CLEVELAND — Swensons bags cluttered the buffet area in the Lakers locker room, and even a skeptical Josh Hart was persuaded to ditch what he was eating and try one of Akron’s famous hamburgers.
“What’s on here?” Hart asked, apparently satisfied with the locals’ response of “special sauce.”
In the corner, LeBron James sat munching on a Galley Boy, what looked like onion rings and sipping on a banana milkshake – “the only kind to get” – as he talked to an old friend in the Cleveland media.
James’ second homecoming after leaving the Cavaliers again in free agency was nothing like the first.
There was danger and fear in the air when James came back with the Miami Heat on Dec. 2, 2010, with fans angry and ready to fight after James announced his decision on national television.
When he returned with the Lakers on Wednesday, Cavaliers fans welcomed him with love and adulation after he led the team to the last four NBA Finals and ended the city’s 52-year championship drought in 2016.
The entire day, James cocooned himself in comfort. He visited his I Promise School. He stopped at his Bath Township home for his pregame meal and nap. He wore a St. Vincent-St. Mary-themed pair of Nike 7 sneakers for the game. He ate Swensons.
“I’m good. I’ve got my hometown food,” he crowed.
James departed in July after playing 11 of his 15 seasons with the Cavs, choosing Los Angeles because that’s where he, his wife Savannah and their three children wanted to live.
For this return, no one was throwing batteries or cheering “Akron Hates You!” like they did in 2010. The Cavs played a classy tribute video during a timeout with 8:09 left in the first quarter and James received a standing ovation. After it he saluted the crowd, pointing his finger in the air several times.
James didn’t see all of the video because Lakers coach Luke Walton was drawing up a play.
“I had to pay attention slightly. I didn’t want to miss that and mess up the play coming out of timeout. But I was able to catch some of it at the end,” James said.
But James sounded as if he will cherish the reception.
“Eleven years playing here I just (tried) to be the best basketball player, the best role model, the best leader I could be both on and off the floor and lead by example for this franchise,” James said. “They showed their appreciation and I really ... and not only for myself, but for my friends and family that were at the game tonight it was a great moment.”
The most notable absence in the sellout crowd was Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who did not attend. In 2010, it was Gilbert’s Comic Sans letter, in which he vowed the Cavs would win a title before the Heat, that ignited the fans’ hate.
James, who turns 34 on Dec. 30, said he’s grown since then, which made Wednesday’s experience much different.
“I just felt different from the time we landed yesterday,” James said. “I’m a different person. We’re all different from eight years ago, I think, both good and bad. But more importantly, this experience has been great.
“It’s all about growth and we all have grown from that moment eight years ago. So I kind of leave the past in the past and always focus on the present and see what happens in the future.”
James said he feels for his friends on the Cavs, whose 2-14 record is the league’s worst.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Any time you got a group of guys that you spend so much time with both on and off the floor and they’re going through what they’re going through right now, we definitely feel for that. There’s champions over there. Those guys have been to the Finals. A lot of guys have worked their tails off to get to where they are in their career and you never want to see your friends be in a situation that they’re in. But as professionals they’re still giving it all they got as they showed tonight, so let’s see what happens.”
Tristan Thompson, one of three remaining Cavs from the 2016 title team, sat on the scorer’s table at midcourt to watch the video. Eight years ago he said he was at a Chili's restaurant watching the Cavs host the Heat.
As for this crowd's reaction, Thompson said, “How it’s supposed to be. They did it the right way. I think everyone understood and was almost like, ‘We appreciate this guy, he’s given us so much, he’s given us everything he’s got. … If he wants to move on and start another chapter in his life, we’re all for it.’
“It’s almost like when two people grow apart, it’s fine. Still friends at the end of the day. I’m going to love you just like how you love me, but we’re going to love each other from afar.”
That was already happening, with one young boy in a Cavs’ jersey reading the Lakers’ leading scorers from the Humungotron after the game and pronouncing all the names correctly. James led the Lakers with 32 points, 11 in the fourth quarter, as they rallied from an eight-point deficit with 5:41 remaining.
Thompson harbors no ill will for James’ departure this summer and those at the game demonstrated they don’t either. Virtually all parties seem to realize the strength of their bond and the value of the last four years of memories. Cavs General Manager Koby Altman stopped by the Lakers' post-game locker room and he and James embraced, even though days before James said Altman's 2017 trade of Kyrie Irving to the Celtics was the "beginning of the end for everything."
“At this point in his career, he deserved to make himself happy and his family happy,” Thompson said of James. “It’s another challenge for him. He’s a guy who likes to challenge himself. I think it’s a great challenge for him. Going into year 16, go to a historical franchise and try to accomplish something else. I think it’s part of his great book he was going to write, so I was fine.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.