If LeBron James was looking for privacy following his big announcement Friday, he came to the wrong place.
James spent his first day as a Cleveland Cavalier fulfilling corporate obligations, being shuffled around by handlers and surrounded by fans and cameras as this city prepared to host the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany on Sunday.
James, who announced Friday he is leaving the Heat for his hometown team, arrived here on a private jet shortly before 9 a.m. Saturday as a guest of Nike, and will attend the final at the historic Maracana Stadium.
He watched Brazil’s 3-0 loss to Netherlands on TV with his inner circle and then made a 45-minute appearance at Nike’s Casa Phenomenal, a gigantic converted warehouse along the city’s port that is serving as the sports apparel company’s World Cup headquarters.
He was accompanied by Cavs teammate Anderson Varejao, a Brazilian native.
Wearing a royal blue T-shirt and gray shorts, James was swarmed by local teenagers (some in Heat jerseys) who had signed up online to visit the interactive exhibit, which also was visited by Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Ronaldo during the Cup. After posing for photos with the kids, James went into a caged concrete soccer mini-field and did a 15-minute staged Q&A with a Nike representative.
Asked about his move to Cleveland, James replied: “It’s an exciting time for myself to be able to be home, representing my family and friends and those fans, and to be reunited with one of my favorite teammates Anderson Varejao, a Brazilian native. It’s unbelievable, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
James said he is visiting this city “for the excitement of the World Cup,” and said he has been following the matches.
“It’s been an unbelievable tournament,” James said as fans pushed up against the cage to get photos. “I’ve been watching from home.”
Asked whether he thinks Argentine star Lionel Messi or Brazilian star Neymar is the better player, James chose to remain diplomatic.
“Messi is a little older, little more experienced, but I take Messi, you take Neymar. You take Messi, I take Neymar. They are both great players and great for the sport.”
He said his sons are big fans of Neymar, which he had mentioned on Twitter when he sent a get-well tweet to the Brazilian playmaker after his back injury.
“I have an interest because of Liverpool, but also because of some individual players I know,” he said. “It’s one of the ultimate sports because you really have to play as a team and the stamina they need is amazing.
“My kids like Neymar because he is one of the best players in the world. He’s young, fast, athletic, and they see themselves in him.”
He said he has the ultimate respect for soccer players and the World Cup.
“The World Cup is the highest you can get in the sport, and the NBA Finals is the highest you can get in basketball, but the World Cup is bigger than the NBA Finals because it’s the whole world,” James said. “There are so many countries in it, and players are representing their countries. It’s the ultimate for them.”
He also said he’d love to be back in Rio in Summer 2016 for the Olympics, but it is too early to know if he will be playing for Team USA.
As for his pick for Sunday’s final, James said: “I’m not sure. I think Germany is the overall better team, but Argentina has one of the best, if not the best players in the world in Messi. We’ll see what happens. I hope it’s a great one.”
Watching it all with eyes wide as saucers was 18-year-old Eduard Viana, one of the Rio teens lucky enough to be there. He said he plays mostly soccer, but also dabbles in basketball.
“LeBron is my favorite player, naturally,” Viana said. “He’s the best in the world. It is big news that he left Miami for Cleveland. I guess it is good for him to be near his family and in his town where he grew up. But I will still remain a Miami Heat fan even without him. I will root for LeBron, but I will also root for the Heat.”