It marked the first time in 13 years that the team with the worst record had won the lottery. It could not have come at a better time for the Cavaliers, a woebegone franchise whose massive rebuilding plan figures to be expedited by James.
"It's a big day in Cleveland sports," Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund said.
The Cavaliers have been pointing toward this day since the end of the 2001-02 season. They spent the offseason gutting their roster of expensive veterans and were accused of an uncompetitive approach as they went 17-65 with a youth-laden lineup, matching the Denver Nuggets for the league's worst mark.
Both the Cavs and Nuggets had a 22.5 percent chance of winning the lottery. Crashing the party were the Memphis Grizzlies, who had just a 6.4 percent chance of receiving the top pick.
The Nuggets, who also are putting together a huge rebuilding plan, received the third pick. NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik opened an envelope awarding the second pick to the Grizzlies, leaving LeBron to the hometown Cavs.
The last team with the worst record to win the lottery was the 1990 New Jersey Nets, who drafted Derrick Coleman.
It was an all-or-nothing proposition for the Grizzlies, who must give the pick to the Detroit Pistons under the terms of a 1997 trade involving Otis Thorpe. They could have kept the pick only if it had been the first overall.
The 18-year-old James already has an agent, sneaker contract and trading card deal. Now he has a team, one with which he is somewhat familiar.
The Cavaliers were fined last summer for allowing James to participate in workouts with NBA players. James attended a handful of games at Gund Arena during the season and had developed a relationship with Cavs coach John Lucas.
When Lucas was fired in mid-season, James said he never would play for Cleveland. Lucas was replaced by interim coach Keith Smart, but the Cavs are expected to hire another coach during the offseason.
The 6-8 James is the most hyped high school player of all time -- and just might live up to it. A supremely talented wing player, he turned his senior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron into a traveling circus. The Irish played from California to New Jersey and had their games televised by ESPN and on local pay-per-view.
Along the way, James received a $50,000 Hummer as a gift from his mother, was suspended and quickly reinstated for accepting two "throwback" jerseys from an Ohio sporting goods store, twice eclipsed 50 points in a game and won the Slam Dunk contest and MVP honors at the McDonald's All-Star Game.
Still five months away from his first NBA game, James reportedly is worth more than $100 million -- the combined value of his sneaker and trading card deals and his rookie contract.
The Pistons, who have reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 12 years, are believed to be leaning toward selecting Yugoslavian 7-foot teen-ager Darko Milicic. That would leave Syracuse freshman forward Carmelo Anthony to the Nuggets.