MIAMI – Miami Heat president Pat Riley did everything he could to try to convince LeBron James to re-sign only to watch him return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Dwyane Wade didn't even bother trying to recruit James to stay with the Heat.
"I didn't make a sales pitch to LeBron to come to Miami and I didn't make a sales pitch when he left," Wade said. "LeBron James makes his own decision. What is me coming to him with a sales pitch going to do?
"I looked at the situation he was put in and I don't know too many people who wouldn't have made the same decision that he did. There was no reason to make a sales pitch."
James returns to Miami on Christmas to play for the first time since signing with the Cavaliers this past offseason.
James led Miami to four NBA Finals appearances and two championships after joining forces with Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010. Riley had an opportunity to make one last sales pitch to James but it didn't keep James from announcing in a Sports Illustrated article on July 11 that he was returning to Cleveland.
No one from the Heat spent more time with James in the days leading to his decision than Wade. Wade hung out with James in Las Vegas and flew back to Miami with him on a private jet a day before the announcement. Still, the Heat's all-time leading scorer never pushed his close friend to stay in South Beach.
"We went to Vegas together and I can kind of tell that he had stuff on his mind," Wade said. "You obviously don't know until someone tells you. I knew he had stuff that was weighing on him. I know he had a decision to make. I just didn't know what the decision was going to be.
"I didn't have no sales pitch, man. I had no sales pitch at all. I take my teammate self out of it when it comes to friendship and it comes to telling someone else the truth. My whole thing for him, which I told him several times, do what is best for LeBron James. It's a simple as that."
Considering how close James and Wade are, it doesn't sound like a sales pitch would have hurt Miami's cause.
"I didn't second-guess my decision after I made it," James said recently. "But during the process I wavered back and forth. And a huge reason was because of D-Wade.
"We've been through so much together. Words can't explain the relationship. It's a brotherhood."
James' departure from Cleveland in 2010 prompted a spiteful public email from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, fans burning James' replica jerseys and a lot of lingering hatred in Ohio. A lot of Cavaliers fans were nasty to James when he returned for the first time in a Heat uniform. James, however, eventually forgave them and re-signed after Miami lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals.
James has previously said he probably would've returned to Miami had the Heat beat the Spurs in last season's Finals. Wade also acknowledged that "a little part of me" was surprised James went back home, but added, "he made the right decision."
"The things that were said about him, were said about him," Wade said. "The things he said [in his announcement], I had no right to say he shouldn't do this. He has to be the one to live with what people said in that city. And [if] he forgives then everyone else should shut up and leave it alone."
There are still lots of old pictures of James in the Heat's locker room and arena that celebrate his time here. The Heat will show a video montage honoring James during the game. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the franchise will always appreciate James. Spoelstra also has stopped second-guessing whether they could've done anything more to convince him to stay.
"It's not as if we're trying to deny what happened the last four years," Spoelstra said. "If you look around the arena, there are still pictures of LeBron. There is still a celebration of what we were able to accomplish in those four years.
"I am not taking down my pictures in my own office downstairs."
Wade and Spoelstra also recalled how hateful Cavaliers fans were toward James when he returned to Cleveland. Spoelstra said it was as tough an atmosphere as he had seen. Neither expects the Heat fans to come close to displaying such disdain on Christmas toward James.
"It's totally different," Wade said. "I don't have any [guess] on how our crowd is going to be. If you ask what kind of ovation he should get, he should get a great unbelievable ovation."
While Heat fans will be seeing James for the first time since his departure, it will be the second time for the team. The Heat played the Cavaliers during a preseason game in October in Brazil, which makes James' return to Miami anticlimactic for the participants. Wade said "the weirdness, the awkwardness" already took place in Brazil.
"We already played each other," Wade said. "The NBA messed up on that."
By their expectations, the Heat and the Cavaliers have both had underwhelming seasons so far.
The Cavaliers (17-10) have the fifth-best record in the lackluster Eastern Conference despite having James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Cleveland learned on Wednesday that it will lose center Anderson Varejao for the rest of the season after he tore his Achilles tendon. The Heat (13-16) are coming off a home loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers at home and will likely be without Bosh against Cleveland due to a calf injury.
The Heat struggled early during James' first season in Miami before eventually advancing to the Finals. Wade expects the Cavaliers also to continue to get better in James' first season back in Cleveland.
"They are trying to figure themselves out," Wade said. "They are going to go through another point in the season where it's going to be kind of that point where they are going to try to figure it out again. It's not going to be super sailing all through the year.
"It's a new team and a new group. Especially with that kind of talent, it takes time."
James averaged 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists in 294 games in four seasons in Miami. He also won two NBA MVP awards and two NBA Finals MVP awards. Wade said James left "an unbelievable legacy" in Miami.
"What he did here was second to none," Wade said, "from the standpoint of a guy coming here for a short period of time and making a huge impact the way he was able to make in the city."
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