CLEVELAND: The LeBron James conundrum has never been more evident.
Outside Quicken Loans Arena, before the game, a grass roots fan group handed out “Come Home LeBron” T-shirts.
Inside, James was lustily booed every time he dribbled. Every time he shot. Every time he went to the free-throw line. Every time he pleaded to the officials for a foul call.
Even though the anti-LBJ side lost venom and volume in the second half, how the majority would have ruled was unmistakable. It has been three years since James left, but all has not been forgotten.
Still, James seemed much more comfortable with the way he was received.
“It’s been less and less ever since the first time I came here,” James said afterward. “It can’t ever get worse than that.”
That night, on Dec. 3, 2010, Cavs mascot Moondog came out for pregame introductions in a bulletproof vest. James was mercilessly taunted with chants of “Akron hates you!” One fan who jumped over a police officer’s shoulder to point and jeer in James’ face was ejected before the game began.
Cavs’ fans are clearly torn over whether they want James, a four-time MVP, back when he becomes a free agent in July. Obviously, it won’t be up to them, no matter how many lime green shirts Walsh Jesuit and Kent State graduate Josh Raggi and KSU-Ashtabula student James Blair distribute. It was Blair, then 21, who ran onto the court during James’ previous visit wearing a T-shirt that read “We Miss You” on the front and “Come Back 2014” on the back.
But if James loves to be loved wherever he plays, Northeast Ohio might never again be the place where James elects to take his talents. On Wednesday, the LeBron haters were still winning.
There is an even more important factor to consider. Before James and the Miami Heat defeated the Cavs 95-84, the game was billed as the young Cavs’ first audition for James to join them next season. If this were Broadway, the Cavs would have been yanked from the stage.
Their All-Star point guard, Kyrie Irving, was virtually invisible until the end of the second quarter. So was Tristan Thompson, the other Cav James expected to come out with an inspired performance. The starting lineup totaled 16 of the Cavs’ 42 first-half points and 26 of 84 for the game. Irving finished with 16 points on 6 of 19 shooting. Thompson totaled 4, hitting 1 of 6.
The Cavs might have an attractive cache of draft picks and money to spend this summer, but they are nowhere near the team James abandoned in July 2010. When he made “The Decision,” he said Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, Shaquille O’Neal, Mo Williams and Anthony Parker weren’t good enough. Imagine what he thought when he was standing under the Heat basket ready to dunk Wednesday as rookie guard Matthew Dellavedova watched. The muscular James might have eyed Dellavedova, who is 23 but looks 19, and saying. “You play in the NBA?”
Sure, James saw old friend Varejao and the slow-starting Irving and aching-kneed Andrew Bynum and underachieving first-round pick Dion Waiters. This year’s overall No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, did not get in the game.
“I think they’re all struggling, and it’s trickled down to him as well,” James said of Irving. “He’s an unbelievable talent. They’re all struggling trying to find things offensively and defensively. If they get some things in order, they’ve got some really good pieces here. I know [coach] Mike [Brown] is pushing them to be better. We’ll see what happens.”
James sounded complimentary of the Cavs. But he could have gazed at the chemistry-less conglomeration and reminded himself how happy he is.
James acknowledged that he has matured since he left the Cavs, which might have been a subtle hint he wouldn’t rub fans’ noses in his departure on national television if he had to do it all over again.
“I’m married now,” he said before the game. “I’ve grown each and every day. No book or anything can teach you about life. The best teacher in life is experience. When you experience things it’s how you handle them the next time they come upon you. I’ve been able to do that. Everything is comfortable for me and I’m in a good place right now.”
That was a confident statement from a man at peace. A 28-year-old who is the best player in the game and still improving. A 28-year-old father proudly showing off his family in national advertising campaigns.
He’s shooting .598 percent from the field, which would be a career-best for a season. He has won two consecutive NBA titles and has a good chance for a third. He’s got a coach he respects in Erik Spoelstra and talented teammates led by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He’s exploring a chance to join David Beckham and bring a Major League Soccer team to South Florida. He’s got enough pull in the organization that if he wants the Heat to delay its Thanksgiving flight to Toronto so the team can have dinner at his house in Bath, it’s a fait accompli. He will sleep in his own bed Tuesday and Wednesday nights this week. When he comes home, he can practice in his high school gym at St. Vincent-St. Mary that he just donated $1 million to renovate.
That’s more than the best of both worlds, it’s the best of all worlds.
James said he was flattered by the “Come Home LeBron” campaign. He said what he misses most are the Cavs’ energetic fans, always enthusiastic no matter their team’s record. But even if the boos turn to cheers when James visits the Q again March 18, the odds of James staying with the Heat this summer seem to be rising by the day.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.