CLEVELAND -- After all the breathless commercials and East 4th St. beer bashes, after all the white confetti tosses and red glow-stick shows, came a reminder to rollicking Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night. Despite his size and strength, athleticism and intelligence, nothing goes precisely as planned for LeBron James. Even in the past four-and-a-half years, a glorious span that saw him reach four Finals and capture two championships, there was the decision, the bump, 9-8, Dallas, the clutch gene, good job good effort, the cramps, Game 6, the cramps again and San Antonio. Then he returned to Northeast Ohio this summer, and judging by the TV spots, he was home free.
James commands more attention than anyone in sports not simply because he is the world’s best basketball player. It’s also because the storylines around him never stay the same. One day, he can’t win the big one and the next he can’t lose. One day, he can’t hit the last shot and the next he can’t miss. The narratives -- a modern catchphrase that seemed to be coined with him in mind -- constantly shift under his Nikes. All summer, James was cast as the spotless homecoming king who could do no wrong, a role he filled with aplomb. But, realistically, it would only last until the first bad loss.
Over the past half-century, Cleveland has become intimately accustomed to disappointment, but not even the locals could fathom a newly formed super team dropping a home game on Opening Night to a Knicks squad starting Quincy Acy and Shane Larkin. The Cavaliers spent three months working themselves into a lather for this day; the Knicks hobbled in after a 24-point home loss to the Bulls the night before. James tossed the powder in the air. The crowd sang along with Usher to the national anthem. A 25,000-square foot banner was unfurled at Ontario and Huron. East 4th was as jammed as Bourbon St. The whole scene felt like a set-up for the homecoming king to post a triple-double and the Cavs to roll by 30.
“It was fun,” James said, “while it lasted.”
In sports, unlike advertising, there is no script, and the Knicks ruined a great party with a shocking 95-90 win. James did not play a good game or even an average one. He made 5 of 15 shots, committed eight turnovers, and only found easy baskets when he was cherry picking Kevin Love outlets. He threw a pass into the seats when Kyrie Irving cut inside. He fouled Carmelo Anthony taking a three. He scrapped with Jason Smith of all people. Selecting a James highlight is hard, besides the lay-up he sank over Anthony, while being dragging down by the jersey.
“Emotions are going to run,” James said. “The crowd was excited, we were excited, everyone was excited. I tried to focus.” He acknowledged no nerves, but in the tunnel before warm-ups, he hopped up and down like a frenzied prizefighter. He let out an impromptu roar in the pre-game layup line. He tilted his head to the rafters before introductions. If he wasn’t overwhelmed, he was at least moved.
“Play the game, not the occasion,” cautioned David Blatt, Cleveland’s rookie coach. But, at morning shoot-around, James called the game “probably one of the biggest sporting events that’s up there ever.” He built it into something even more significant than it was. James attributed his struggles to the Cavaliers search for chemistry, a reasonable explanation, considering how quickly this roster was slapped together. In the first half, the Cavs moved the ball well, though at times they over-passed. In the second half, the offense stalled, as stars went one-on-one. The Cavs should score as easily as any team in the NBA, but occasionally they recalled the 2010-11 Heat, albeit without the frenetic defense.
“I think we spiked at a certain point,” Blatt said. “We’ve been excited about this game for a long time. We used that emotion in a positive way and then … we kind of dropped off the map.”
Blatt acknowledged that Cleveland must do a better job putting James in motion, which could mean more pick-and-rolls, particularly potent when run with Love. The Cavaliers don’t have time to regroup. They now embark on a challenging four-game road trip, with a date Friday in Chicago, followed by a test Tuesday in Portland. Perhaps they will find a bit of normalcy on the road, without Justin Bieber roaming the corridor outside their locker room, singing quietly to himself.
“It’s crazy,” said Cavs forward Tristan Thompson. “And it’s just beginning.”
If Cleveland takes a few weeks to find its groove, James will surely point back to those 2010-11 Heat, who proved a 9-8 start does not portend doom. Standing at his corner locker late Thursday night, he appeared unexpectedly upbeat, reviewing bad passes and missed shots with a self-deprecating smile. “I didn’t press,” he said. “I didn’t do much.”
The coronation did not go at all as planned, and in a way, that was appropriate. James traditionally does his best work in the crosshairs, when he is being doubted, not exalted. That’s part of the reason he appealed to this region in the first place. “Hard times are what we do,” said Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, watching the game from a suite. “Challenges are part of life. It’s how you deal with it. He deals with it every time. That’s why he’s the best.”
The homecoming game will forever be part of the James oeuvre, another event that produced another storyline, significant until in a few hours the next one comes along.