By Tom Withers
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CLEVELAND _ The crowd’s deafening roar was so loud LeBron James couldn’t hear his name announced.
Unsure of whether to walk out onto the floor, he looked around and realized he was the last one left on the bench.
Seconds later, James knew he was home.
Cleveland fans welcomed the NBA superstar back with open arms and ear-splitting screams on Wednesday night as nearly 17,000 fans showed up to watch the Cavaliers hold their annual scrimmage, a glorified practice that provided a preview of what could become a spectacular season.
Wearing the familiar No. 23 wine and gold jersey, the one he swapped for a No. 6 in Miami four years ago, James returned to the court where he took his first steps as a pro.
As he waited on the bench to be introduced, James couldn’t hear the announcer say, “From Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, No. 23 … ”
So James began walking out.
“I really couldn’t hear it,” he said. “The fans were really loud and the PA was a little down, so I really couldn’t hear it. I was the last person sitting on the bench, so I guess it had to be my time. But the roar was very well received and I’m grateful to be able to be in this position where the fans welcomed me back like that.”
This ovation was in stark contrast to the one he got following the last game James in played for Cleveland in 2010. Following a 27-point loss to Boston in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a game in which he was oddly passive, James was targeted with boos and later questioned about his effort.
Two months later, he announced he was signing with the Heat.
But all has been forgiven, if not forgotten.
For Cleveland fans, the sight of James once again on the Cavs’ home floor, soaring to the basket for a dunk or catching an outlet pass from new teammate Kevin Love, was something to behold.
“I can’t believe this,” said 19-year-old Alex Krocker from Bolivar, Ohio. “I’ve waited my whole life for a Cavs team like this, for a Cleveland team like this. It’s crazy.”
Moments after the opening tip, James, who in a heartfelt letter declared he was re-signing with the Cavs on July 11, reminded Cleveland fans what they’ve been missing. He was short with his first shot, a fade-away baseline jumper. But he grabbed his own rebound and calmly sank a 3-pointer.
He followed that with a two-handed dunk and later drove the lane for one his signature slams, the kind of play that has elevated him to the world’s best player.
The Cavs gave away 20,000 free tickets for the event and the team announced 16,723 showed up to watch the Wine squad beat the Gold 66-52. James scored 13 points, Kyrie Irving added 10 and Love had nine, but the numbers didn’t matter.
This was another first in a season of homecoming events for James.
Before the Cavs took the court for pregame warmups, James gathered his teammates in a hallway outside the locker room and led them in prayer. He told them to “play hard and play smart. Let’s get better today.”
As they were about to exit the tunnel, James pulled a prank on unsuspecting rookies Joe Harris and Alex Kirk. James told the two youngsters to lead the team out, and when they started toward the court, the superstar held the rest of the Cavs back, leading to an embarrassing moment for Harris and Kirk.
“It was a good laugh,” Harris said.
While the Cavs were on the floor, first-year Cavs coach David Blatt was encouraged by the team’s ball movement but knows the defence has a long way to go before it’s at a championship level.
“Overall the impression was positive,” said Blatt, who started James, Irving and Love along with Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters but hasn’t committed to his first five. “For me, you have starters and second starters, that’s what makes teams good.”
Blatt has James, and that’s all that matters.
A successful international coach, Blatt will face his former team, Maccabi Tel Aviv on Sunday in the Cavs’ first official exhibition game. It’s sure to be an emotional night for Blatt, who has witnessed Cleveland warmly wrap its arms around James again.
“It’s a very special group of people who live here that appreciate things about people and about life that are admirable,” he said. “I’m not surprised at all at how he has been received.”