How Will Cleveland Welcome LeBron?

On Thursday night, LeBron James' new team, the Miami Heat, will face off against his old team, the Cavaliers. NPR's Guy Raz talks to Cleveland Plain Dealer sports columnist Terry Pluto about how James will be received in his former town.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Tomorrow night, the man formerly known as The Chosen One will return to Cleveland. NBA star LeBron James' new team, the Miami Heat, will face off against his old team, the Cavaliers. It'll be the first time since James' now infamous nationally televised decision to leave his hometown team and take his talents to South Beach.

Needless to say, it won't be a warm welcome from Cavs fans, who are still seething after they felt betrayed by James' departure. Joining us on the line to talk about that welcome is Cleveland Plain Dealer sports columnist Terry Pluto. Terry, welcome.

Mr. TERRY PLUTO (Sports Columnist, Cleveland Plain Dealer): Hi.

RAZ: So, it's been five months since the decision. How do Clevelanders feel about LeBron now?

Mr. PLUTO: I think Clevelanders feel about LeBron like anybody would feel about someone who needlessly rejected them in public. And a lot of people would have been unhappy with LeBron had he gone to Miami, you know, the normal way. In other words, you tell your old team the day before that you're leaving, and you just go down to Miami and you have your press conference.

I don't know whoever wrote the line "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach," but that guy ought to be fired right away because, of course, it's just opened up all the other lines.

You know, there's still a lot of hurt and a lot of anger because they felt he needlessly dumped on his hometown.

RAZ: Now, I understand there's going to be - actually going to be extra security on hand at the arena tomorrow.

Mr. PLUTO: Oh, sure.

RAZ: I mean, you don't expect anything more than booing, do you?

Mr. PLUTO: No, I don't. But the thing is you - if I owned the Cavaliers, you've got 20,562 fans there. It takes one nutcase to do something crazy. And even you just don't want somebody throwing a drink on the court.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. PLUTO: I hope they're smart enough not to hand out those little rubber basketballs into the stands, the Nerf Ball-type things. That could be asking for trouble because one person throws it, the next thing you know, you've got 500 of them bouncing off the court. And granted, it doesn't hurt anybody, but it just looks stupid for Cleveland.

RAZ: Now, Terry, the Miami Heat, you know, with LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were supposed to be unbeatable. They are coming into this game tomorrow night with a record barely above break-even. I mean...

Mr. PLUTO: That breaks my heart.

RAZ: Is - I mean, so is there sort of a healthy amount of schadenfreude in the Cleveland area these days?

Mr. PLUTO: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think people look at that Miami box score every day, and they smile when they lose. And I think they look at the fact that LeBron's stats are down in just about every single area.

And clearly, whenever you see LeBron being interviewed, you know, he's not having much fun at all. In fact, it seems like he's some guy trying to explain, you know, off some bad decision he just made, which of course we would say here that he did.

I've known LeBron since he was 15 years old. That's the first time I interviewed him. And to me, it's just sad that a guy who really did rise up from, you know, very dire circumstances, made a tremendous reputation at home doing a lot of good things, especially in the Akron area, that he becomes this vilified figure and that he didn't understand that this had a very good chance of happening.

RAZ: I mean, do you think that Cleveland fans will ever forgive LeBron?

Mr. PLUTO: Probably the only way would be if some weird thing happens and four years from now, he comes back and then they finally win a title with him. But otherwise, he'll always be the guy that turned his back on his hometown on ESPN in his own special.

RAZ: Terry, the Cavs are not doing so well this year, and you have my sympathies. But do they stand a chance against Miami tomorrow night?

Mr. PLUTO: Sure they do, especially if the Heat play some of this dysfunctional basketball like they have in the past. I have no clue what's going to happen.

I do know this: If the Cavs could keep it close, clearly the crowd is going to be very enthusiastic behind the home team. And that's one of the things that's been interesting to me watching the games. The fans here have embraced this sort of scrappy, under-manned team that got stiffed by LeBron, and they've cheered real hard for them. I think right now, they're getting the big sympathy vote around here and for good reason.

RAZ: That's Cleveland Plain Dealer sports columnist Terry Pluto talking about LeBron James' return to Cleveland tomorrow night. Terry Pluto, thank you so much.

Mr. PLUTO: Thank you.

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