CLEVELAND — Thursday was a surprisingly sunny day in Cleveland but it could’ve easily been confused with a Sunday spiritual revival, a Saturday morning tailgate outside an SEC football stadium, or some Frankenstein combination of the two. Cleveland is far from a small town but has adapted many of those qualities with the return of the NBA season — and a certain homegrown talent.
People played hooky from work to walk around downtown streets in Cavaliers T-shirts and jerseys from vastly different eras in franchise history. Bars posted window signs to fuel the anticipation that had nearly four months to build. The streets and parking garages surrounding Quicken Loans Arena were filled with revelers ready to take in a special moment that once seemed unimaginable but was about to be crystalized: LeBron James is back.
But while the city, state and region was prepared for a party, the guest of honor never arrived in the form that they had grown accustomed. When he wasn't fumbling the ball or working too hard to be unselfish, James was struggling to find comfortable places on the floor for his shots. The sellout crowd waited in vain for a heroic finish that never came, as a new era for the franchise ended with a 95-90 loss to the New York Knicks.
“Who wouldn’t peak emotionally with a night like this?,” James said. “It’s nothing you can do about it. Emotions are going to run. Everyone was excited for this game.
“I just tried to stay focused and maintain. Focus as much as I could.”
James said recently that he was ready to be a role model for his community, a superhero even. But for the first time in a while, the four-time most valuable player now in his 12th season appeared to be affected by the same jitters and anxiety that affect other mortals.
The godsend in a headband tossed up his pre-game talcum powder but, at times, fans had to wonder if it was some other mysterious substance with the way the ball was squirting from his hands. James scored 17 points, had eight turnovers and made several uncharacteristic late-game mistakes: He fouled long-time friend Carmelo Anthony on a three-pointer and was called for an offensive foul when he knocked over Knicks guard Iman Shumpert.
Anthony ruined the evening entirely with 25 seconds remaining, when he hit a jump shot with James all over him and sent fans accustomed to disappointment home in stunned silence.
“It was a huge night. It was exciting for the fans, exciting for the city but now we can just play regular basketball,” said James, who left to catch a flight to Chicago, where Cleveland will face the Bulls on Friday. “Obviously, it was a special night for not only myself but for everybody. It was great, but I’m also glad it’s over.”
Before tip-off, some had gathered around the corner of Ontario and Huron and stood for several hours to watch a 2,500-pound Nike billboard to be lowered in a spot which, for the past four years, advertised a local paint company. This time around, instead of asking an adoring populace to witness James's greatness, the new ad has James's back to onlookers with the word “Cleveland” above the No. 23 instead of his last name — a symbolic representation of his new role in town.
The game tipped off at 8:13 p.m. but that was a treat for only 20,562 people with the financial wherewithal or necessary connections to get inside Quicken Loans Arena. For everyone else in the vicinity, it provided a chance to gather around nearby blocks to have a celebration for an affirmation: Cleveland is relevant again.
This blue-collar city on Lake Erie might not have the glitz of South Beach or the glamour and spectacle of Los Angeles or New York, but after an extended, painful separation, it has the game's best player again. And for that reason, chests can be puffed out a little prouder because the worship of pro sports teams in this town might finally yield some fulfillment.
James's time with the Miami Heat gave him the championship rings he cherished, as he teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win twice in four years. But it also helped the Akron native gain more of an appreciation for what winning a title could do in a community that hasn't won a major professional title since 1964 — 20 years before he was born.
Perhaps no other athlete resonates with his native community like James does here, and over the past few weeks, Nike, Beats by Dre and Sprite released emotional advertisements reflecting the four-time most valuable player's connection to Akron and Northeast Ohio in general. This week was even more emotional for James as he and wife, Savannah, welcomed their third child, baby girl Zhuri Nova.
James had maintained so much calm in the days leading up to his redo debut. He refrained from saying anything hyperbolic to attract too attention to a team that is going to be the epicenter of the sport simply because of his presence. But after Wednesday's morning shootaround, James let slip a comment that revealed the magnitude to which he viewed the first game of his second life as a Cavalier.
“None of us should take this moment for granted. It's one of the biggest sports events ever,” said James, who has played in five NBA Finals and three Olympics.
A pregame concert featured comedian Kevin Hart, rapper Kendrick Lamar, and indie rock band Imagine Dragons. Usher sang the national anthem. The stands were filled by the likes of Justin Bieber, Michael Strahan, Knicks fan Spike Lee and Browns players Joe Haden and Johnny Manziel.
But there was really just one main attraction in Cleveland and — despite being given an ideal homecoming opponent in a Knicks squad that had lost by 24 points the night before against Chicago — James seemed too anxious and too distracted to save the day.