CLEVELAND — Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more hype surrounding the return of LeBron James to Cleveland on Thursday, President Barack Obama added to the drama with a short, simple, and not-so-sweet description:
“It’s going to be brutal.”
Indeed, basketball fans nationwide have had Thursday circled on their calendars for weeks, as James and the Miami Heat prepared to meet the Cavaliers in Cleveland for the first time since he signed with Miami — and spurned his original team — in July.
At 5:33 p.m., and five months after he announced he was leaving the Cavaliers after seven seasons, James stepped back inside Quicken Loans Arena for the first time as a visiting player.
After having his bags checked at security, James, wearing oversized glasses, a black stocking cap and leather jacket with the phrase: “Time To Roll” across the back, didn’t say a word as he walked toward the visiting locker room — a place he had never been before.
James saluted an arena security guard before ducking inside and preparing for what was expected to be a hostile homecoming for the Akron native.
But while fans, journalists, and even team owners have certainly pronounced their criticism for James in recent months, his former teammates, on gameday at least, took the road less traveled.
“We’re excited about tonight,” Cavaliers guard Mo Williams said. “That’s all I’ll say. I can’t stress that enough.”
Williams sported a Boston Red Sox jacket following the team’s morning shootaround, maybe an early indication of what James, a die-hard New York Yankees fan, can expect for his first game as a visitor.
“It’s almost like your ex-girlfriend coming to your wedding,” Williams said.
The Heat kept to themselves during the day, but James was part of a business meeting in the lounge of the team hotel in the afternoon. Once the meeting ended, James headed for the elevator and was asked if he was ready for whatever Cleveland fans had in store.
“Yes sir,” he replied. “I will be. I will be.”
Once tight with James, Williams has not spoken to the two-time league MVP in months and wouldn’t directly answer any questions about their fractured relationship.
James’ hyped return has been building, of course, since the moment he famously sat on a director’s chair at a Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn., and announced to the world during a one-hour television special that he would be aligning with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach.
That was his “Decision,” his moment. On Thursday night, Cavaliers fans finally get theirs.
Security will be unprecedented inside Quicken Loans Arena. There will be uniformed police and undercover officers throughout the building to keep an eye on more than 20,000 fans who will vent, scream and holler at James, the kid from Akron they used to cheer.
The Heat did not hold a morning shootaround, but that’s typical of an NBA team playing on back-to-back nights, in two different cities.
Cavaliers coach Byron Scott knows what it’s like to return to play against a former team. A member of the Lakers’ “Showtime” teams, he experienced suddenly being an outsider in visits to Los Angeles while with Indiana and Vancouver.
“I’ve changed a couple of teams, but I left in pretty good standing,” he said, smiling. “So when I went back, I got some standing ovations. So it’s a little different. I can’t imagine what he’s going through or what he’s thinking. But I’m not trying to get into LeBron’s head.”
Williams said he hopes Cleveland fans don’t get carried away as they express their anger toward James, but he appreciates their passion.
“They’ll be extra hostile, and I understand that, but I think we should keep it safe,” he said. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I think we should try to let those words hurt a little bit, but try to keep the sticks and stones away.”
Williams wasn’t sure how he’ll react when he first sees James face to face on the floor. He’ll probably give him a hug “out of respect for the game.”
Afterward, he and James — Cleveland fans — will again go their separate ways.
“We’ll give our nods and our little salutes and go to the locker room we’re comfortable with,” he said. “He’ll go to the visitors locker room and hopefully the showers are a little bit cold. We’re going to take a warm shower and go home to our beds.”