RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And a mix of public and private funding supported the sports arena where a dramatic event takes place tonight. LeBron James of the Miami Heat will step onto the hardwood in Cleveland, Ohio. He's one of the biggest stars in pro basketball. It will be his first appearance there since he left the Cleveland Cavaliers.
NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN: It'll be strange.
Unidentified Man #1: Lewis gets it to LeBron for three for the win.
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Unidentified Man #1: Yes.
(Soundbite of cheering crowd)
Unidentified Man #1: LeBron James at the buzzer.
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GOLDMAN: The player who electrified Cleveland's home arena for seven years, returns tonight 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, LeBron James was one of their own.
Jason Herron is a Cavs' season ticket Holder.
Mr. JASON HERRON: It was a first time, I think, you know, that I can think of in sports history, where a homegrown kid, you know, didn't go away to college. He went right from Akron to Cleveland to play professionally. We watched him develop into this man.
GOLDMAN: A man who became the best chance to bring longsuffering fans in the city a first pro championship since 1964. His departure to Miami prompted the kind of anger that gives tonight its edge - concerns about violence, heavy security in and around the arena - because for many Clevelanders, LeBron James leaving town as a free agent and now returning isn't business. It's personal.
Mr. HERRON: It's like a breakup, seeing an ex-girlfriend, I guess. There's going to be anger. There's going to be bitterness. But, I mean, it's going to be every specter of emotions possible. You know, I don't know what to expect.
BOWMAN: Jason Herron got his moment in the spotlight, infamously, last July. That's when he organized the torching of LeBron 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.
Mr. HERRON: Take a full page out in the Plain Dealer, Cleveland 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. You know, it was the best seven years of my life. Sincerely, LeBron James.
BOWMAN: Instead, there was the prime time special, "The Decision," in which James told Cleveland and the world...
Mr. LEBRON JAMES (Professional Basketball Player, Miami Heat): And this fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.
BOWMAN: "The Decision" backfired. James was criticized nationwide. He fired back in a Nike commercial...
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Mr. JAMES: What should I do? Should I admit that I've made mistakes...
GOLDMAN: ...which prompted a spoof commercial by a Cleveland filmmaker, who spliced in Clevelanders answering James' question.
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Mr. JAMES: Should I be who you wanted me to be?
Unidentified Woman: We wanted you to be who you said you'd be.
Mr. JAMES: I got a goal, and that's a huge goal, and that's to bring an NBA championship here to Cleveland. And I won't stop till I get it.
GOLDMAN: Not only was it 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? Do what any self-respecting person does who gets jilted: play the-I'm-better-off-without-him card.
Take this year's Cavs. Sure, they're seven-and-10, but, says local advertising exec Dick Clough...
Mr. DICK CLOUGH (Advertising Executive): 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.
GOLDMAN: 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 they are here for James - actually, 30 or so miles south in Akron - his home growing up and headquarters, if that's what you want to call it, for the LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club.
Ms. ALDER CHAPMAN (Founder, LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club): Our motto is love and fun. We love him. We love each other. And we have fun when he's playing. I mean, he just lifts us up.
GOLDMAN: Last night, 71-year-old Alder 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 now about James being disloyal for leaving, and she doesn't buy it.
Ms. CHAPMAN: He was a free agent. He had a right to choose wherever. And he gave them seven years.
GOLDMAN: Now he's coming home with someone else. After helping the Heat win by 25 last night, James said: I'll be ready.
So will a sellout crowd in Cleveland, with T-shirts, signs, 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, as it often does, it'll be watching Cleveland, as well.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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