As the Southwest plane is de-iced and the male flight attendant up front makes bad jokes to a weary and unamused crowd, these ears overhear whispers of LeBron James' name for the first time since leaving the Sacramento, Calif. airport in the afternoon. A white-haired man in Row 16 turns to his right and poses the question about The Decision to the burly gent in the window seat who has identified himself as Cleveland born and bred: "So who's the bigger villain, Art Modell or LeBron James?"
The answer given is Modell, the former Cleveland Browns owner who famously took his football team to Baltimore in the dead of night back in 1996. But not surprisingly, there's still plenty of venom to go around. LeBron is being criticized by a local, and we're still 345 miles away from the site of The Return.
"You know, I didn't really care that LeBron left, but all it showed me is that he doesn't have what it takes to be a champion," says the bald man with a goatee who's built like 'The Thing' of Fantastic Four fame. "What a punk."
It's not just the tough guys chiming in. A middle-aged woman with reading glasses and a red sweater can be heard trying to catch up on the LeNews in Row 18.
"LeBron is coming back?" she says, confused. "But they don't want him back."
She is then briefed on the situation by the Lindsey Hunter look-a-like to her right.
"Oh, I thought he was coming back by himself to see a (Cavs) game," she says. "They wouldn't let him in."
She must have heard about the Dan Gilbert letter.
It's been four months since the Cavaliers owner put his fire-filled fingertips to the keyboard and wrote The Letter, an angry, honest, out-of-his-mind attack job on James that would eventually result in a $100,000 fine from the league. And while one might have thought that Gilbert's fury had since fizzled, we're being told otherwise.
Yahoo Sports! reporter Adrian Wojnarowski -- speaking of fire on the finger tips -- reports tonight that Gilbert has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing a tampering charge regarding the way in which James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh collaborated their way to South Beach. In the rush from one flight to the next, I had checked with a league source who always has a good pulse on the owner front to see whether he thought the Cavs owner's endeavor was for show or for real.
"They'll probably come up with some interesting circumstantial evidence, but not enough for a conviction," he writes.
We're about to land in the Mistake by the Lake, where the jury has long since reached a verdict in the case of King James.
Wednesday, 11:42 p.m. ET, Cab heading north on Interstate 71 in Cleveland, Ohio -- Or maybe the case of LBJ is still open after all ...
The testimony continues inside a taxi heading downtown, where the driver and us two fare-splitters in the back seat sit silently while Cavs guard Mo Williams takes the stand. We go silent as his unplugged interview at that day's practice is being piped through the local sports talk radio airwaves in a way I can't ever remember hearing. It's raw, like the sporting soul of the city itself in this ongoing aftermath and like Williams himself when he admitted in mid-September that he considered retirement after James skipped town.
Williams pleads for "no violence" from the locals, then discusses the fact that -- emotions aside -- the local team has no choice but to respect the amount of talent that was taken by South Beach.
"We definitely don't want (the Heat) clicking on all cylinders, because they have the talent to be really good," Williams says.
The player who reportedly considered retiring because of James' departure is then asked if he felt betrayed when he left.
"I voiced my opinion on media day," he answers.
The reporters press him further, asking if he and his teammates have an edge in Thursday's game because of their shared past with James and knowledge of his game.
"We know his tendencies, and he's pretty damn good," he continues. "No matter what went on, it doesn't take away his talents. It's a playoff game (on Thursday). You don't want to lose a playoff game. This game is not just for us. We've got people who aren't even Cavs fans rooting for us."
And people who have no problem at all capitalizing on the anti-James sentiment. Take, for example, the makers of the billboard that we pass on the Interstate, with their anti-James slogan that doesn't miss a chance to capitalize on his lack of loyalty by reading, "Witness a team that hasn't left in 163 years." A few miles down the road, another billboard, this one for rock station WMMS, 100.7, reads "Cleveland -- Quitters Not Welcome."
Thankfully, out-of-towners coming in late to cover the event are welcome at my hotel of choice near Quicken Loans Arena. And as I head up to the room for the night, there is one last LeMention overheard from two men near the elevator.
"Yeah, this is something else with LeBron," one man says. "All I know is it's going to be a long, long time until this city has a championship."
3:37 a.m. ET, Downtown Cleveland - The lodging choice of these hated Miami Heat was either a well-kept secret or the Cavs faithful just couldn't stay awake long enough to welcome their prodigal son back home.
