Emotional Night Ahead for LeBron, Cleveland and Cavs
CLEVELAND -- The 14-year-old rode with her father into downtown Cleveland Tuesday night.
She was going to see the Cleveland Cavaliers play Boston, but another game was on her mind.
"You know," she said, "if I had to pick one game I really, really wish the Cavs would win, it would be the one on Thursday."
The statement was made more with the wishful innocence of youth than anger, but it is a sentiment shared throughout Cleveland, by fans and by the Cavs.
"It's a playoff game," Cavs guard Mo Williams said. "You never want to lose a playoff game."
A few months earlier, the same girl and her twin sister had sat in the family room of their home in suburban Cleveland, anxious to hear what LeBron James would do with his future. The two had grown up with James, become fans, watched in person as he received his first MVP before a playoff game and dedicated an entire wall in their basement to him, complete with Fathead. One girl wondered what he would do, the other was convinced he would never leave Cleveland.
When James made his now infamous "take my talents to South Beach" remark, the sister got up from her chair, went to her room, locked the door and cried. For 45 minutes. Eventually she asked James via her social media account online ... "Why, when I looked up to you, called you my hero ..." She since lost interest in basketball, turning away from a sport she enjoyed playing and following.
After watching for a few more minutes, the other sister calmly said: "I can't listen to this anymore." She got up and went in the basement, but turned her chair away from the LeBron wall. Eventually, the wall came down, replaced by photos of animals from a vacation to Yellowstone. But though the Fathead is rolled up and the picture of LeBron tossing the powder are put away, the feelings linger. Both are still trying to understand why a player beloved by a city could walk away from that city, and announce it so callously on national TV.
The feelings linger for all of Cleveland. Because what James did, and the way he did it, hurt that much. Thursday night it will all be exposed when James and the Miami Heat play in Cleveland for the first time this season. Months after "The Decision," which in Cleveland has come to be known as "The Betrayal," fans can finally express their feelings -- to James.
What will it be like?
"Hostile," said J.J. Hickson.
"Very intense," said Daniel Gibson. "It's going to be touch and go."
It will be James' first visit to the arena he played the first seven years of his career. It also will be the first time back since he played so shamefully in Game 5 of the playoffs against Boston, a game when he appeared completely uninterested. The team was booed late in that loss, and James walked off to a two-thirds empty arena, stating after the game that he had "spoiled" people. That was the way his tenure in Cleveland ended, after seven years of excellence -- and two MVP Awards.
Soon after the season ended, James went into a free-agent cocoon, coming out only the night of his hour-long TV show that commissioner David Stern called "ill-advised" and "poorly executed." When he announced his decision, Cleveland fans burned his jerseys and the giant mural of James downtown came down. Creative types came up with new shirts. "Witness" became "Quitness." The King became "The Lyin' King." A jersey of James hung in a mall, the name on the back reading "Me." More recently, a photo has circulated of two young boys wearing James' jersey, with the back Xed out with tape.
Emotions in the city remain raw. Fans are hurt, and angry. Owner Dan Gilbert Tuesday told The Associated Press he was "over" James' departure, but Wednesday Yahoo.com broke a story saying the Cavs and Gilbert have spent several hundred thousand dollars hiring a law firm to investigate and scrutinize whether the Heat tampered with James while he was on the Cavs.
Over it? Hardly. Neither ownership nor the fan base nor the city of Cleveland is "over" James' departure, and the way he did it.
Thursday night's game, Williams said, will be "epic."
The national media has descended on Cleveland. TNT will have its broadcast crew with Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley in Quicken Loans Arena; Barkley, usually reviled for his criticism of Cleveland, will probably be welcomed for his criticism of James after the "decision." CNN had a news crew at the Cavs practice Wednesday. A Canadian TV network was present. The Cavs say the number of credentials issued rivals a playoff game.
There also will be extra security in the building. Tad Carper, the Cavs Senior Vice President for Communications, said the team has been working with the league to ensure proper safety measures are taken. The focus clearly is on player safety -- and that fans do not get out of hand.
