CLEVELAND — LeBron James wanted to peek up at the Quicken Loans Arena video screen as the Cleveland Cavaliers played an approximately minute-long video tribute to James during the first timeout of their game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“[Lakers coach] Luke [Walton] was actually drawing up a play, so I had to pay attention slightly,” James said. “I didn’t want to miss that and mess up the play coming out of timeout. But I was able to catch some of it at the end.”
Coming out of the huddle to a heartfelt ovation from the Cleveland crowd, a humbled James repeatedly pointed to different sections of the arena before putting his hands together to gesture thank you. Cheered from the moment he jogged onto the court with the Lakers to a thunderous ovation when he was introduced last in the Lakers’ starting lineup, James felt the love in his first trip to Cleveland as a member of the Lakers.
It was a vastly different reception compared to the last time he returned in an opposing uniform as a member of the Miami Heat on Dec. 2, 2010; the Cavs had to hire extra security for that game.
But this time, Cleveland showered James with affection after he helped deliver a championship to the city. James responded by lifting the Lakers to a 109-105 come-from-behind victory with 32 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists.
It was the perfect way to end what was an emotional day for James.
“I just felt different from the time we landed yesterday,” James said. “From the time we landed yesterday, it just felt a different way. I’m a different person. We’re all different from eight years ago [when he returned to Cleveland for the first time with Miami], I think, both good and bad.”
James added: “I appreciate these fans, just as much as they appreciate me. Every single night we stepped on the floor, they always showed their appreciation to not only myself, but to my teammates over these 11 years, especially the last four years those championship runs that we were making, so that was just my salute to them for appreciating what I was able to accomplish with my teammates and coaches along those four years.”
James’ day was filled with heartfelt emotion. He made a surprise visit to the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, in the morning. Upon walking into the school for at-risk youth, which he helped open this past summer, James was greeted by a girl who was reduced to tears upon seeing him.
“That was a pretty cool moment,” James said.
After staying at his house in the area, James got to the arena about an hour-and-a half before tipoff. He was greeted by more than a dozen cameras and reporters recording his first steps back into his old home. For the occasion, James wore a pair of white and green Nike LeBron 7s in St. Vincent-St. Mary High School colors, originally released in 2009 — the final season of his first stint with the Cavs.
Before the game started, Cavaliers public address announcer Sean Peebles enthusiastically introduced the last player in the Lakers starting five as if he were a starter on the home team: “A 6-8 forward from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School … welcome home! No. 23, LeBron James!”
The video tribute then came with 8:09 to go in the first quarter and started with brief highlights of James and the Cavs winning the title in 2015-16. The video then faded to black with the message: “Thank you for what you did on the court … but we all know it’s bigger than basketball.”
The video then showed clips of James opening his school and his impact on the community before closing with a “thank you LeBron.”
“We recognize the fact that certainly this is a big night for the city of Cleveland,” Cavaliers coach Larry Drew said before the game. “Because a hero has come back.”
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who normally sits courtside near the Cleveland bench, wasn’t in attendance as he was out of town at a long-planned family reunion for Thanksgiving, according to a team spokesman. James’ close friend and business partner, Maverick Carter, sat courtside for the game near the Lakers bench.
On Sunday, James enjoyed his return to Miami, punctuated by him scoring 51 points in a Lakers win over the Heat. But this was different for him because this was home.
“I heard maybe one or two boos, but it was mostly cheers from what I heard, and it should be,” Walton said. “He’s done so much here and he has so much love for this city on and off the basketball court, the whole area, not just Cleveland. It was nice to see him kind of get a standing O coming back here.”
The Cavaliers (2-14) threatened to spoil James’ homecoming as Jordan Clarkson buried back-to-back 3-pointers to push the Cavs up 96-87 with 7:33 remaining.
But James helped orchestrate a 15-3 Lakers run, scoring 10 of the points and assisting on a Kyle Kuzma 3-pointer during the Lakers’ surge. The Lakers (10-7) held on at the end and James hugged several of his former teammates and coaches on the court.
“The day started off great,” James said. “I got an opportunity to spend the first part of my day and go down to my school and see my kids, and it was a great, warm welcome to see them, and so I was already thankful for that moment. And to come here tonight and go out and hear the fans’ reception, 11 years playing here … to be the best basketball player, the best role model, the best leader I could be both on and off the floor and lead by example for this franchise, and they showed their appreciation, and I really … and not only for myself, but for my friends and family that were at the game tonight, it was a great moment.
“This experience has been great,” he later added. “So it’s all about growth, and we all have grown from that moment eight years ago. So I kind of leave the past in the past and always focus on the present and see what happens in the future.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.