In the minutes before their bus arrives, hotel staff nearing a dozen fills the lobby while a police car sits on each nearby street corner. A glass table in the center of the room holds envelopes for each player with room keys enclosed inside. The media presence is minimal: one TV van that's within plain view and three cameramen there to get their shot and scurry home less than five minutes after The Arrival.
There are no fans on the premises, unless the five men in the sixth-floor lounge count. They don't, however, considering none of them move from the table full of beer bottles when Dwyane Wade, James Jones, Eddie House and Carlos Arroyo come through and head for their rooms. I share an elevator with James associate Randy Mims while heading back to my room.
There is no sight of James, though, leading one to wonder if he might have headed to his hometown of Akron for the night. This, for the record, was the second failed Witness of this late evening.
After braving the cold breeze coming off Lake Erie, I saw for the first time the new (the locals say improved) billboard that replaced the iconic "Witness" Nike ad of before. It's a picture of the city's skyline at night, with the message courtesy of the company, Sherwin Williams, that reads, "Our home since 1866. Our pride forever." (Click here to see for yourself)
This serene scene will look a whole lot different not too many hours from now.
10:15 a.m. ET, Ritz-Carlton hotel, Downtown Cleveland - The first LeMention of the day in my world goes to FanHouse's own Dan Graziano, who is a panelist on ESPN's First Take and sharing his view of the night's affair.
As I peek out the hotel window and observe a continued absence of chaos outside, Graziano predicts that the game will serve as catharsis for the Cavaliers while former James teammate Damon Jones says he expects someone to try to bum-rush James in some form on the Quicken Loans Arena floor. Skip Bayless expects nothing more than extreme loudness.
The walk down West Huron to Cavs shootaround (Heat have no morning shootaround because they played the night before) is nippy for this California boy, even if I am sporting a serious wool jacket. And as was the case upon waking, the only four letter-spewing so far is ... ESPN. This time it's the local radio affiliate, 850 WKNR, which can be heard on the street.
"Tim, are you over it (James leaving)?'" one host says to the other.
11:30 a.m. ET, Quicken Loans Arena - It doesn't smell like death in this place after all. Not even close.
As former Cavs center and Heat accomplice Zydrunas Ilgauskas pointed out on Wednesday, no one died here. It is just a basketball game, meaning the game day smell of cotton candy and popcorn floats through these hallways now just like before.
It is clearly not just any basketball game, though. As Howard Beck of the New York Times points out, the fact that TNT's Craig Sager is being interviewed by local media instead of conducting interviews himself tells you about the circus factor here. And Cavs coach Byron Scott, who surely can't wait to stop fielding questions about a player he never worked with, isn't typically surrounded by 20-plus media members for this morning ritual either.
Mo Williams might be dubbing this a playoff game (which we'll report more on in a separate story soon here), but Scott is clearly trying to downplay it. He laughs at the notion that the negativity James could face tonight is as epic as everybody claims it to be.
"C'mon man, I was a Los Angeles Laker," he says.
He tells a story of Lakers player's wives getting mooned in Boston back in the day, an idea that might normally inspire the same behavior for fans in this situation if not for the inherent deterrent that this frigid and snowy weather poses. You wonder if the first-year Cavs coach wants to be here at all tonight or if he wishes he could just resume his duties when the so-called King is gone again.
There's no revenge factor for him, just the obligatory mention that he was coming as James was going and the unfair characterization that he somehow got egg on his face in the process (to review, Scott took the job before James' Decision.) For what it's worth, Scott did consider the notion of not attending this event -- if only in a comedic sense.
In the wake of his $35,000 league fine last week for criticizing officials after a loss to Orlando on Friday, Scott and his wife, Anita, thought it would be just hysterical to play a practical joke on his agent, Brian McInerney. They told him that the fine was actually $100,000 and that Scott had been suspended for games against Boston and the Heat, a hypothetical punishment so severe that his representative was justifiably infuriated. His indignation was their enjoyment, until they finally, mercifully revealed the punch line a day later to a chorus of one-way laughter.
But alas, Scott will be here, watching and perhaps wondering what might have been. Or, as is more likely to be the case, he'll treat it like Game No. 18 of the regular season. Make no mistake, that is the M.O. of the people in charge here, no matter how many times James' ex-teammates give into the emotional tenor of the event. Scott wants his team to improve to 8-10 and the Heat to fall to 11-9. It is, they insist, just one game.
5 p.m. E.T., LeReturn Central - This is no riot scene. Let's just make that clear from the start.
