MIAMI — There’s not much LeBron James can absolutely say about what awaits when he returns to Cleveland as an opponent on Thursday night.
Fun, weird, tough, draining. James cites them all as expectations.
He’s likely right on each count, and who knows how many more ways the emotional gamut will swing on Thursday when the Miami Heat visit Cleveland, the city James scorned on July 8 when he announced in a nationally televised special that he was “taking my talents to South Beach.”
It’ll be James’ first time back as a visitor, and Cavaliers fans have been waiting months to not welcome him home.
“It’s going to be tough, but I’m there to win a basketball game,” James said after Tuesday’s Heat practice and preparing for Wednesday’s game against Detroit — almost forgotten given the magnitude of what looms Thursday. “I understand. I understand how passionate fans are about sports. I’m ready for whatever response that I’m going to get. It’s going to be very emotional.”
True, for all parties involved.
But the NBA might have helped James out a bit with this trip.
Because Miami plays at home Wednesday night, the Heat will not arrive in Cleveland until early Thursday morning. The team won’t practice that day, just have meetings and a walkthrough at its hotel, which will be teeming with security — like always. They’ll bus to the arena, play the game, head to the airport and leave for Miami.
No time to visit old haunts or old friends. A business trip, nothing more, nothing less, and James seems relieved by that.
“I think it’s going to be very emotional for myself,” James said. “I’ve got a lot of great memories in that city. So many times, from ups and downs, and a lot of things that I’ve done in my life, I give a lot of thanks to that city, lot of thanks to those fans for giving me the opportunity to not only showcase my talent but grow from a young boy to a man.”
He’s not from Cleveland, but Akron, about 40 miles south. The Cavaliers’ franchise was reborn when they won the right to pick James No. 1 overall in the 2003 draft, and together, they soared. Cleveland won 349 games during James’ seven seasons, second-most in the Eastern Conference over that span, and the Cavaliers’ 127 wins in 2008-09 and 2009-10 — James’ MVP years — topped the NBA charts.
So when he became a free agent, there was angst in Cleveland, understandably.
Angst turned to anger at 9:27 p.m. on July 8, when James revealed his decision.
“I think it’s going to be something that none of us have ever seen before,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of what’s coming on Thursday. “If we can be a fan and watch it from afar, we all would, and not go. I would love to watch it and see as a fan, but I’m involved in it. It’s going to be entertainment for everyone to watch.”
Some Heat fans will gather to watch, at a team-sponsored event known as a “road rally.”
Of course, it’ll happen at the Clevelander — on South Beach. At least the Heat will be cheered somewhere on Thursday.
“I’m sure a lot of people are going to show their support for the Cavaliers in their own kind of way,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “I don’t think we know what to expect, but I’m sure it’s going to be something like we’ve never seen before.”
He’ll see something like it on Feb. 16, when he returns to Toronto, his former home, for the first time as an opponent.
“I’m glad LeBron breaks the ice first,” Bosh said.
It’s a Cleveland homecoming for former Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas as well, and while he said the trip will be “a unique situation,” he’s almost certain not to face the level of venom that’ll be directed at James.
Wade said he’ll give James simple advice beforehand.
“The only thing I would say to him is not try to go out to get 100 points,” James said. “Play the game. Let the game flow to you. I know he wants to play great, but sometimes you can force it too much. Just play basketball like LeBron James.”
Which is what James says he’ll do.
He won’t break from his normal routine for this game, and doesn’t plan to reach out to fans in any way, though he noted that he remains “very respectful” of the people who cheered him for seven years.
“It’s one game,” James said. “I know everyone is making it a huge deal, but it’s one game.”