MIAMI – Lebron James was running the gamut of emotions Dec. 25 when he arrived at the arena that he called home for the past four seasons. So did the Miami Heat fans who were seeing him again.
They booed the four-time NBA MVP when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers took the court for warmups, booed the first few times he touched the ball, gave him plenty of cheers but still a mixed welcome when he was introduced as a starter, then cheered when he turned the ball over on one of his first touches.
But perhaps the truest measure of how James is remembered came during the first timeout of the game, when the Heat unveiled a tribute video for their former star — a minute-long series of clips commemorating his four NBA Finals runs and two titles in Miami, after which he waved to the crowd and got a lengthy standing ovation.
“I’ll look forward to seeing it one day,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was an incredible run. He was a major part of it. None of us have forgotten his contribution. I’ll look back on it with incredible pride and perspective that I coached one of the all-time greats.”
No, Miami isn’t happy he left. Also, no, Miami hasn’t forgotten what he meant to the Heat.
“I gave everything and more to this city when I was here,” James said before the game, his first time back at the arena since leaving Miami for Cleveland this past summer. “Never disrespected this city or the franchise, or any of my teammates. Everything is professional. I gave it all. That’s all I can do.”
James took a seat on the scorers’ table near mid-court for the last 30 seconds or so of that video, watching it on the giant overhead screen. “I’ve got a lot of memories here, man,” James said.
It was predictably an emotional return for James, who acknowledged feeling butterflies when he walked in and headed toward the visitors’ locker room for the first time in nearly five years. He scored 30 points, but his Cavaliers lost to the Heat 101-91.
Many from the nearest seats took pictures when James did his traditional powder toss before taking the court, and he exchanged huge hugs with several Heat players moments later. He also pointed toward the Heat bench and tapped his heart.
“What me and my teammates created here while we were here, it’s going to last forever,” James said. “You can never take that out of the books. You can never take that from anything. Whatever else that comes with it, we’ll deal with it then.”
Whatever negativity James heard, it was nothing like his last such “homecoming” game — the one when he returned to Cleveland in 2010 for the first time since joining the Heat. He said he didn’t “circle” the Dec. 25 game on his calendar, saying he’s long past things like that.
“LeBron was an enormous figure here,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. “He was part of a great run. Obviously, there’s going to be emotion and a lot of feeling and a lot of excitement. You just can’t look past that because you want to. That’s going to happen. You just have to try to roll with it. I thought he handled it well.”
James has remained friends with several Heat players, and interacted with some members of the team’s front office at Dwyane Wade’s wedding this off-season.
And many Heat players said in the days leading up to this showdown that they expected James to be greeted with at least some measure of appreciation.
In turn, James said he appreciated those sentiments, and the bonds that remain. “It shows what we were able to do in that locker room,” James said.
(TIM REYNOLDS, AP Basketball Writer)