Exclusive: LeBron James’ sly campaign to return to Cleveland followed a message to Dan Gilbert

James has put up monster numbers in Miami

LeBron James came to Cleveland with an unmistakable mission this week, the beginning of a campaign to soften the fans and ownership on his desire to return to the Cavaliers in 2014. Free agency is forever on his mind, and James is determined to make his hometown want him as much as he wants it again.

This was no accident, no misspeaking, nothing out of context. Before mentioning Thursday his openness to playing in Cleveland again, James months ago had an emissary or two carry that message to the Cavaliers’ front office, league sources told Yahoo! Sports. His camp wanted the message delivered to owner Dan Gilbert, sources said, but so far, the response has been silence.

The Heat play the Cavaliers on Friday night in Cleveland, and yes, LeBron has manufactured the drama of his return again. James can’t opt out of his contract until after the 2013-2014 season, but he understands that the Cavaliers would have to make a decision to hold back on their rebuild, preserve cap space, and wait on him all over again. He has to convince Gilbert to make the leap of faith, and that includes first working over the fans.

Of his return, James said: “I think it would be great. It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot fun times in my seven years here. … I’m here as a Miami Heat player, and I’m happy where I am now, but I don’t rule that out in no sense.

“And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me.”

And then, Friday morning, James tried to play the other side: “The fans of Miami shouldn’t be worried about anything at this point.”

[Related: LeBron drops hints at a shootaround]

At this point. Make no mistake: James will need to make this easy for Gilbert, make it a public mandate. It promises to be a delicate dance for Gilbert. After all that, how do you welcome him back. And, well, how do you tell that talent, that kind of winning and profit, no?

“He has started to lay the groundwork, and he’s waiting to see what Dan Gilbert’s reaction to it is,” one league source with direct knowledge told Yahoo! Sports.

Here we go again, yes. Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio reported a month ago that James had expressed unhappiness in Miami, and that a return was on his mind. Different dynamics are working here too. James loves to be in perpetual recruitment, always wanting to be wanted. LeBron is the MVP of the NBA this season, and yet, he isn’t the story. And he likes to be the story. In the middle of Linsanity, James made a bid for some bold headlines – and that worked. It always works for him.

James’ doubts on his choice of Miami started as soon as his cable television show ended July 8, 2010, sources said, and it wasn’t until Gilbert released that hellacious public statement that James knew fully that he would leave Cleveland behind. Cleveland’s reaction still haunts him, and he never wanted to be hated there.

Those who know Heat president Pat Riley believe he has to be livid with the past 24 hours, because loyalty is everything to him. The Heat stood with James through the public evisceration of a season, the NBA Finals collapse, and, with three more trips to the playoffs under this contract still awaiting him, it is beyond belief James is publicly discussing his next stop in free agency.

James’ camp hasn’t heard a word out of Gilbert, nor will they. Under NBA tampering rules, Gilbert isn’t allowed to engage them on the matter. Gilbert hired a private law firm and spent several hundred thousand dollars to investigate what he believed to be tampering by Riley and the Heat when James was a Cavalier. He never made any of those findings – if there were any – public, or turned them over to the league office.

Gilbert hasn’t bothered to weigh the pros and cons of such a historic reconciliation, sources said, largely because it’s well over two years away. Things change. How James feels tomorrow could be entirely different than how he feels today. Within the Heat, they have to wonder about his investment with them, his commitment. As one league executive briefed on this matter said, “At least with Cleveland, this didn’t start until the last year, or year and a half. He has a long way to go there. “

Whatever his desire to win championships, LeBron James lives for the recruitment, lives to be wanted elsewhere. That never changes, and it promises to start the hysteria to 2014 free agency all over again. LeBron James comes home on Friday, and yes, he may yet come home again for good.

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