CLEVELAND (AP) - Boos and obscenities rained down on LeBron James in the arena that was once his home. He didn’t seem to mind. By halftime, James was the one having fun. Returning as a villain to his home state and the city he scorned this summer, King James was greeted with deafening boos, vulgar chants and some unprintable words from Cleveland fans who waited five months for him Thursday night as the Miami Heat played the Cavaliers.
With security guards forming a human barricade to line his entrance, James came hopping out of the tunnel and into the electrically charged atmosphere inside Quicken Loans Arena, as more than 20,000 fans, the same ones who adored him, turned hostile toward the two-time NBA MVP.
It was rowdy, but thankfully, not violent.
Just in case, Moondog, the Cavs’ fuzzy mascot, wore a bulletproof vest.
“It’s all right,” James said of the jeers. “I understand how passionate these fans are. I’ve got a lot of love for these fans, but I’m a Miami Heat player now looking to get this win.”
Las Vegas placed odds on whether James would perform his pregame powder toss ritual at the scorer’s table. He went through with it, leaving a cloud of dust above his head _ a gesture fans here used to embrace but can’t stomach any longer.
Security was super tight.
One fan was immediately ejected after he pointed at James and screamed in the superstar’s face. The Cavaliers promised to safeguard James, who scorned them this summer when he decided to leave as a free agent and join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
As the Akron native took pregame layups, Cleveland fans vented, some holding up signs that read “Akron Hates You Too,” “Merry Quitness,” “The Decision: Stay or Betray” and “Remember Game 5,” a reference to his final home game with the Cavs, a lopsided loss to the Boston Celtics in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
James was the first player introduced and as he lined up for the national anthem, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was shown on the arena’s giant scoreboard, drawing a raucous ovation. In the hours after James’ infamous announcement on a one-hour TV special dubbed “The Decision,” Gilbert ripped him in an open letter to Cavs fans and later accused the 25-year-old of quitting during the playoffs the past two seasons.
James looked up and noticed the ovation was for Gilbert. He shook his head, tapped his feet and turned to his new teammates, pumping his fist as he told them something.
One of the TV cameras remained fixed on Gilbert, a “Dan Cam” hoping to catch the owner in an animated moment.
Before the anthem, the Cavs paraded out some other local sports stars, including former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, dreadlocked wide receiver Joshua Cribbs, Indians slugger Travis Hafner, and comedian Drew Carey _ all wearing the wine-and-gold uniform James helped make famous.
James made his first trip to the foul line with 3:35 left in the first quarter. It used to be a time when he would be serenaded with the requisite “M-V-P” song, but this time it was different as the crowd broke into a chant of “Akron Hates You!”