For LeBron, a respectful return
The last time I was in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, LeBron James and the Cavaliers were trying to hold off the Golden State Warriors from sweeping them in the NBA Finals.
The crowd was hoping James, the hometown star who just two years prior had willed the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors and deliver the first championship of any kind to Cleveland in decades, would be able to pull off another miracle.
From the chants of “MVP” on every touch of the ball, to the eight-story poster outside the building, to every video played on the enormous video screen, no player has ever defined a team and a town like LeBron James defined the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, on Wednesday night, I was attending LeBron’s return to Cleveland as a Los Angeles Laker.
The banners were all gone, and the arena, which is undergoing major renovations, was in rubble. And worse yet, the Cavs have the worst record in the NBA.
What a difference a year makes.
LeBron’s career has been like a Shakespeare classic with all its twists and turns.
Eight years ago, after seven seasons with the Cavs, he returned to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat. In all my years of attending games, I have never been part of a louder and more intense environment.
The boos started an hour before the game in a packed arena. With every Cleveland celebrity courtside, the crowd screamed at LeBron for deserting his city.
I was sitting behind the Heat bench, and I could see Dwayne Wade comforting LeBron with every fan outburst.
It was different Wednesday night as LeBron returned again to Quicken Loans as a visitor. He was now a three-time champion and had delivered the ever-elusive championship to Cleveland.
LeBron didn’t need any encouragement from Dwayne Wade or anyone else.
This time, it was LeBron who was encouraging his Laker teammates, most who are more than a decade younger than him.
Forty-five minutes before tip-off, the arena was empty and was only sparsely filled when LeBron came onto the court for warmups. There were very few boos and not a lot of applause — just a lot of picture taking.
When the starting lineups were announced, the crowd gave him polite applause.
During the first quarter, the huge video replay board showed a one-minute video of LeBron, focusing mainly on his extraordinary community service work in Ohio.
People stood and clapped, but there was not the thunderous ovation one might expect for the returning King James.
For most of the game, the crowd was very quiet, and I was just waiting for a spark. With five minutes left, and the Lakers down 99-91, suddenly a switch was lit in the arena.
LeBron simply took the game over by grabbing every defensive rebound and flying like a freight train up the court to the basket.
The Cavs started fouling LeBron and then LeBron, who for years heard the “MVP” chants at the foul line, heard loud boos.
The Cavs melted under LeBron’s intense pressure, and the Lakers ended up winning the game.
Afterward, LeBron hugged all his ex-teammates, but also every security guard, usher and concession worker that were once a part of his kingdom.
The King walked off the court to fly back to LA and write the last chapter of his career.
The Cavs fans were left with great memories but an awful team and the realization that there will never be another king of Cleveland.
Kaufman is an Altoona native, attorney and traveling sports fan. He hosts a Monday night radio show called “Ira on Sports,” that can be heard on FM95.9 and FM106.9 in West Palm Beach, Florida.