CLEVELAND: For one of the few times in his basketball life, the enormity of the moment seemed to get to LeBron James.
In the days and weeks leading up to his return, fans and fellow Cleveland professional athletes had marveled at James’ ability to handle pressure, starting when he jumped to the NBA out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
“It’s exceptionally courageous to do it this way,” former Browns defensive lineman Dave Puzzuoli said recently. “Look what the guy’s done, when he was 18. I remember his first game, ‘I’ve never seen a guy with so much pressure.’ He handled it from the beginning. What most of us think as pressure, he has an unbelievable ability to handle it and confront it.”
But as James made his return to the Cavs on Thursday night in a 95-90 season-opening loss to the New York Knicks, it looked like James might have overburdened himself. At least until the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. He finished with 17 points on 5-of-15 shooting, five rebounds, four assists and eight turnovers.
Shockingly, James appeared nervous in the first half. He made 1-of-9 field goals and committed four turnovers in the first 24 minutes.
Some of his miscues were due to bad ball-handling. He appeared to be trying too hard or rushing to make something happen. One turnover in the first quarter came when he lost the ball on a spin move to the basket. He gave it up a few minutes later on a fastbreak.
A fan joked on Twitter that if this were a Browns game, people would be calling for the backup quarterback.
Some longtime Cavs watchers expected James to open the game as a facilitator, not as the star. That didn’t happen, either, although Kevin Love erupted for 12 first-quarter points and seven rebounds.
On a drive to the basket late in the third quarter, James didn’t look like the old L-Train. Noticeably thinner after an off-season diet, he stopped before he got to the basket and drew a foul rather than barrel over the Knicks’ defender. For most of the night, he was just as tentative as the rest of the Cavs, showing perhaps that the national media’s preseason obsession with team chemistry is a valid question.
Since he announced his return on July 11, James has made it his mission to end Cleveland’s 50-year championship drought. And everyone wanted to be here as he began it. SportsCenter broadcast live from East Fourth Street. A new banner of James with “Cleveland” on his back instead of his name was unveiled on the Sherwin-Williams building at Ontario and Huron.
He could look around Quicken Loans Arena and see Spike Lee, Justin Bieber, Usher, Michael Strahan and Geraldo Rivera in prime seats. In that regard, it felt like a night at Madison Square Garden.
“This is probably one of the biggest sporting events up here ever,” James said Thursday morning. “I don’t feel it, but I know it is. SportsCenter is here. A lot of people are here. SportsCenter would never come to Cleveland.”
He and his marketing team contributed to the buildup, with him featured in the first episode of his Becoming series, an inspirational program for children on Disney XD. A new Nike video called Together debuted Thursday.
Carrying a basketball team is one thing. But serving as a role model for kids in his hometown of Akron (15 sixth-graders and their chaperones from Patterson Park Community Center and Crouse Community Learning Center sat in a suite ) and across the world, along with the albatross of 50 futile years might be too much for James, at least as he adjusts to a new team.
“It’s the path that the Man Above has created for me and it’s the journey He wanted me to walk on,” James said after the morning shootaround. “I’ll take the responsibility of what I need to do on the floor and off the floor as a role model and just go about it the best way you can.”
New coach David Blatt said he told the Cavs to “play the game and not the occasion.” Blatt’s fear in that regard was well founded.
It was a night James will always remember and that might be what he remembers it for.
“It won’t happen again,” Cavs guard Dion Waiters said of James’ performance. “We know that.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.