Sure, there are two hours between now and tipoff, but my personal leanings on the larger front are that the good folks of Cleveland, in general, are ready to move past this story. There are some 20 people out front of the Ritz-Carlton hotel when the Heat head for Quicken Loans Arena, and they certainly start heckling when James leaves the hotel (looks like he stayed there after all).
The worst sentiment spewed in my presence is in a class all its own, when a man hollers, "Hey LeBron, how's it feel to be D-Wade's b***h?!" But it's hardly a public crusade against the man.
James was one of the first players to hop on the team bus for the three-block drive, wisely covering his ears with headphones that might block any and all verbal assaults.
He waves to his "fans" from the back of the bus, but this is not the wave that they'll remember. The bartender at the Winking Lizard still wishes he hadn't watched "The Decision." He was off on that July day, so he was one of the many who gathered in front of big screen televisions at the nearby Harry Buffalo to see where James would take his talents.
He is still "mad at myself" for taking the time to watch the show, and the man at the bar feeds that fire with his own opinion of how "The Decision" was handled.
"I know your boys are your boys," he says in the early afternoon of James' well-known public relations handlers that double as his closest friends. "But goddamn, they ain't no (expletive) public relations experts. It's the way it was done that was wrong."
The bartender has since recovered from the loss of this one athlete, no matter how unique his talents. His wish at this point is for his city to save face.
"I just don't want the negative (tonight)," he says. "I want positive. A lot of boos, but I want Cleveland to come off positive."
There is real resentment on the premises, though. The anti-James material is being hung on restaurant fronts in the early afternoon...
...and two young men also at the Winking Lizard who will be attending the festivities later on are loving every minute of it.
7:47 p.m. E.T., Quicken Loans Arena - Much like so much of James' life and career, it appears this event has been overhyped.
No craziness, volatility, or tension felt throughout the building. There are some funny anti-James characters in the crowd, though.
Speaking of the crowd, they're chanting "overrated" as I type, and it's time to head for the floor so as not to miss Powder-gate: the pressing question of whether or not James will do his pregame ritual of throwing chalk in the air at midcourt. Besides, the TVs here in the media room are, somewhat poetically, airing Game 6 of last season's Eastern Conference Semifinals against Boston. We all know how that went. Here we go ...
(Belated shameless plug here: I chatted with KNBR 1050's Damon Bruce in San Francisco this afternoon, if you prefer the audio form of storytelling.)
9:50 p.m. E.T. -- Quicken Loans Arena
Well, he did it.
James didn't let anything get between him and his ritual, which makes perfect sense really. He has made a habit out of opting for show over substance for quite some time now, and so it was that the powder flew.
It was a hot topic sideshow to this whole circus, the question about whether he might resist this urge as a possible mea culpa to his former fan base. Instead, more of the same.
Yet there is more than one constant with this player, this man. And the other, which will be celebrated from here on out in South Beach like it was in Cleveland, is talent. After hearing a number of mean-spirited taunts -- from "Akron hates you!" to the more profane variety -- James and his new team lead 59-40 at halftime.
The energy that electrified the building at the start is almost entirely gone. A malaise has come over the crowd. This might be a catharsis, but it's his, not theirs.
11:15 E.T., Quicken Loans Arena - It got ugly. In every way.
A battery was, in fact, thrown, falling near the Heat bench late in the game and thankfully not doing any damage. The same couldn't be said for man who was carried out by three policemen, his drunken misbehavior leading to an attempted arrest gone wrong. While the lawsuit that is sure to ensue will surely have all the details, the unmistakable image from inside the arena press room as he was dragged off was the blood dripping off his beaten face. Witnesses said it was done by the law enforcement officials after he put up the dumbest of fights.
There was in-house hostility, too. Heat guard Eddie House wasn't willing to forgive Cavs guard Boobie Gibson for the events that led to double technical fouls in the late fourth quarter, and that standoff nearly segued into the worst of postgame scenes. House, who could be heard saying "When that (expletive) turns the corner I'm putting my hands on him," sat in the hallway near the Heat locker room having to be talked out of attacking Gibson. Carlos Arroyo, Jamaal Magloire and a number of security staff helped avert this conflict.
For his part, James kept his cool throughout, enduring relentless heckling near the end from those who remained in the half-full arena. The Cavs, meanwhile, are left more conflicted than ever. As sporting comparisons go, this was nothing short of torturous for the home team. Heat 118, Cavaliers 90. James 38 points; Cavs starting five, 28 points. LeReturn, without question, went to LeBron.