CLEVELAND — LeBron James raised his right hand, and then his left, before clasping them together Wednesday night in acknowledgement of the standing ovation from the Quicken Loans Arena crowd following a first-quarter timeout in his first game back in Cleveland since joining the Los Angeles Lakers last summer.
A video played, showing highlights from James’ triumphant second tenure with Cleveland: his Game 7 NBA Finals block on Andre Iguodala that helped save a historic series, his subsequent tears as he clutched that 2016 Larry O’Brien Trophy, and, poignantly, footage from the I Promise School he opened after he left the Cavaliers over the summer.
There wasn’t a hint of hostility, anger or entitlement from the home fans on a brisk November evening.
In other words, this night was nothing like Dec. 2, 2010, months after James left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, and the fans gave him such a vicious reaction that many who observed said they wished to never be in such an atmosphere again.
There was no extra security in anticipation of any chicanery Wednesday night, and also no sign of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, the man who fanned the flames of fans’ anger in comic sans in 2010.
“I’m a different person,” James said after the Lakers’ 109-105 victory. “We’re all different. It’s all about growth and we had to learn from that moment eight years ago, so we’ll leave the past in the past and focus on the present and see what happens in the future.”
The present could’ve very well been overwhelming for James, even before he put on a performance that’s now considered customary as he scored 32 points with 14 rebounds and seven assists in 35 minutes.
It all started with a surprise appearance at his school, which prompted a young student to cry in James’ arms.
“The day started off great,” James said. “I got an opportunity to go down to the school, see my kids. Great warm welcome. I was already blessed and thankful for that moment.”
Those moments carried over into the evening, when James was resoundingly cheered on the Jumbotron while warming up, and it built into a crescendo when he was announced last in the Lakers’ starting lineup, running out from the locker room moments before he was introduced.
“To hear the fans’ reception, for my 11 years playing here, I tried to be the best basketball player, best role model, best leader I could be on and off the floor, lead by example for this franchise and they showed their appreciation,” James said. “It was a great moment for us.”
Perhaps it was shame from eight years ago, the way fans behaved during that night when James initially returned and the criticism the fan base received as a result. Or maybe it was as simple as James delivering on his promise to win a title for a city that hadn’t seen a celebration in generations, that was grateful for memories of warm spring runs instead of the cold reality the franchise faces now.
“It’s different,” Lakers guard Rajon Rondo told Yahoo Sports. “It wasn’t that big of a deal this time, right? Third team. He did what he said he was gonna do. He said he was gonna come back with a ring. The city’s back and he’s forever a legend.”
The only time the Cavaliers’ faithful could bring itself to boo James was late in the fourth quarter when he was at the foul line and the Lakers were down five. Until that point, every spectacular pass, every long jumper and his one devastating finish at the rim was cheered, even out of wistfulness.
When he tied the game at 99 with a triple a few moments later, the cheers were back in full force.
“I appreciated these fans, as much as they appreciated me,” James said. “Every night we stepped out on the floor, they always showed their appreciation, not only to myself but to my teammates.
“The last four years, those championship runs we were making, it was my salute to them. Them appreciating what I was able to accomplish with my teammates and coaching staff those four years.”
On the floor, the Cavs’ remnants of contention that were centered on James were sparse. Coach Tyronn Lue was fired after an 0-6 start. J.R. Smith has been sent home after comments about the team tanking, and the Cavaliers will try to accommodate him with a trade.
Kevin Love stood in the hallway near the locker room moments before the game started, his injured toe keeping him out of action for at least another month, if not longer.
Of the Cavaliers who helped Cleveland come back from a 3-1 Finals deficit in 2016, only Tristan Thompson was on the floor Wednesday night. He and James exchanged their customary handshake before and after the game near center court.
“Anytime you have a group of guys you spend so much time with on and off the floor, and they’re going through what they’re going through, they’re champions over there,” James said. “You never want to see your friends in the situation they’re in. As professionals, they’re still giving all they got.”
But off the floor, there was very little evidence of James’ departure and plenty of signs of the effect of James’ presence downtown.
The nearby JACK Cleveland Casino — owned by Gilbert — was full of life in the middle of the afternoon. Blackjack dealers, gamblers and fans killing time before the game wore Cavaliers garb — most donning jerseys with the name “James” on the back.
James joined a franchise that had been in tatters before him, between him and, now, after him. Its very existence has largely been tied to him, and although competitive on this night, Cleveland fell to 2-14 with a long rebuild ahead.
“All of that’s gone,” one fan said with a smile as he exited. “All that’s gone.”
James has been “all” to a region that wanted a hero and for this night, he got a hero’s homecoming — if only for a night.
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