CLEVELAND — LeBron James is an easy find on the court. Although he is not the tallest Cavalier out there — five teammates top him, including 7-foot-1-inch Timofey Mozgov — this is undeniably his house, the King's show. The spotlight goes to him, feasts upon him, and Quicken Loans Arena quakes the moment he steps onto the floor.
Outside the Q, with the Cavaliers set to face the Celtics in Game 2 of their first round playoff series, James's presence isn't quite so obvious. The so-called "LeBron Effect'' may be alive and well here in his second coming, but his image is not plastered on the side of every downtown building, every bus, every lamp post and deli. Cleveland 2015 is getting back on its feet and is bigger than even the King.
Finding LeBron here, in fact, is a bit of a chore, outside of the 48 minutes or so the Cavs are doing basketball business. He is unquestionably the biggest celeb in town, the greatest hope for this recovering Rust Belt town to celebrate its first championship since 1964. But in the Hub alone one would find far more Dunkin Donuts signs around town than anyone would see here of the occasional dunking James.
"You know, I went to Ohio State,'' kidded the Celtics Evan Turner, about to break into a large laugh, "so when I walk the streets, it's like, 'The King's home!' No, I'm joking. Seriously, obviously ... it's the Cavaliers' city.''
But it is clear this time around the emphasis is on Cavs and not King. On Monday, a visitor from Boston walked into the club's Team Shop at the Q, and noted to the friendly floor clerk/ greeter that surely the store must have a separate section for all the James merchandise.
"No, we don't,'' said the friendly attendant, a young man of no more than college age.
"Why not?!'' said the visitor in mock astonishment.
"Because,'' said the earnest clerk, "this is the Cavalier Team Shop and not the LeBron Team Shop. We've got 15 players on the Cavaliers roster.''
Message received. The Cavs slogan for the playoff run is "All In'' and not "The King and Us.'' A walk around the shiny souvenir store proved the clerk true to his word.
All the James paraphernalia blended in seamlessly with the likes of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and lesser names such as Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson. In the scheme of things, his 23 was just a number.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens can't look at James as just a number. Nor can he be any less mindful of the likes of Irving (2) or Love (0), the Cavaliers' Big Three who put the hurt on the Celtics in Game 1, an easy 113-100 win for the locals.
"LeBron had a couple of moments [Sunday] that I thought we guarded him as well as we can guard him in that moment,'' said an admiring Stevens, "and he still scored and still had a play.
"You are going to have moments like that.''
Stevens is married to a woman who grew up here. Originally a Hoosier, he is a Clevelander by marriage. His in-laws still live in the area, so he knows the city's overall sports culture and the presence of James.
"There is no question," said Stevens, "whether he's on the billboards or whether he's on the buildings or whatever, his impact on the area has been greatly felt among the Cleveland sports landscape. There is a lot of excitement here for him and there is a lot of excitement for this team. You could see that — and you can certainly see it more now that you're in the playoffs.''
When James decided to return here in July from his South Beach sabbatical, the town erupted.
"I mean it was electric,'' recalled the desk clerk at the Cleveland Visitors Center, just around the corner from the Q, on Monday afternoon. "As soon it was announced, cars started honking their horns. It was crazy.''
Season tickets to the Cavs sold out virtually in a day, lifting last season's average attendance of 17,329 to nightly sellouts this season of 20,562. There was a buzz in the air and action in the cash drawer, and not just for the Cavs.
LeRoy Brooks, a professor of finance at the nearby John Carroll University, initially told Time magazine that James's return would deliver an annual $500 million boost to city's economy. But later, in a New York Times story, he scaled back that estimate considerably, placing it in a range of $163 million to $426 million. Still, a lot of coin pulled in, most of it from suburban spenders, the city's residential base still in the early throes of recovery.
Edward Fitzgerald, the Cuyahoga County Executive, told a local radio station upon James's return that, "we've had the best public relations in Cleveland since World War 2.'' That could be considered a slight to the Browns and their 1964 championship or unappreciative of the world famous Cleveland Clinic, the city's biggest employer, but everyone got the message. It was good, for business and hometown pride, to have James back in town.
"I want kids in northeast Ohio to realize there's no better place to grow up,'' James wrote in Sports Illustrated soon after to return from his sabbatical in South Beach. "Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business.''
Just up the street from the Q, there is the humongous, iconic mural of James plastered on the wall of a building adjacent to the Horseshoe Casino. James is shown from the back, his massive arms stretched wide, with "CLEVELAND'' and not "JAMES'' written above the No. 23 on his uniform. Again, city over self.
"Obviously, he's a great basketball player,'' said Celtics assistant coach Walter McCarty. "But there is a lot of good history in Cleveland sports, whether you are talking about the Browns or the Indians or the Cavs. And some of the pictures you do see are very big. I think they are doing a good job of not overexposing it. I think it's normal. They have a really good team with a lot of great ballplayers and, you know, I think all the commercials and all the endorsements do enough.''
Standing at her post near the front door of Heinen's grocery story on Euclid Avenue, Fatima Polk had a clear view of the large Cavs poster attached to wall across the street.
"You'd think they would show LeBron, wouldn't you?'' she said, before enlisting the help of a co-worker to identify the poster's three subjects as Brendan Haywood, Tristan Thompson, and Joe Harris. "But that guy in the middle [Haywood], he's cute ... sure wish someone would go get him for me.''
Meanwhile, Polk's co-worker, from his perch behind the deli counter at Heinen's, figured he knew why the emphasis was not on James.
"They're just tryin' not to give him the whole thing again,'' he said.