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LeBron James of the Miami Heat looks on during Wednesday's game against the Detroit Pistons in Miami.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Normally, NBA fans couldn't care less about a regular season game in early December. But there is nothing normal about Thursday night's game in Cleveland.
The hometown Cavaliers host the Miami Heat and LeBron James. It's his first game back since he announced last summer that he was leaving the Cavs for Miami.
That decision prompted outrage in Cleveland. How will Cleveland and James react tonight?
The player who electrified Cleveland's home arena for seven years returns as a villain. No town likes to lose its sports heroes, but this one stung. In an era when a huge gulf exists between pro athletes and those who pay to watch, James was one of their own.
"It was the first time, I think, that I can think of in sports history where a homegrown kid didn't go away to college," says Jason Herron, a Cavs season ticketholder.
"He went right from Akron to Cleveland to play professionally, and we watched him develop into this man," Herron says — a man who became the best chance to bring long-suffering fans in the city a first pro championship since 1964.
His departure to Miami prompted the kind of anger that will give this game its edge. And there are concerns about violence. There will be heavy security in and around the arena, because for many Clevelanders, James' leaving town as a free agent and now returning isn't business — it's personal.
"It's like a breakup, seeing an ex-girlfriend I guess," Herron says. "There's going to be anger, there's going to be bitterness — I mean, it's going to be every spectrum of emotions possible. I don't know what to expect."
Herron got his moment in the spotlight, infamously, last July when he organized the torching of James' jerseys. It was a small protest that, many here lament, came to symbolize an entire city's reaction. It wouldn't have happened, Herron says, if James had broken up with Cleveland the right way.
"Take a full page out in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's Plain Dealer. Thank the fans. Thank the organization. And say: 'This is something I have to do. I'm going to go play with my friends in South Beach. I loved it in Cleveland. It was the best seven years of my life. Sincerely, LeBron James.' "
Instead, there was the prime-time special, the decision in which James told Cleveland and the world: "This fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and, um, join the Miami Heat."
The decision backfired; James was criticized nationwide. He fired back in a Nike commercial: "What should I do? Should I admit that I've made mistakes?"
That prompted a spoof commercial by a Cleveland filmmaker who spliced in Clevelanders answering James' questions.
It wasn't just a bad breakup — it was another slap at Cleveland. The city has been parodied over the years, some locals say unfairly, for having a kick-me sign on its back.
How has Cleveland tried to recover? It did what any self-respecting person who gets jilted does: It played the "I'm better off without him" card.
Take this year's Cavs. Sure, they're 7-and-10, but, says local advertising executive Dick Clough: "They're much more of a team now than they were when LeBron was here. I think people waited around for him to score and do things and so forth."
Then there are the companies that advertise around town with slogans that — wink, wink — stress loyalty and permanence.
It's enough to make even a big, strong NBA superstar crave some unconditional love from, say, a grandma. And grandmothers are there for James — actually, 30 or so miles south in Akron. It was his home growing up and is now the headquarters, if that's what you want to call it, for the LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club.
"Our motto is love and fun," says 71-year-old Alder Chapman. "We love him. We love each other, and we have fun when he's playing. I mean he just lifts us up."
On Wednesday night, Chapman and seven other club members, in club T-shirts, got together to watch Miami play Detroit. Chapman started the club in 2006. She hears the talk about James being disloyal for leaving, and she doesn't buy it.
"He was a free agent," Chapman says. "He had a right to choose wherever. And he gave them seven years."
Now James is coming home with someone else. After helping the Heat win by 25 points Wednesday night, James said, "I'll be ready."
So will a sellout crowd in Cleveland — with T-shirts, signs and chants.
The consensus is, even among the strong anti-James faction: Don't cross the line, because not only will the nation be watching LeBron James — it'll be watching Cleveland as well.