AKRON, Ohio — On a night packed with emotion and inspiration, LeBron James saved the biggest moment for last.
Surrounded by family, friends and fans in a city welcoming him home, James delivered a line he’s been waiting to say for four years.
“I love you,” he told the crowd of nearly 25,000. “I’m back.”
James then dropped the microphone and left the stage as fireworks exploded about InfoCision Stadium, illuminating the Akron sky.
James is home, and he’s not leaving again.
The NBA superstar, who re-signed with Cleveland last month, said Friday night he intends to play the rest of his career with the Cavaliers, the team he returned to after winning two NBA titles in Miami.
When he signed a two-year, $41 million contract that included an option after one year, there was speculation he would one day test free agency again. The contract made Cleveland fans nervous, but they can now relax.
“I don’t plan on going nowhere,” James said. “I don’t have the energy to do it again.”
James, who returned to Northeast Ohio after four seasons with the Heat, was welcomed back with a homecoming event fit for a King.
Fans waited in line for six hours for a prime seat for the event on the University of Akron campus, not far from where the 29-year-old James bounced his first basketball.
There were tributes during the two-hour ceremony, highlighted by recording artist Skylar Grey signing her hit “I’m Coming Home,” a song that became the unofficial theme of his return to Cleveland.
“It’s almost like she knew I was coming home before I knew I was coming home,” he said.
James was back and the city that helped raise him welcomed him with open arms. The welcome-home party coincided with James’ annual “I Promise” campaign for area children sponsored by his family foundation.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said James, joined at his news conference by several kids. “I’m not gonna sit up here and say it’s not. To know you can do things for people, give them hope, give them inspiration. It means a lot to me. I understand I’m a role model. I understand to these kids I’m more than a role model. I’m a superhero to them. I’m a father to them. I’m a brother to them, whatever the case they want me to be on that particular day.”
Although he was playing for the Heat, James said his heart was always home and he realized it was time to return.
“It just hit me,” he said. “Sometimes you just have a feeling. You realize what’s going on and what’s happening. It just hit me.”
During a 15-minute interview session — his first since announcing his return to Ohio — James touched on a number of subjects, including new Cleveland coach David Blatt, the possible addition of All-Star forward Kevin Love, who is expected to join the Cavs in a trade from Minnesota later this month, and winning Cleveland’s first championship since 1964 .
James won an Olympic gold medal with Love at the London Games in 2012 and he’s eager to be his teammate again.
“I’m going to be very excited to have him,” James said. “I don’t really care about the 26 (points) and 12 (rebounds). I care about the basketball IQ. His basketball IQ is very, very high. I had an opportunity to spend 32 days with him on the 2012 Olympic team. It’s funny. I always told Kevin Love, ‘You’re very good, man.’ He always thought I was blowing smoke.
“I always told him he was going to be a reason why we won the gold medal, and he played a huge role for us. So I’m looking forward to it. He’s a great piece.”
As for Blatt, the former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach hired by Cleveland in June, James did some research on his offense and likes what he’s seen.
“I watched all his clips form him coaching Maccabi and I kind of broke them down to see how I fit and obviously I can fit in every position on the floor,” he said.
James is looking forward to playing with Love and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, neither of whom have played in an NBA playoff game. James knows what it takes to win a title, and he’s going to have to lead the way for a team lacking postseason experience.
“I’m going to have to teach, lead and inspire those guys,” he said. “But my No. 1 goal is to win the championship here. I think it would be the greatest achievement in my life as far as on the court. Hopefully it will happen. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Fans arrived before 11 a.m. to get a prime seat to see James.
“I might cry when I see him,” said Rodneka Price, who drove seven hours from Muncie, Indiana.
Melissa Rumner and her son, Nick, were first in a long line which wrapped around the stadium on the University of Akron’s campus.
“We had to be here to welcome him back,” Rumner said as 10-year-old Nick stood by wearing one of the white No. 23 jerseys James popularized during his seven seasons with the Cavs. “We’re so happy to have him back.”
Nick was confident James would return to Cleveland.
“I knew he was coming back,” said the red-head, who was counting down the minutes before the gates opened.
Price packed up a car of six people and drove to Ohio for the first time so she could help welcome back the four-time league MVP. She said James’ poignant essay that he was returning home to try and end Cleveland’s 50-year championship drought touched her.
“It all makes sense,” she said, wearing a “Return Of The King” T-shirt. “He made a promise and he’s going to stick to it.”