By Ben Walsh
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - LeBron James made his first public appearance since announcing he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, holding court with a group of starry-eyed Brazilian basketballers on the eve of the World Cup final in Rio.
Just 24 hours after he revealed he was leaving the Miami Heat to return home, the NBA's biggest star was the center of attraction on Saturday at an old warehouse in the Rio port district.
"It's a really exciting time for myself. I am ready for the challenge," he replied when asked how he felt about leaving Miami after leading the Heat to two NBA championships and four straight Eastern Conference titles.
James had captivated NBA fans for weeks over where he would play next season and he finally announced his decision in an carefully-worded essay published by Sports Illustrated.
But he had not spoken publicly about his decision until his arrival in Rio, which will host the next Summer Olympics in 2016.
James won gold medals for the United States at each of the past two Olympics and his experience playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh at Beijing in 2008 was part of the reason he left Cleveland in 2010 to join them in Miami.
"As a friend and a team mate, I am sad to see my brother LeBron leave to begin a new journey," Wade said in a statement on Saturday.
"In 2010, we decided to come together all for one goal - to win championships and we succeeded. We were friends when we first joined the league and created an unbreakable bond the past four years."
James, who flew into Brazil from Miami overnight, did not address reports about the terms of his deal, which ESPN said was worth $42.1 million over two years.
According to ESPN, James opted for a short-term deal so he could maximize his earning potential by re-signing for the 2016-17 season after the NBA has signed a new television deal which is expected to boost player salaries.
But James, dressed casually in shorts and a t-shirt with a diamond studded necklace draped around his neck, did open up on a wide range of subjects.
"It is my first time in Rio. I am here for the excitement," he said after posing for photographs with kids from a local basketball program, then watching them slam dunk into a makeshift hoop.
James also spoke about his love of soccer and his fascination with the World Cup.
He acquired a minority stake in Liverpool three years ago in a partnership with Fenway Sports Group (FSG) that owns the Boston Red Sox, Major League Baseball's current World Series champions.
"It's the ultimate sport. You have to play as a team," he said.
"This is bigger than the NBA finals in the sense of the world. You have all the players representing their countries.
"The NBA finals is the ultimate for basketball. This is the ultimate for football."
James was reluctant to pick the winner for Sunday's final but the four-time NBA most valuable player likened it to last month's NBA finals, which Miami lost to the San Antonio Spurs.
"The Germans have a better team overall but Argentina have one of the best, if not the best, player in the world in Messi," James said.
"We'll see. That is why you play the game."
James even had some advice for Brazil's injured striker Neymar, whose World Cup was cut short when he broke a bone in his back in a collision with Colombian defender Juan Zuniga.
"For me, the advice I'd give (Neymar) is just to continue to be the best. That's the advice I use for myself."
(Writing by Julian Linden; editing by Gene Cherry)