MIAMI -- Farewell, Cleveland. Hello, Miami.
LeBron James never had 24 hours quite like this.
The decision. The letter. The arrival. The celebration. All filled with drama, all representing a new chapter for the two-time MVP.
"I understand now that I've made the right decision," James said.
A packed arena of Miami Heat fans, plus another 10,000 or so outside the building, couldn't have been more thrilled to hear James say those words. His acquisition by the Heat became official Friday night, not long after he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- the NBA's newest superstar trio -- arrived together in a spectacle typically reserved for rock concerts and award shows.
Dressed in a white Heat uniform for the first time, James took a look at his new home crowd, folded his arms across his chest after he and his teammates were dropped from the sky on a forklift, and nodded.
The MVP has taken center stage in Miami.
"We know what the fans want," James said.
In case there was some question, they told him: Yes, a "Beat L.A." chant broke out in July, call it an opening salvo aimed at the two-time defending champion Lakers.
Great fanfare. Great expectations.
"It's still surreal, man," Wade said. "Me, Chris and 'Bron. We ready. We want to go to the gym now."
Wade was in the middle as the trio was lifted skyward for the entrance - Bosh on his right, James on his left. Bosh pointed to the fans and screamed, while Wade aimed his index fingers at the crowd and James strutted about to the fans' delight.
They walked down the stairs to a long runway, slapping high-fives with fans, clapping their hands and soaking in the atmosphere.
"We wanted to come here, then LeBron wanted to come," Bosh said. "Let's get it done, man. Let's get this thing going."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Heat continued working on sign-and-trade deals for both players, which were completed long after the event ended, around 11 p.m. The Heat sent two future first-round and two second-round picks to the Cavaliers for James, while packaging two first-round picks to the Raptors for Bosh.
"We here now," James said. "And we're here for a long time."
Wade, Bosh and James all signed their six-year contracts earlier Friday night, each set to make about $2 million less than the $16.6 million they could have demanded for the coming season.
"They're going to be here for a while," Heat president Pat Riley said, adding, "all three of these gentlemen up here are going to be here for a long time and they're going to be here for a long time for us to enjoy, thoroughly enjoy."
The last 24 hours, though, were not ones James could enjoy.
He said he anguished over the decision to leave Cleveland, which sparked a level of outrage he didn't even expect. Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert called James' choice "cowardly betrayal" and issued this statement: "I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE."
"I feel great now," James said. "The fans and this organization have put me back in a family-oriented place."
At the rally, which was announced Friday afternoon and people still snatched up all 13,000 available seats in an hour, fans were given posters with James, Wade and Bosh together in Heat uniforms -- "Yes. We. Did." was the slogan in big white letters.
|Bosh, Wade and LeBron take to the stage in celebration with the Heat fans. (US Presswire)|
"When I look around and see No. 6 and No. 1 on the court with me, that's when it's going to see real," Wade said.
James will wear No. 6 in Miami, Bosh No. 1, both having switched their numbers. Wade considered swapping his No. 3 as well.
"Then I realized, three is magical, and now it represents more than just my number," Wade said. "It represents the three of us making sacrifices as well."
Wade and Bosh decided Tuesday that they would play together in Miami, releasing that information to the world on Wednesday. With that, it was all up to James, who said he decided Thursday morning - hours before his made-for-TV announcement special that night -- that he'd join the Heat and form a power triple.
James touched down Friday morning, took his physical, and then arrived for the party.
Expectations couldn't be higher, and James, Wade and Bosh all accepted the challenge.
"Bring it on. We'll accept it," Wade said. "At the end of the day we know what's important. And what's important is winning ballgames and winning championships. So once you do that, winner take all."
On Friday in Miami, the scene was sheer bliss.
James' jerseys weren't even going on hangers inside the Miami team store; for the most part, they were getting sold as soon as they could be taken out of the box. A line of fans snaked around the arena on a steamy morning just to put their names on a waiting list for tickets. The switchboard at AmericanAirlines Arena was overwhelmed for much of the day, and the seats for the welcoming bash were made available online at 4 p.m. - and were gone in an hour.
"The road to history," James wrote early Friday on Twitter, "starts now."