"We are not trying to create a police state, and that's the important thing that fans and everybody in the building needs to understand," Carper said. "We want to be in a position to let people feel comfortable while they are here, but we're not going to create a police state."
Rules and procedures already in place will be enforced -- perhaps with a tad more vigilance. Anyone entering Quicken Loans Arena goes through a metal detector. Anyone who throws anything on the floor or goes on the floor is subject to ejection or even arrest. The Cavs encourage people to express their feelings but not to do so in obscene ways. The rule of thumb is simple: Don't do anything you would not want your children to see.
"We think it will be a real fun, passionate, supercharged environment, which is great," Carper said. "We want to encourage that. At same time everybody understand there are boundaries that can't be crossed."
Expect to see "Quitness" T-Shirts and signs critical of James. But don't expect to see obscene references to former teammates or profanity. There will be extra precautions taken, some evident -- drinks served in cups, no bottles -- some not so evident.
But the Cavs feel confident that their fans will not cross the line.
"I don't think you'll see anything crazy," coach Byron Scott said.
"Our fans have been great," Carper said. "We are hoping and confident that they understand. Nobody is going to do something that would embarrass themselves, the team and the city."
Not that some haven't tried. A web site has tried to come up with chants for James (None may be as good as Celtics fans chanting "New York Knicks" at him during the playoffs). Web sites with obscene names have sprung up. Talk-radio announcers have stirred the pot, openly admitting they want to get under James' skin. One caller to Jim Rome said he would be at the game and the goal was to get into James' mind and "verbally gut him."
Albert Belle advised the Cavs to show a highlight film of James' career before his introduction (won't happen). TNT's Reggie Miller said James should feed off the negative energy (tough to say if he can). The Heat, for the first time, have not released their travel itinerary to the media covering the team. Statements from the team and players make it sound as if they have great trepidation about the trip.
And Cavs players? In one regard they love the fan fervor -- provided it does not go too far.
"The heckling is going to be there, " Williams said. "I know it. I get it. But let's keep it safe. And know who we're there to cheer for, and that's the home team."
Daniel Gibson grimaced and thought a long time when asked if things could get out of hand.
"I hope not," Gibson said. "I really hope not. Us competing for the city I hope will be enough, to show them what we are about, what we are made of. But you never know. I just hope it doesn't escalate."
Williams urged the fans to heckle, to vent, to express their feelings. Said Gibson of anti-LeBron signs or heckles: "Bring them out."
"Be creative," Gibson said. "Nothing that will hurt anybody, but be creative."
James himself could take one step to not inflaming an emotional crowd: He could bypass his usual chalk toss before the game. Shaquille O'Neal quipped that the Celtics were betting James would not do it, and James' teammate Dwyane Wade said he would. Wisdom might dictate he take a pass, this time.
The spectacle for this game goes light years beyond its importance. It is one game in an 82-game season, but it will have a nation watching. "It's definitely more than a game, I'll tell you that," Williams said.
James can come out a winner if he plays well and Miami wins. If the Heat dominate, they could even silence the crowd. A little.
The Cavs could come out winners if they win the game. They're supposed to lose, but if they give their city and fans an emotional victory it would be briefly uplifting to a beleaguered area.
The one entity that can lose the most, though, would be the city of Cleveland. And that would happen if a fan goes past the boundaries that are established and embarrasses the city. Cleveland's weather was gray and cold Wednesday, about the same as its economic mood. Embarrassment on national TV Thursday night would hurt more, and it only takes one person.
Cleveland has a choice how it wants to handle the situation. Its fans have the choice how they want to be remembered. Expressing emotion is one thing, exacting revenge foolishly would only mean the fans are putting themselves beneath the level James took with his "decision." And they drag a city down with them.
Beyond the boos and catcalls and heckling -- "Part of the game," Williams said. "When we go on the road we get it." -- and clever signs, the ultimate statement to James -- for one night at least -- would come on the scoreboard, with a passionate and emotional crowd spurring on the home team to a win.
"This game is not just for us," Williams said. "It's for 20,000 fans and the millions who are going to be watching pulling for us. We got people who ain't even Cavs fans pulling for us."