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It turns up ... Heat!

James’s decision big news for Miami

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / July 9, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — LeBron James exhilarated an entire region last night and shattered the hearts of others when he announced he would sign a contract with Miami, suddenly making the Heat an NBA powerhouse.

James will join All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form perhaps the most talented trio in league history. James, a franchise player who spent the last seven seasons with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, held an entire country at bay by making his decision on national television during a one-hour special.

Halfway through the program, James announced he chose the Heat over the five teams who were eligible to offer him a maximum contract. The trio may not play for maximum money because Miami does not have enough salary cap space to accommodate three maximum-salary players.

James, Wade, and Bosh said they would accept less than the maximum salary to play together. Each player is in their prime and the Heat are now the major challenger to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference.

James told reporter Jim Gray that winning is his No. 1 priority and he felt his best opportunity was in Miami. The Cavaliers spent years preparing their roster for a 2010 title run, but they fell short, losing in six games to the Celtics in the conference semifinals. With an aging roster filled with weaknesses, the Cavaliers would not have been favored to win the East even if James had returned.

“It’s hard to explain,’’ James said about leaving Cleveland. “But at the same time my heart in the seven years that I gave to that franchise, that city was everything. And those 20,000-plus fans that came out every night we played and they seen me grow from an 18-year-old kid to a 25-year-old man, I never wanted to leave Cleveland and my heart will always be around that area. But I also feel like the greatest challenge for me is to move on.’’

With little salary cap space, the Cavaliers could not sell James on winning long term, only the attraction of staying at home. The Heat offered James the chance to play with two close friends, the allure of South Florida, and team president Pat Riley, who has won five NBA titles as a coach and executive.

James indicated that he will not go to Miami in a sign-and-trade deal, meaning Cleveland will receive nothing for losing James, who will sign a five-year contract.

When asked about his decision, James pointed to the current edition of the Celtics. Three years ago, team president Danny Ainge acquired All-Stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join Paul Pierce to form the Big Three. That trio helped the Celtics win an NBA title the next season and advanced to Game 7 of the NBA Finals this season.

“Our job, myself and Bosh and Wade is to not only lift our abilities as individuals but lift our teammates,’’ said James.

James, the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, instantly gave the Cavaliers credibility when he jumped to the NBA straight out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in nearby Akron.

He quickly developed into one of the league’s young stars and eventually competed with Kobe Bryant as the NBA’s most-skilled player. He has won the last two NBA MVP awards, but how this past season concluded left James disenchanted with Cleveland.

James opened the free agent market by hosting six teams — the Cavaliers, Heat, Clippers, Knicks, Nets, and Bulls — at his confidant’s offices in Cleveland. All six teams, he said, presented compelling cases.

The Knicks offered James an opportunity to play in the nation’s No. 1 market and help bring the club its first title since 1973. The Nets, with the deep pockets of Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the attraction of co-owner Jay-Z, offered him a chance to play in Brooklyn. The Clippers offered the Los Angeles market. The Bulls have perhaps the most championship-ready roster.

But when Wade and Bosh decided to join the Heat Wednesday, it became apparent that James was being encouraged to bolt for Miami and play with two other stars from his draft class.

“I think the major factor was the best opportunity for me to win, to win now and to win in the future also,’’ James said. “Winning was a huge thing for me. I feel like this is going to give me the best opportunity to win for multiple years. Not only just to win in the regular season, I want to be able to win championships. But the things that the Miami Heat franchise have done to be able to free up cap space and to be able to put themselves in a position this summer to have all three of us, it was hard to turn down.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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