LeBron James Prepares To Return To Cleveland

NBA superstar LeBron James broke Cleveland fans’ hearts when left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat this summer. Tomorrow, he returns to the city for the first time since leaving, as a member of a rival team. Host Michel Martin speaks with Basketball Hall of Famer and T-N-T NBA analyst Kevin McHale about how James will be received in Cleveland and the Heat’s performance so far, this season.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And, finally, we turn to some sports news. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in basketball, which is hard to imagine, you might remember this moment from last summer when superstar LeBron James dropped this bombshell on the city of Cleveland when he announced

Mr. LEBRON JAMES (Pro Basketball Player): This fall I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.

MARTIN: It's an understatement to say that Cleveland was crushed. His one fan reacting to the news on the night of the announcement.

Unidentified Woman: I feel like my heart's been ripped out, stomped on and everything, like, I can't even believe that he couldn't be loyal and try to win it. I feel like 10 championships there wouldn't equal to one that he could've gotten here.

MARTIN: And now it's the one the fans have been waiting for, the return of King James to Cleveland. That game is tomorrow night and emotions are already running high. We wanted to preview the game so we've called hall of famer and NBA analyst for cable network TNT, Kevin McHale and he's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. KEVIN MCHALE (NBA Analyst, TNT): No, my pleasure. A lot of excitement with the return of the King to Cleveland, that's for sure.

MARTIN: Now, is it excitement or do you think it's maybe taking a little bit of an unhealthy turn. A lot of the stories have been about the security being beefed up and, you know, people pulling out their voodoo dolls and all that. I mean, do you think that, I'm wondering, first of all, in your career, if you ever have seen, kind of hype like this around one game. And are you a little concerned about the direction the hype is taking?

Mr. MCHALE: No, I'm not concerned, really. Yeah, I've seen hype before, and I think what happens is the fans get excited and everybody takes precautions. They're going to go to the game and they're going to him like crazy when he comes out and everybody's going to yell and scream. And, you know, somebody will be holding up some sign that says say something derogatory about LeBron.

But I've been in very, very hostile environments before. As a matter of fact, there were a lot of times we played in the playoffs. We played the Lakers and there was the Celtics/Lakers back in the '80s and it was just hostile and everybody was afraid for everybody's safety. And nothing ever happened.

So I don't think anything will happen. But I think what you will get is just a lot of excitement. And, you know, it's going to be a chance for the Cleveland fans to, like I say, to stand up, get on their feet and scream. Because you heard from the sound bites just to start the show, the amount of betrayal that they feel in that city towards what LeBron did is just amazing.

MARTIN: Could I ask you how you feel about the way he handled this?

Mr. MCHALE: You know, there's two things. OK, what he did is perfectly legal. It's like he became a free agent. He chose a team and he left. How he did it, I thought, was really bad. I thought the decision show was terrible. It was painful for me to watch. I'm watching that show, after about the first five minutes, I'm, like, oh man, what are you going to do the next

MARTIN: On the other hand, nobody's under subpoena to watch that stuff, right? I mean you could always

Mr. MCHALE: I turned it off. I agree.

MARTIN: So, what's the big whoop?

Mr. MCHALE: Well, ok, and then they announced the three of them, they come out, you know, I thought I was at a rock concert in the '70s. You know what I mean? It's just, like, they haven't done anything yet. I just think it would've been - everything would've been different and people would've thought about it differently had he just said, called up Cleveland first and said, you know, I'm not going to resign with you. Did the courtesy call, came out like everybody else does, walks out to the podium and says, hey, I'm really excited to be down here in Miami and that's it.

So that's why I think the 10 and eight start by the Heat is so shocking to people because they were already crowned - people were talking about them beating the Bulls' record of 72 wins. I'm, like, that record, by the way, is going to stand forever.

MARTIN: OK, well, hold on a second. Let me just, let's just back up a little bit. I just want to play a short clip of, needless to say, LeBron James has been asked about he feels, you know, heading back to Cleveland, I'll just play a short clip of what he had to say.

Mr. MCHALE: OK.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. JAMES: I think it's going to be very emotional for myself. I got a lot of great memories in that city, 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 grow from a young boy to a man.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask based on your experience as a player, when you're walking into a very emotional situation, you know, like that, and you mentioned that there are - you had a few in your career as well, how does it affect your play?

Mr. MCHALE: Actually, you play better, I think, 'cause you really get focused. And I'd be shocked if LeBron doesn't play really well. That environment brings out the best in great athletes. And, hey, I just always had the sense that week after he signed, you know, July 8th, he makes his announcement. Then they have a few days afterwards. They had this, you know, the big pressure and all the stuff in Miami. I think if he had a chance to do it over again he would do it differently because I don't think there's anybody who believes that in looking back that it was handled right, including LeBron himself.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're looking ahead to the return of LeBron James to Cleveland. We're talking with a TNT NBA analyst hall of famer, Kevin McHale. And Miami's record is not that great, given the expectations. They were 10 and eight for the season. Now there are reports from the locker room that the players want the coach to be fired.

What is your sense of why this, the big three, whatever people are calling them isn't working? Of course LeBron has been - one of the reasons he went to the Heat is he wanted to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And people thought this would be such a powerhouse combination. Why isn't it working?

Mr. MCHALE: Because it's still one ball, it's still chemistry. It's like someone drops you off in the middle of the ocean and everybody's in a boat, OK? Some guy has got to say, this is the direction we're going and everybody's got to grab and oar, including the coach, and they've all got to paddle in the same direction. Right now it feels like to me in Miami, they're in the middle of the ocean, they've got three guys paddling east, two guys paddling west, three guys not even paddling and the coach saying, go in this direction. Everybody's looking at him, like, really? So that doesn't work.

And so there is a bit of that getting used to each other. And so you've got to get everybody pulling in the same direction to get everybody moving in the same direction. And from a technical standpoint, to me they don't play fast enough, they don't get up and down the floor enough, they play on top of each other and by that I mean their spacing is not great.

They're still getting used to each other and after two months, in 2.5 months, that's got to come together. And I just don't get a sense that they're at that point yet.

MARTIN: Final question, we've got to put you on the spot here before we let you go. You've been really generous with your time and we appreciate it. You know, a lot of people would not have asked us a couple of weeks ago, is can Cleveland take this game?

Mr. MCHALE: I think it'd be a very competitive game. I think Miami will end up winning in a close game, but I think you'll see Cleveland play very well. And those guys there have a lot of pride. They want to show that they're just not LeBron James - that they were a good team without LeBron James. Look, I'm already looking forward to it. I can't wait for the game and the TNT coverage of it.

MARTIN: You're not taking your flak jacket and a hard hat?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCHALE: If I was there, I wouldn't stand next to LeBron, A, and I would wear a hard hat, yes.

MARTIN: OK. Kevin McHale is an NBA analyst for the cable station TNT. And of course an NBA hall of famer. And he was kind enough to join us from Atlanta. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MCHALE: Oh, thank you, you have a great day.

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