parade."

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USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt predict who will win the NBA awards in the 2014-15 season.

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