AKRON, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James finally thanked his fans in Cleveland on Saturday, making his first public appearance since he left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.
At his annual "King for Kids" charity bike-a-thon in downtown Akron, James addressed a friendly crowd of several hundred people who cheered as he took the podium.
"To the city of Cleveland, my fans in Cleveland, my fans in northeast Ohio," said James, "I want to say thank you for the last seven years and the years that continue to go in the future."
Then he repeated the thank you to Cleveland a second time, as if for extra emphasis.
"So I want to thank the city of Cleveland, also northeast Ohio, for all the great years that I've had," he said.
Last week, James came under fire for taking out a full-page newspaper ad in the Akron Beacon Journal in which he thanked the city of Akron for its support. The ad contained no mention of Cleveland, where James got his start in the NBA.
Emotions are still running high among Cleveland fans who felt betrayed by James, who was revered in that city for years.
After James left for Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert sent off a scathing letter to Cleveland fans vowing to win a title before James does.
But in Akron, at least, James is still very much loved by the people who watched him grow up. After giving his brief speech — and without answering any questions from the media — James hopped on a bicycle and joined about 400 children who received free bicycles along the one-mile course.
Wearing a red shirt with the word "Akron" printed on it, James also thanked that city and its mayor for extending open arms to the player and his family. He said this is the most precious day of the year for him.
"Because I'm able to give back to the city that I grew up in, the city that I love," James said to cheers. "And the city that I will always give back to."
Most fans were pleased to see him, and didn't understand the vitriol that has been directed at James from the rest of northeast Ohio since he left.
"This is his home. He's been very supportive of us in the past," said Tony Morganti, a Cavs fan from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "He said he's going to continue to be so, and I think this just proves it."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.