(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.”
When James announced his return to Cleveland in an essay written for Sports Illustrated in July, he stated, ”I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic.”
Those expectations changed drastically just over a month later when the Cavs acquired Love from Minnesota for No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.
With the NBA’s newest ”Big 3” of James, Love and Irving, complemented by the signings of key role players Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones, Cleveland is now the favorite to win the title.
However, James is trying to tone down roaring expectations. While he has plenty of postseason experience, Irving and Love have not logged one playoff minute.
"I don’t want to talk about it too much because then it could be used as a sound bite," he said. "So I’m not even going to get involved in that right now. We’ve got a long way to go.”
New coach David Blatt also thinks all the championship talk is premature. The successful European coach who was hired in June after the Cavs fired Mike Brown following a 33-49 season, feels his team is ready to go, but realizes the Big 3 still need time to jell.
”Obviously now that the real games are getting started, we’re going to find out," Blatt said. "I thought we showed in preseason that we’re a pretty good, competitive group and we played some good teams. But there’s a big difference between preseason and regular season for everyone."
While James needs no extra motivation in his return to Cleveland, he also has a history of raising his game with meetings against the Knicks. The four-time league MVP averaged 32.8 points on 63.8 percent shooting in four games against New York last season, and has been on the winning side in 21 of his last 27 matchups.
Irving also frustrated the Knicks last season, averaging 30.3 points and 7.3 assists in three contests. The Cavs split four games with New York in 2013-14.
The Knicks opened the season Wednesday with a 104-80 home loss to Chicago, spoiling Derek Fisher’s first game as an NBA coach.
Running the triangle offense that Fisher played in under Knicks president Phil Jackson, New York shot 36.5 percent and missed 14 of 17 3-pointers.
”Embarrassed? No, I am not embarrassed,” said Carmelo Anthony, who had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting. ”We will get better. I believe that. I know that and we have another shot at it tomorrow night.”
New York was without starting point guard Jose Calderon, who was a late scratch because of a strained right calf. Shane Larkin made his first career start.
”We’re going somewhere, but at the beginning of where we’re going it’s going to be difficult to get wins,” Fisher said. ”We have to fight really, really hard to win games.”
Like James and Irving, Anthony has also thrived in this series, averaging 29.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in four games versus Cleveland last season.