CLEVELAND — As LeBron James walked toward the Cavaliers’ locker room, a handful of security guards cleared a hundred-foot path. King James coming through. Fresh from the first home win of the season, the four-time NBA most valuable player moved quickly. James looked eager to celebrate with teammates behind closed doors, to briefly escape the spotlight that dims but never goes away. Then, he saw his mother.
Like everyone else inside sold-out Quicken Loans Arena on Monday night, maybe even the entire population of greater Cleveland, she wanted to savor the come-from-behind victory against New Orleans. James bent down for a hug. The embrace lasted a little longer than comfortable for an NBA superstar who turns 30 next month.
“Mom, you’re going to embarrass me,” said James. “The cameras are going to see.”
James glanced at a group of reporters nearby and flashed a sheepish yet good-natured smile, one familiar to grown sons and mothers everywhere. And so the homecoming continues. With James back where it all started after four seasons and two titles in Miami, the city of Cleveland, the Cavaliers, fans across Ohio, and even his mom are holding on a little tighter, a little longer, and dreaming of a championship.
Walking down Ontario Street on the way to the Cavaliers-Pelicans game, Cheryl Mooney of Lakewood, Ohio, admires an image of James’s chalk toss that covers the side of a brick building near the arena. Mooney wears a T-shirt that turns James and his trademark headband into Cleveland Indians logo Chief Wahoo, complete with toothy grin. It’s a popular T-shirt among fans headed to that night’s contest and a reminder of Cleveland’s 50 years without a title in any major sport.
But with James, it’s about more than basketball or sports. It always has been in Cleveland.
“As a professional in this city, you hear so many stories about talent leaving this city on so many levels,” said Mooney, a nurse at the Cleveland Clinic. “Then, to have someone of his status, with so much talent, coming home, it’s huge. It’s just really nice to have somebody coming back to Cleveland.”
This week, that sentiment was echoed around Cleveland by fans who cut across all demographics. They were unfazed by the Cavaliers’ slow start (3-3). They shrugged off the poor defense that ranks 25th in points allowed per game (103.0) and 28th in opponent field goal percentage (48.1) entering Friday night’s matchup with the Celtics at TD Garden.
Standing next to his 4-year-old son, Braxton, Marlon Sadler of Cleveland said, “I grew up in the area and I’ve been through it all. No matter what, we’ve got his back.” Not surprisingly, both Sadler and his son were wearing James jerseys.
As the early losses mounted, James criticized some teammates for bad habits developed during his absence, a period in which the Cavaliers accumulated a 97-215 record. He also emphasized that the reconstituted team needed time to build chemistry. Few teams mesh as quickly as the 2007-08 Celtics, who started 29-3 after combining the talents of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce. When James joined the Heat in 2010, the team started 9-8. So, James knew what he was talking about when he recently told his 16.2 million Twitter followers to “RELAX.”
“I’ve been playing a lot of basketball the last four years,” said James. “So, getting my body back into the flow of things and then stepping into a new system with new players . . . It takes time, even for me, to get the chemistry, how I want to attack, how I want to play to help the team. It’s a process for myself, as well.”
It will take time for the Cavaliers’ version of a Big Three — James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving — to grow together. While James and Love won gold medals with the 2012 US Olympic squad in London, the Summer Games are much different than the rigors of the NBA regular season and playoffs. Still, Love knows reteaming with James was the right move.
“You can tell that as time goes on his game gets better,” said Love. “On and off the floor, he’s ahead of his time, very smart. He takes everything in stride. He’s a fun-loving guy. He’s always loose but he knows when to get down to business. At the end of the day his work ethic is what sets him apart. He has good people around him to help him make decisions. But at the end of the day he’s the man who’s out there doing it all.”
So, it should come as no surprise that when Cavaliers coach David Blatt first talked at length with James it was on a New York City movie set this past summer. James was filming a part in the Judd Apatow comedy “Trainwreck” and Blatt was visiting his three vacationing daughters. Blatt, James, and their families sat down in a movie trailer and chatted for 30 minutes.
