CLEVELAND (AP) — This will be a season opener unlike any other — one that also brings closure.
Part homecoming, part family reunion, part revival meeting and a huge party rolled into one.
When LeBron James takes the court on Thursday night wearing a No. 23 Cavaliers uniform in a regular-season game for the first time in four years, an entire city will be able to wash away a painful past. Any lingering bitterness will give way to forgiveness and excitement about the future.
“For these fans,” James said Wednesday, “it means everything.”
That’s because he means everything to them.
James and a Cavaliers team transformed over the summer by his return — plus the signing of All-Star guard Kyrie Irving to a contract extension and the acquisition of power forward Kevin Love — will open their NBA season on Thursday night against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena.
This is the night Cleveland has been waiting for.
More than 20,000 fans, some paying more than $1,000 per ticket, will welcome James back home to where he began his basketball career. He’ll again play before family, friends from Akron and the Cavs fans who feared he would never return after the 29-year-old bolted for Miami in 2010 to chase championships.
There’s never been a night like it in this city’s tortured sports history, and it promises to be emotional for everyone, including James.
“It means everything to be able to open our NBA campaign here in Cleveland with these fans. It’s going to be a special moment,” James said after practice at the Q. “We can’t take it for granted. You don’t get moments like this, they don’t come around every day.”
The game will be secondary to the spectacle surrounding James’ homecoming.
In the hours before tipoff, Nike will unveil a new 10-story-banner of James where a previous one of his likeness became a treasured city landmark before being removed in the days after he left.
A free concert featuring hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and the rock band Imagine Dragons will take place across from the arena, and bars and restaurants will be overflowing with fans, thousands of whom can’t get a ticket but want to celebrate something that in some ways feels bigger than a title.
“This is going to be one of the biggest nights ever,” said Jasmine Latorres, a bartender at the Clevelander Bar and Grill, which only had a handful of patrons on a gray, late fall afternoon but will be packed on Wednesday night. “LeBron’s back. It’s going to be nuts.”
It will seem like old times for Cleveland with James being back. On Wednesday night, he went on Twitter asking fans to vote on whether he should resume doing his pregame “chalk toss,” a signature routine during his first stint with the Cavs.
James’ return has not only made the Cavs one of the top favorites to win a title but he has spawned a financial wave for the region that is still building.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said James’ impact on the area is immeasurable — economically and emotionally. It’s created new jobs and other growth, giving the city a substantial shot in the arm as it undergoes an urban renaissance. Beyond that, James has renewed hope that Cleveland can celebrate its first pro sports championship since 1964.
There are generations of Clevelanders who have known only well-documented, nicknamed misery: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, and, of course, The Decision.
This is a chance to make it all feel better.
And for James and Gilbert, who have patched up their differences after an ugly separation, this is all about taking Cleveland to the top after grinding through the painful times.
“For us, the thing that drives us the most is delivering this for the fans of Cleveland,” Gilbert said. “It will be 51 years, and that’s what the emotion is really about that. Delivering for them, and hoping that day comes whether it’s this year, next year or the following year, whenever it comes, and we believe it will.”
A deafening roar will welcome James onto the court when he’s introduced as the last member of Cleveland’s starting lineup. It may take several minutes for Cleveland fans to settle into their seats.
James, on the other hand, won’t be able to enjoy the celebration accompanying his comeback.
“I wish I could,” he said. “I haven’t had a moment to soak in anything I’ve done. It continues to go and I continue to live in the moment. I think after I’m done playing I’ll be able to look back on a lot of great moments and tomorrow will be another one of those moments.”
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