It might seem like he has it all, but LeBron will miss Cleveland one day
CLEVELAND -- Well, that was not what they wanted.
No, Cleveland was hoping its plucky young team would drive hard to the basket, hit its free throws, grab every loose ball and dump LeBron James in a vat of hot wax. It was clear the night wasn't going well for the Cavaliers when the second half started and they asked the refs if they could use a Nerf hoop.
This was all wrong. And yet, it was completely right. This was a Cleveland sports night -- the whole exquisitely miserable experience wrapped up in one cold and unfulfilling evening. It began with an electric, playoff-like atmosphere and ended with the Heat drilling the Cavs. The final was 118-90, but it wasn't even that close. The Cavs scored garbage-time points against Eddie House, Erick Dampier and three of LeBron's accountants. (He got them roster spots because hey, they're his friends!)
The basketball lesson for the day was that 'tis better to have LeBron James than to have loved and lost him. But this night was never really about basketball. It was about Cleveland. It was about Brian Sipe and Earnest Byner and Craig Ehlo. It was about Cavs fan Bart Gruber, who brought his 8-year-old son to the game -- not so much to cheer or boo, but because they are Cavs fans. I asked Gruber what he told his son after "The Decision."
"After he cried for two hours," Gruber said, "I just told him this was life."
Miami will never have a night like this. Never. The Heat may win championships, but their fans will never pack their arena simply to boo. The team will never be ingrained in the city's fabric like every Cleveland team. There are passionate fans in Miami, of course, but not as many. Some of the biggest roars of the night were for former Brown (and Cleveland native) Bernie Kosar, who went to one Pro Bowl. Any town can celebrate championships. Cleveland celebrates heartache.
On some level, James has to realize this now. He played his butt off against Cleveland -- 38 points, eight assists, five rebounds in just 30 minutes. It was an especially impressive performance considering that he seemed self-conscious the whole night. He knew everybody was judging him. He knew it when he listened to his headphones in a crowded locker room before the game, when he did windmill dunks in the layup line and when he did his famous powder-clap before the opening tip.
And he surely knew it when he went over to the Cavs' bench during the game to joke with some of his former teammates. It was calculated, a way to soften the crowd. See? These guys like me. How bad can I be? And you could tell by the Cavs' faces that they were stuck -- they didn't want to ignore him but didn't want to be seen talking to him, either.
At one point, in a moment caught on video and posted on YouTube, Cavs assistant coach Jamahl Mosley appeared to tell James to shut the bleep up.
Mosley was not alone. In Miami this week, somebody asked LeBron if he would like to see his number retired in Cleveland someday. He was, after all, the best player in franchise history. He said he would love that, and you know what? I think the Cavs would love to hang his jersey from the rafters, as long as he is in it.
Most Cleveland fans say -- and have said since July -- that they aren't mad that LeBron left; they're mad at how he left. Of course, this is easy to say. It allows fans to take the high road and still be mad. But ask yourself this: If LeBron had played for Miami for seven years, then left for Cleveland in the same way, would Miami be nearly as angry as Cleveland is?
Trick question. NBA stars don't leave Miami for Cleveland.
I'm no psychologist, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that a guy who calls himself King James and has his initials and "Vivat Rex" -- Latin for "Long live the king" -- on his custom-made Nike jacket, and has CHOSEN 1 tattooed across his back and WITNESS tattooed on one calf and HISTORY on the other calf might have a big ego. It is an ego borne of insecurity, and this is why he left for Miami in the first place: He wanted things to be easier. He wanted Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh at his side and South Beach a short drive away. That is the fundamental disconnect between James and Cleveland fans. They gave up on easy a long time ago.
So there they sat, at a table, the self-anointed Big Three, from left to right, Wade, James, Bosh. James said he loves Cleveland fans but that a "I'm a Miami ... Heat guy," because when you do something stupid like give your team a singular nickname, this is the silly stuff your stars have to say.
Behind the Heat bench, where fans wore shirts that read LeBUM, and a man and woman hugged and wore matching VICTIM shirts and looked like they had just run over their poodle, it got ugly. James may have ungodly leaping ability and ridiculous hand-eye coordination, but he also has ears, and the fans knew he could he hear them. Some of the chants were amusing ("Scottie Pip-pen!) and some were cruel ("Ak-ron hates you!") and many were unprintable. At least one cup flew out of the stands toward the Miami bench. It was a little inappropriate, considering he does have that CHOSEN 1 tattoo and it is Hanukkah.
Anyway, James seemed unfazed. He joked with Wade and Bosh about a broken bobblehead doll that landed near them. He ignored almost everything the fans screamed.
And then a few guys sitting on the baseline got his attention. They didn't taunt him. They didn't yell. They just said:
Look around. Do you see all the fans? This is Cleveland. This is what you're missing. You'll never have this in Miami.
And LeBron James agreed.
"He said, 'You guys are crazy,'" said one of the fans, named Ryan Napier.
James meant it as a compliment. They are crazy. He has left them for a land where there is no winter, for teammates who were stars before he joined them, for fans who care passionately about their basketball team for every bit of the final two minutes of playoff games. Someday, he'll miss those crazy fans and those winter nights. Someday, he'll miss all those witnesses.
