CLEVELAND - They're coming armed with lingering anger from an emotional summer breakup. They're going to yell and scream and vent at someone who did them wrong. It's the Akron kid they watched grow up, the one they loved, the one who restored hope ... only to rip their hearts out.
Indeed, Cleveland fans are on edge this week. And that can mean only one thing: LeBron James, Northeast Ohio's prodigal son, is coming home.
On Thursday night, James returns to a city he captivated for seven seasons to face the Cavaliers, his former team and a franchise he lifted to unimagined heights and almost to an NBA title. But when the 25-year-old, wearing a No. 6 Miami Heat jersey, steps onto the floor of Quicken Loans Arena as a visitor, he will be the enemy and the eye of a fierce storm he created.
"I hope he's safe," said Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. "Just from everything that happened this summer, fans are very upset."
This homecoming king won't be crowned or applauded, for sure. Not this time. On Thursday, James will be surrounded — 20,000 against 1.
The same crowd he once thrilled will be outwardly hostile and hateful toward him, but hopefully, harmless. He'll be booed, taunted and subjected to ridicule beyond his imagination.
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James and Cavaliers fans went their separate ways in July. Five months later, they'll meet face to faces with the potential for closure.
No one knows exactly what to expect before, during or after James' hyped return, a game Cleveland fans first circled on their calendars months ago and a nationally televised event that civic leaders and the NBA trust will not develop into an embarrassment.
Extra security measures have been implemented to prevent trouble and to protect James. The Heat typically distribute the team's travel itinerary as a courtesy to beat writers covering the team, but did not for the trip to Cleveland, which will begin following Wednesday night's home game against Detroit.
Fans will pass through metal detectors — as always when entering The Q — and any purchased beverages will be poured into cups, so plastic bottles can't be thrown.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, fined $100,000 for blasting James and accusing him of quitting in the hours after the All-Star announced his intentions to leave, believes fans will react strongly ... but safely.
"I'm sure a lot of them will make their feelings known, but as long as everybody plays by the rules and doesn't go over the top, everything will be fine," said Gilbert, who added he has "moved on" from James' departure. "I really believe that Cleveland people will do the right thing."
That hasn't always been the case. Sadly, two of the most memorable instances of fan-related misconduct happened here. In 1974, Indians fans fueled by 10-cent beers, stormed the field during a game and fought with Texas players. In 2001, Browns fans pelted officials with plastic bottles after a controversial call.
"Kill him with kindness," Moultry said. "Don't be no fool, keep your cool."
The atmosphere will be charged. Any spark could ignite rage.
"It's going to be a strange night," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I'll be happier when it's done and everyone has gotten their say out of the way and everybody feels better about it. Then, they can go on their merry ways and play basketball. I tend to like it when it's about the game of basketball."
This is about so much more, though.
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