Basketball: Outbreak of peace looms in NBA s most bitter clash

By Tom Withers

LeBron James plays for Miami against Cleveland as Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert watches. Photo / AP
LeBron James plays for Miami against Cleveland as Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert watches. Photo / AP

There was no eye contact, nothing to indicate any reconciliation. The break between LeBron James and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was beyond bitter.

But now, as James considers a return to the team he abandoned four years ago with an entire region breathlessly awaiting a homecoming it couldn't imagine in its wildest dreams, it appears there has been some healing between the NBA superstar and his former boss.

Once aligned as basketball partners, James and Gilbert could barely stand the sight of each other during Miami's games in Cleveland the past four years.

It was an intense standoff, awkward and seemingly irreparable.

Time may have fixed their fractured relationship. Most of the rest of the city has already forgiven James.

Cleveland, without a major sports championship to celebrate in almost 50 years, is praying for a reunion. On Sunday, Cavs fans flocked to social media to feverishly track one of Gilbert's private jets as it flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where the plane's occupants dodged reporters and TV cameras.

It's not known if Gilbert was on the jet - or if the trip was even NBA-related - but that didn't douse the free-agency firestorm. As James' decision nears, there's renewed hope the prodigal son will come home.

But in the backdroplooms the James-Gilbert relationship.

James is giving serious thought to returning to Cleveland, to going home and making amends with the city for the one misstep in an otherwise impeccable NBA career. Today is the four-year anniversary of his announcement he was "taking [his] talents to South Beach" and the city is once again on hold.

James is to meet Heat president Pat Riley, who was able to lure the four-time league MVP to Miami in 2010 but could be running out of time to convince him to stay.

Two people familiar with the situation said James and Riley would meet "in the next two or three days".

James holds all the cards. It's his choice. It was the same four years ago, when James ended his seven-year run in Cleveland by linking with All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

The "Big 3" went on to win two titles and went to four consecutive NBA finals, being crushed by San Antonio this year.

The trio could be splitting up. Wade and Bosh have been waiting to see what James will do, and it's possible he's going to go it alone.

On July 8, 2010, "The Decision" played out in a national TV spectacle and was a blow to the psyche of Cleveland. Fans couldn't understand why James, Akron born and bred, would intentionally embarrass the people who say they loved him most.

In those early hours afterward, some Cleveland fans burned his No23 jersey in streets near where his larger-than-life figure towered on a building billboard. It was an ugly scene.

Gilbert added fuel to the inferno.

Cleveland's dynamic owner, never afraid to offer his opinion, wrote a letter to Cleveland fans, condemning James for a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own".

Gilbert called James "our former hero" and the "self-declared former king".

Gilbert also guaranteed the Cavs would win a title before James, a boast he had to swallow when James won his first title in his second year in Miami while Cleveland went 40-108 in two seasons without him.

But over the past few years, there has been some cooling between them.

James said he didn't hold a grudge toward Gilbert, and one day before the Heat rallied from a 27-point deficit in the second half to beat the Cavs in Cleveland, Gilbert offered something of an olive branch on Twitter.

"Cleveland Cavaliers young talent makes our future very bright," Gilbert wrote. "Clearly, LeBron's is as well. Time for everyone to focus on the road ahead."

The road has brought them to an unlikely crossroads: a possible reunion.

If James does come back, he'll return to a roster of new faces. Centre Anderson Varejao is the only player left from Cleveland's 2010 roster. James will also see a revamped front office, newly hired coach David Blatt and a revived downtown that now includes a casino owned by Gilbert.

When James left, the odds he would ever again wear a Cavaliers uniform appeared insurmountable.

Four years later, there's a chance it could happen.

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