We just let the prince proove us all wrong! Two times the Cavs had chances to pummel Prince James on break-away lay-ups and we tickeled him. Our players played with him, hugged him, joked with him. Are you kidding me! The saddest part of the whole night was Byron Scott acted like he was scared to death. So much for leadership.
CLEVELAND -- It used to be LeBron James' favorite little corner in the NBA, the place he felt safest and happiest and most at home.
It's the space right in front of the Cavaliers bench and along the nearby baseline. For James, more emotional moments have unfolded in that spot than in all of the gyms across the country and around the world.
He has celebrated uncountable great players there; flexing his muscles, smiling or growling with delight.
He's danced there. He's posed for fake pictures with his teammates there.
He's held his son on his lap there. He's embraced his buddies and bosses who had season tickets there -- everyone from Jay-Z to Warren Buffett to Phil Knight.
He kissed his mother there on his way to the locker room after winning the Eastern Conference title.
Thursday night in a hot and venomous crucible, it was both surprising and understandable that it was where he found comfort and shelter.
Right in front of the Cavs bench and, as it now has become, owner Dan Gilbert's courtside seats, James found his Most Valuable Player groove that has been largely missing during his time with the Miami Heat.
James was masterful in his return to Cleveland in the Heat's 118-90 win over the Cavs. It was far and away his best game since joining Miami and perhaps one of the best regular-season performances of his career considering the unique circumstances.
Simply and oddly, James looked like a Cav again.
"It was impressive," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It takes a special player and a person to be able to respond to all of this scrutiny."
James responded by celebrating many of his baskets, the return of his jumper and the consequences of his decision precisely at his favorite spot. He followed shot after shot in a stunning third quarter, during which he scored 24 points on a dizzying 10-of-12 shooting. James gestured and yelled at his old teammates. He made faces at the owners' seats as he swaggered upcourt.
It was what he's always done, and, without any apparent fear of retribution from a stunned Cavs team, he fell right into his old habits. The hotter he got the more demonstrative he was, zipping past the bench with his head bouncing and his eyes rolling.
Just like old times.
"It was seven great years here," James said afterward, basking in his 38-point night. "A lot of memories here."
One memory James didn't seem to remember was the last time he was in that corner. Sitting on the end of the bench for the last minutes of the Cavs' humiliating Game 5 loss to the Celtics last May, he and Gilbert were 10 feet apart but never looked at each other.
That game was one of the worst of his career. He and his team failed on a massive stage, and James ultimately left Cleveland.
The stakes weren't the same on Thursday but the pressure felt just as intense. This time James delivered a superstar performance, all of which made the celebrating harder to watch for the overly emotional fans -- and perhaps the Cavs players.
"I know those guys and we've had a lot of battles on the same court," James said. "So it was fun to have an opportunity to go against them."
Before the game several Cavs, including former friend Mo Williams, shunned James as he tried to come over to the bench to greet them. During the first half, James wandered over to talk to the bench only to have several players completely ignore him.
Others, including friend Daniel Gibson, treated it like it was 2009 as they chatted James up.
By the third quarter, when James was on fire and the game was getting out of hand, the only reaction came from Anderson Varejao, who swiped James' headband off his head and tossed it aside when James was brazen enough to again step over to his favorite spot.
"I really didn't see that," Cavs coach Byron Scott said, perhaps trying to be pragmatic on a night when his team had many other problems to examine. It is hard to believe Scott, a veteran of the Celtics-Lakers wars, could endorse such behavior.
"I'm not really worried about that," Scott said. "That stuff is what he does most games."
This was not most games. This was one of the most demanding moments of James' young career. Cleveland used the evening to speak to him. Early in the game, the crowd poured out pain in waves of noise with more energy than has ever been felt in Quicken Loans Arena.
James answered them by reminding them what they'd lost and did it in the same fashion he'd won them over. Right down to the few square feet he made a centerpiece of his days as a Cav.
"I'm satisfied and happy right now," James said. "I understand [fans'] frustration. But I'm moving on."
From Chaos Comes Clarity
By Michael Wallace
CLEVELAND -- He got a firm grip, locked in on the target, took aim and launched his shot with about seven minutes left in the game on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
It would be the last shot he took on behalf of the Cleveland Cavaliers that night, so he intended to make it a good one. By then, his team was already being spanked by 30 points. Frustration was setting in, and the last thing he wanted to see was LeBron James -- or "LeQuitter" as he was shouting at the time -- smiling at the end of what quickly turned into a laugher of a homecoming for James.
Standing five rows directly behind the Heat's bench, the man in the blue jeans, white t-shirt and filthy mouth launched an object that was headed directly toward the back of James' head as the superstar sat unaware watching his new team finish off his former squad.
This time, it turned out to be knotted rally towel, which fell about two feet short of striking James before it was swatted down by a Heat security officer. Maybe that fan, who was quickly whisked out of the arena with a taser gun aimed at his back by police, wasn't aiming at James after all.
Perhaps he was attempting to do everyone in the building a favor. Because someone probably should have thrown in the towel for the Cavaliers way before things got as ugly as they did in the fourth quarter of Miami's 118-90 victory that was part coming-out party, part confirmation hearing for James.
LeBron announced he was joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami on July 8 and signed his free agent contract on July 9. But December 2 should go down as the day he officially laid a foundation with his new basketball family by torturing his old one with 38 points, eight rebounds, five assists, one block, a steal and no turnovers in 30 magnificently efficient minutes.