CLEVELAND - The years of building excitement, the months of speculation, and the weeks of anticipation climaxed at 7:37 p.m. Thursday night, when the three syllables rolled off David Stern's tongue.
Balloons and confetti rained down on hugging and high-fiving masses inside Gund Arena, wine-and-gold No. 23 jerseys were waving inside Madison Square Garden, and the handshakes and smiles circled the Cavaliers' draft war room.
The rest of Stern's spiel was muted by the euphoria, but James and his story are well worn by now. His future might be uncertain, his past might be legendary, but the day he'd been looking forward to for years lived up to its billing across the board.
"To go up there and shake the commissioner's hand, it was a never-to-forget moment," James said. "I knew what was going to happen this day, I knew where I was going, but I was still excited walking up on that stage. It was a dream that finally came true."
Much of the mystery had been taken out of James' coronation, stretched out over the last five weeks since the Cavaliers won the right to make the first selection at the draft lottery. It didn't do much to subdue the excitement, though, among the 10,107 fans at Gund Arena who rejoiced in the official announcement and then adjourned, en masse, to snatch up replicas of James' jerseys at the team shop.
"For me, the organization, (team owner) Gordon Gund, and the fans it's a terrific time," Cavaliers General Manager Jim Paxson said. "We appreciate the support of our fans during these tough times to get to this point."
No one even dared to call Paxson with an offer for Akron's most famous citizen, knowing virtually nothing would be considered. NBA officials in New York made the phone call to the Cavaliers' war room to take care of the formality of the occasion and after a few seconds of consideration, Paxson made it official.
"You can say all you want about having leverage (with the pick) to see what could happen, the offers you could get," Paxson said. "But not one person called. Any team that had this pick would take LeBron and no one would trade it. We were fortunate enough after the year we just went through there was somebody of that caliber available."
After a night of celebration with friends and family, LeBron will be in Cleveland for a news conference at 3 p.m. today. He'll likely receive a warm reception, and not some of the boos he heard in New York Thursday.
"They boo everybody if they don't go to the Knicks," James said. "I heard about the party in Cleveland. I wish I was there."
The Cavaliers can sign James after Tuesday. Paxson has already had initial negotiations with James' agent, Aaron Goodwin, but there isn't much to discuss. Based on the collective bargaining agreement, James' salary is slotted to be $18.79 million for four years. He'll earn $4.02 million this season, $4.32 next year, $4.62 in 2007-08, and $5.8 million in his option year.
That is chump change compared with his Nike deal, which will earn him $90 million and a contract with trading-card company Upper Deck which is reportedly worth $5 million. James and Goodwin have also been negotiating sponsorship deals with sports drink and automobile companies that are sure to produce even more millions before James plays in his first game.
"It is going to be another level of pressure," James said. "But it is good to excite the fans of Cleveland again."
To be sure, the Cavaliers have a long way to go even with James. They landed him in large part because they shared with Denver the dubious distinction of possessing the worst record in the NBA last season, going 17-65.
"We still have a lot of work to do. At least we have a lot more hope than we've had," Paxson said. "LeBron's got a lot of challenges ahead."
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