“LeBron in every respect is a very impressive guy,” said Blatt. “He has charisma. He has character. He’s coachable. He’s opinionated. He’s willful. At the same time, he’s affable. He’s a cool guy to be around. As much as he’s a bigger-than-life figure, he’s also very human. That’s what I saw when I was with him in the trailer.”
But that doesn’t make coaching a James-led team any less of a challenge. All the expectations, the outside distractions, the media scrutiny, the opinions from James and others, can be tough for any coach. What helped prepare Blatt for coaching James? What in Blatt’s basketball background, one that stretches back to his Framingham, Mass., boyhood and games spent cheering the Celtics from nosebleed seats in the old Garden, gave him valuable insight? The answer, Blatt said, is Bill Russell’s book “Go Up For Glory.”
“That book was all about an opinionated man, a strong man of deep conviction who imposed his will in every way on others around him,” said Blatt. “But he was so widely accepted by his teammates and by coworkers because he was all about winning and doing it the right way. No one doubted his sincerity about that. I’m not saying they’re the same people. But when you asked what prepared me for coaching LeBron, I’d say more than anything else that book and the fact that I’ve been a head coach for 20-some-odd years and I’ve coached my share of superstars.”
Coaching superstars in Israel, Russia, Italy, and elsewhere, Blatt learned to listen to players with strong opinions, especially those with long, impressive résumés.
“I’m of the school that if you have something to say, say it,” said Blatt. “But you better be right. The thing about LeBron is he’s usually right.”
As James, Blatt, and Co. figure out team dynamics, it appears the combination of a 50-year title drought and Midwestern values has given Cleveland fans infinite patience and tolerance for championship-seeking detours. They’ve moved past “The Decision,” when James announced his move to Miami in a nationally televised slap in the face to Cleveland. Burning of James jerseys has given way to long lines at a two-story team store inside Quicken Loans Arena. And fans go wild when the pregame video shows James looking directly into the camera and saying, “There’s no place like home.”
The “Chosen One” chose them. And they don’t question his sincerity.
During halftime of the Cavaliers-Pelicans game, customers could barely move as they searched for the just the right No. 23 jersey. Many already wore T-shirts that read “Back Home Back To Work” and the slogan rivaled James as Chief Wahoo in popularity.
As Tom Weston searched for some open space and a James jersey with his 8-year-old son, Sawyer, the Marion, Ohio, resident said he wasn’t worried about the Cavaliers’ ragged early-season play. Asked if he would be disappointed if James finished his second stay in Cleveland without a title, Weston added, “Not any more disappointed than I have been in the past. The hype is enjoyable. Look at it. If you had been here in the non-LeBron years, you’d know it’s a different scene. There’s a buzz around the city now.”
And it traveled far beyond Cleveland when James announced his homecoming.
When Anderson Varejao heard James would be returning to Cleveland this season, he was at his parents’ home in Vitoria, Brazil. Almost immediately, the center said he “was like a little kid, running around and telling everyone that LeBron was coming back.” Varejao has spent his entire 10-year NBA career in Cleveland, enjoying deep playoff runs and a heated rivalry with the Celtics during James’s first stint with the Cavaliers. Then, the non-LeBron years came. Varejao said they were “bad times” where the Cavaliers “would be in close games and, at the end, we didn’t know how to win it.” That is what Varejao believes James meant by “bad habits.”
While Varejao sees James as the same person who left the Cavaliers four years ago, he senses a player more comfortable with all aspects of the NBA game and his place in it.
“To me, what helped him a lot was winning two NBA titles,” said Varejao. “That took a lot of pressure off. Nobody can say he didn’t win yet. He deals with everything else, the pressure, the winning, the media . . . I really believe that he deals a lot better with everything because of that.”
Blatt said James makes the whole homecoming situation easier for everyone because he places the team first.
“All of us have entered into a kind of joint effort to bring something special to Cleveland,” said Blatt. “He’s totally invested in doing something special for the state and city that he comes from. That’s what makes it work.”