Most Cavs Fans Willing To Forgive LeBron On His Return To Cleveland
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Cleveland is about to burst. Basketball superstar LeBron James moved from South Beach back to the beautiful coast of - Lake Erie. And tomorrow night, he'll wear a Cavaliers uniform for the first time in four years. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett reports on the return of the city's prodigal son and he begins at a wall that's been symbolic for fans.
DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: I'm standing in front of a building in downtown Cleveland with an empty wall that once displayed a massive mural featuring the image of LeBron James. This thing was huge, 10 stories high and it faced Quicken Loans Arena better known here as The Q. This colossal banner was described in a 2010 local TV newscast.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED LOCAL NEWSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The larger-than-life image of LeBron James has been part of downtown Cleveland for five years, but soon like the player himself, it will be gone. Crews began dismantling the giant banner today.
BARNETT: After seven seasons with the Cavaliers and no championship ring, James decided to jump ship for Miami after becoming a free agent. Cleveland Plain Dealer sports writer Bill Livingston says the way he left embarrassed many fans and left a bitter taste. Many felt that James gave up on his team.
BILL LIVINGSTON: He did not leave well and was accused of quitting on the floor and I didn't think he played well and gave a full effort, myself.
BARNETT: But Livingston is among those here saying it's a new day for LeBron James and his reconstituted team. This time, James won't be carrying that team on his shoulders, thanks to the presence of young point guard Kyrie Irving and recently acquired star forward Kevin Love. Livingston thinks that this new version of the Cavs has a good chance of being Cleveland's first championship team since the Browns won it all a half-century ago.
LIVINGSTON: Whatever team wins the first championship since 1964 is going to be remembered fondly forever and the player who takes them there is going to be the Messiah.
BARNETT: Many here want that Messiah to lead the Cavaliers to the basketball promised land this year. While Livingston and others think that's unlikely, the team is nearly everyone's early pick for the playoffs. That's fine with Sean O'Donnell, who owns Flannery's, a popular nearby watering hole. O'Donnell says business flatlined when James left, but things are different now.
SEAN O'DONNELL: I've got bartenders coming in at like, 2 o'clock in the afternoon. The game's not 'til 8 o'clock. I think a lot of gentlemen and ladies will be going to lunch at 1 o'clock and maybe not going back to work (laughter).
BARNETT: During the four years that James was in Florida, he didn't totally severs his ties with northeast Ohio. The LeBron James Family Foundation supports a program working to keep students in school in his home town of Akron and last year the foundation funded a million dollar facelift for the St. Vincent St.-Mary High School gym where LeBron James got his start. Coach Dru Joyce says he understands why James went to Miami.
DRU JOYCE: He had given the Cavaliers seven years. The team wasn't going to get there and he saw it. You know, I always believed he was coming back. I didn't know when, but I just believed it because this is home.
BARNETT: Sharon Znidarsic is perusing clothing options at the Cavs team shop in downtown Cleveland. Znidarsic says she and her husband have been season ticket holders for 33 years and she's willing to forgive James for h is temporary dalliance with Miami.
SHARON ZNIDARSIC: I was sad. I was sad like, in a motherly way. I'm like, oh, come on - that's not the way to do that. But he came home, that's all that makes the difference.
BARNETT: A new 10-story LeBron James banner that weighs more than a ton is due to be unfurled tomorrow morning. It will show James with his back to the viewer and the big block letters CLEVELAND featured prominently across his back. The player faces fans with his arms outstretched. It appears that many here in Cleveland are again ready to hug him back.
For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.