CLEVELAND — There was the opt-out, then an entire region nervously waiting it out, then there was The Letter — it was received around here much better than The Decision — and then after one hell of a Saturday morning hangover, there was still essentially a whole summer left.
Thursday night, there’s basketball.
The feel-good story you know about LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers, homecoming and high hopes officially becomes one of James and a totally-remade Cavaliers organization chasing championships and almost assuredly hitting some bumps along the way Thursday night when the New York Knicks visit Cleveland and Quicken Loans Arena.
Tickets will cost you an arm, a leg and a non-vital organ. There are concerts outside, celebrities on the guest list, fireworks and super-secret plans for inside and a whole bunch of people, locally and globally, anxious to see where it all goes. Eventually, there will be basketball.
And it will all be real.
"It’s going to be a special moment," James said. "You can’t take it for granted. These moments, they don’t come around every day."
James keeps talking about the future and preaching patience, how the Cavs are still getting to know one another and how Thursday night is one step of many. But he can’t avoid his past, present and future colliding, knowing all those fireworks and cameras and gawkers are there for him, how expectations are sky high, how so many are smiling because The King is back and all he has to do is make sure the Cavs are crowned kings of the NBA in some June to come.
"I think it’s different for everyone else," James said Wednesday, reflecting on what Thursday’s opener means. "For me, it’s getting back to the journey. I am really excited and happy to be back on this floor but as far as the meaning, the meaning is me preparing for a long-term run at a championship."
Born and raised 40 miles south in Akron, James became a Cavalier in the 2003 NBA Draft and led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007, way ahead of almost anyone’s schedule. He played three more seasons and won two MVPs in Cleveland, but in July of 2010 he went on TV and announced he was taking his talents to the Miami Heat.
The Heat played in the Finals four straight years, winning twice. James won two more MVPs. And now that’s his past, too.
As free agency started last summer he met in secret with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, talked things over behind closed doors with Heat president Pat Riley, flew back to Miami from Las Vegas with longtime friend and Heat teammate Dwyane Wade and then, without notice, dropped a letter via Sports Illustrated that said he was coming home.
There were a lot of hard feelings. There were uncomfortable moments. The Cavs stunk for the four years while James was gone, to put it lightly. Now that he’s back, they’re considered by many to be the favorites to win the NBA title. James keeps trying to temper expectations, and he knows from his own experiences it won’t be easy.
He’s looking forward to more experiences. Though he’s been clear that Thursday is just one game, just the first of a whole bunch, he said returning to the home team "with these fans, for these fans, it means everything."
Where he was is where he is. It’s where he’s going to be, too, he assured fans at a formal homecoming rally in August. The present and the future of the Cavaliers include Kyrie Irving, who’s under a long-term contract, and Kevin Love, who presumably will be, and a new coach in David Blatt and a couple of James’ old Heat teammates in Mike Miller and James Jones. After practice Wednesday, James shot 3-pointers with Love and Dion Waiters while his old teammate and longtime friend Damon Jones rebounded.
He’s brought many on this wild ride.
In many ways it begins, all over again, on Thursday. He’ll be introduced, like he used to be, as No. 23, from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He might even walk over and toss the powder, just like he used to. When it all clears, he’ll play a game for the Cavs.
"I wish I could let it soak in," James 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, which I think tomorrow will be one."