CLEVELAND — The rest of the Los Angeles Lakers were already on the floor, as were the Cleveland Cavaliers, when LeBron James finally burst out of a tunnel at 7:56 p.m. Wednesday night to join the pregame layup lines.
The expectant crowd at Quicken Loans Arena greeted the greatest player in Cavaliers history with a surge of warm applause.
Minutes later the noise level rose several notches when James was the last member of the Lakers’ starting five to be introduced. A full-fledged, 30-second standing ovation for James followed when the Cavaliers played a “Thank You, LeBron” tribute video during the first timeout in the first quarter.
The atmosphere at The Q, as it’s known, was tame for long stretches, but the locals even cheered several flashes of James’s dominance as he amassed 32 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists in the Lakers’ eventual 109-105 comeback victory over the 2-14 Cavaliers.
The evening, in short, will stand in stark contrast to the pure and unrelenting vitriol heaped upon James nearly eight years ago, when he made his first appearance in this building as a member of the Miami Heat following his controversial free-agent move to South Beach in the summer of 2010.
“It just felt different from the time we landed yesterday,” said James, who visited the “I Promise” school he helped found in his native Akron in the hours before the game.
“I’m a different person,” James added. “We’re all different from eight years ago.
“It’s all about growth, and we all have grown from that moment eight years ago.”
A theory began to gain steam during last season’s N.B.A finals that fellow Northeast Ohioans were so appreciative of James’s efforts, on and off the court, that they would ultimately bless the idea of their homegrown star leaving them in free agency for a second time. It’s a theory which holds that James — after leading Cleveland to a championship in 2016 that ended the city’s 52-year title drought — deserved some sympathy for the widening gap between the LeBron-led Cavaliers and the mighty Golden State Warriors.
This night was the first tangible evidence that the basketball romantics were right. This was a happy homecoming.
It didn’t hurt that the Cavaliers, who fired Coach Tyronn Lue after an 0-6 start to the season and this week sent the veteran guard J.R. Smith away from the team, committed zero turnovers in the first half and managed to take a 96-87 lead into the final seven minutes of regulation. The Lakers ultimately recovered to hold off the team sporting the league’s worst record, and in doing so improved to 10-7. But to win they needed 11 fourth-quarter points from James and had to survive a clean look at a tying 3-pointer in the final minute from Cleveland guard Kyle Korver after James made only 1 of 2 free throws.
Cedi Osman had 21 points and five 3-pointers to lead the Cavaliers in what will likely go down, all things considered, as one of the more satisfying nights of Cleveland’s trying season.
Hints of a much more benign reception for James than he received on Dec. 2, 2010, were actually plentiful in the buildup to the occasion. The only mention of the N.B.A. on the front page of Wednesday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example, was a tease to a story that the Cavaliers have exiled Smith from the team until they can trade him.
The downtown streets were cold and quiet in the daytime hours leading up to tipoff, devoid of James-related signage. You had to strain to see any trace of LeBron-related hoopla until night fell.
The Cavaliers said that, as far as security precautions, pregame measures were “one step beyond” a typical regular-season game but well shy of the weekslong plan hatched in conjunction with the league and even federal authorities before the caldron James’s return produced in 2010.
It was likewise impossible to miss that the giant LeBron banner across the street from the arena, which had draped one side of Sherwin-Williams’ global headquarters since James returned to the Cavaliers from the Miami Heat before the 2014-15 season, has been replaced by a more generic banner bearing ALL FOR THE LAND messaging.
Yet it became clear, once the arena began to fill up with James jerseys galore, that the atmosphere would be welcoming. Rich Paul, James’s agent, was so sure of it that he flew Wednesday to Philadelphia instead to monitor the showdown between two of his other high-profile clients: Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Cavaliers figure to take some solace in how hard they made the Lakers work to avoid an embarrassing defeat on James’s big night, with consecutive 3-pointers from the former Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson enabling the hosts to stretch their lead to nine points at its peak in the final quarter.
Cleveland had four players in double figures — Osman, Clarkson (20 points), Tristan Thompson (14) and Collin Sexton (12) — but the narrow defeat surely only added to the bittersweet nature of James’s return. Cleveland fans are well aware that the Cavaliers have not made the playoffs without James on the roster since 1998 — and they haven’t won a playoff series without James since 1993.
“We have to recognize this is a big night for the city of Cleveland, because a hero has come back,” Cavaliers Coach Larry Drew said roughly 90 minutes before the opening tip.