It's more than safe to say now that what unfolds Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena definitely will be the loudest, strangest and most spectacular sporting event in Cleveland this year.
It is already the most anticipated event of just about any kind in Cleveland since Game 5 of the Cavaliers-Boston Celtics playoff series last May 11. That was the night, you'll recall, when the fortunes of the Cavaliers took a decided turn for the worse. Only problem was no one knew it at the time.
Thursday night, a grim reminder of that evening reappears as not just the enemy, but the mortal enemy. LeBron James returns as a member of the Miami Heat to the building in which he became a basketball icon and singlehandedly placed Cleveland on the national sports map. To the sports world, he was Cleveland. City pride swelled with his exploits and the city adored him for it.
That's why the fans didn't know what to think, what to say about James' extremely questionable performance against the Celtics in that pivotal Game 5. Once the disbelief wore off, some said he choked. Some said he quit on the team.
The almost nonchalant manner in which he played that game belied what we had witnessed from him in his seven seasons with the Cavaliers. The desire, the drive, the almost maniacal hunger to excel was missing. His body language suggested he didn't care. He was not the LeBron James fans expected to see, perhaps unfairly, every game.
At the conclusion of that series one game later, James ripped off his Cavaliers Jersey as he headed for the dressing room and I wondered at the time just how symbolic was that gesture. As it turned out, much more symbolic than I ever imagined.
Ever since he "took my talents to South Beach" last July, James has been vilified by Cleveland sports fans as no other since Art Modell "had no choice" but to move the Browns to Baltimore in 1995. The visceral reaction that followed James' decision all but registered on the Richter Scale.
Cavaliers fans were angry, frustrated, disappointed. They felt betrayed by a young man who grew up in Akron and felt no compunction whatsoever when he turned his back on his hometown. Cleveland wasn't good enough for him anymore.
And that's why Thursday night's game takes on added importance to the emotional scene that will envelop the sports landscape. Because of James' departure, the Cavaliers have dropped off the national television map. Only two games this season. But you just knew the Heat's first trip to Cleveland would be one of them. The game has taken on so much importance, the TNT studio crew will be on hand at the Q. It'll definitely have a playoff atmosphere.
This will be more than just a game. It will be an event loaded with drama.
How will the fans react when James hits the floor for the first time? How will they react every time he touches the ball? How many points will he score in his first game back with the enemy? Will he attempt his patented powder toss before the opening tip? Will his teammates try and set him up to drop 50 on the Cavs?
How will James react to what almost certainly will be a hostile reception? The Cavaliers fear the worst if reports that security will be extraordinarily tight are to be believed. Cleveland fans can be nasty and downright mean. James knows that. He anticipates the worst.
"I'm ready for whatever response I'm going to get," he told ESPN.com. "It's going to be very emotional. I give a lot of thanks to that city, a lot of thanks to those fans for giving me the opportunity to not only showcase my talent, but to grow from a young boy to a man during my seven years. . . . It's going to be fun, but at the same time, it's going to be very emotionally draining."
Hopefully, saner heads will prevail at the Q. Cleveland doesn't need another black mark for fan idiocy.
The Heat, which is at home tomorrow night and plays its third game in four nights against the Cavs, most likely will arrive with an 11-8 record and a simmering controversy over the unexpectedly average start this season, while the Cavs check in at 7-10.
One report suggests James and coach Erik Spoelstra don't see eye to eye on his role with the Heat. The young coach has James playing the point more than he did with the Cavaliers with mixed results. Rumors that club President Pat Riley will step out of his ivory tower and replace Spoelstra have proved unfounded. Thus far.
Another report strongly suggests Spoelstra has been a much stricter disciplinarian with James than Mike Brown ever was with the Cavs and he doesn't like it. That sounds more like it.
One thing is certain, however. James is the linchpin to the success of his team. He is their leader by example. As he goes, so go the Heat. This has become his team, something I didn't believe would happen with the presence of Dwyane Wade.
Bottom line is the Heat has way too much talent to struggle and the Cavaliers don't have enough talent to compete for post-season activity. They are teams headed in opposite directions. But that won't diminish what will take place Thursday night.
Chris Bosh, who completes the Heat's superstar trifecta, put the game in proper perspective. "I'm sure it'll be something we've never seen before."
Count on it.