CLEVELAND – Nobody knows how Thursday night’s highly-anticipated Cleveland Cavaliers season opener vs. the New York Knicks will end up going for Homecoming King LeBron James.
Most figure, though, that it will be better than the last time he played a first game in Cleveland with the Cavs.
James scored just 7 points on Nov. 5, 2003, in a nationally-televised matchup with fellow rookie Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets won, 93-89, and the Cavs fell to 0-4.
Tonight, it’s James vs. Anthony again.
"That’s how it should be," James said Wednesday. "When we first started our careers, we played each other opening night here and it’s how it should be, me seeing a great friend of mine and competing against him when both of us made a decision that we thought was best for ourselves."
Way back then, James was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft and Anthony went two picks later after leading Syracuse to the NCAA title. Tonight, James is considered the world’s greatest player and will don a Cavaliers uniform for the first time in four years. While James left Miami last summer, Anthony stayed in New York.
It’s made for TV — and, frankly, for a different result than that game 11 years ago given the hype surrounding the Cavs. But openers have been a mixed bag for James through the years.
**Dec. 3, 1999. Cuyahoga Falls High School.**
This was before James was a star, even in and around Akron. This, too, was in the small window when St. Vincent-St. Mary was just another high school basketball program, before the fancy Nike uniforms and games that aired on pay-per-view. This was a standard season opener played in front of 600 or so fans, a young St. V-M team — James was one of four freshmen among the top seven players for the Irish — against a more veteran Cuyahoga Falls team.
A plaque of LeBron James inside of inside of St. Vincent St. Mary High School prior to the LeBron James Family Foundation Reunion and Rally at InfoCision Stadium.
"I thought we’d have a pretty good ballclub," said Mike Meneer, then the coach at Cuyahoga Falls.
Because St. V-M was so young, Meneer had his team employ full-court pressure from the first basket and play an up-tempo game, hoping to exhaust the Irish mentally and physically.
Somebody ended up getting run out of the gym, but it was the home team. St. V-M won, 76-40. James scored 15 points.
"I remember being a little worried just because they were kids, and varsity basketball on the road was a whole new world," Keith Dambrot, then the coach at St. V-M and now head coach at the University of Akron said. "I don’t remember details, but I remember how well and how hard they played.
"If you tell me LeBron had 15 points, I believe you. If you tell me he had 20 or even just 5 points, I believe that, too. He was so far advanced, even at that point, it was ridiculous. His ability to learn, his instincts, those things were off the charts. He was an unbelievable teammate. He would have passed the ball the whole game if I’d have let him."
Meneer remembers a skinny James — he wore tall, sometimes raggedy hair and No. 32 on his jersey then — as "in command. Just unflappable, right from the start. He was special, and that was a special team. He was always into every aspect of the game. You could see it at an early age. He was a sponge, and he was a step ahead.
"Just from being around, the word was out about a special group going to St. V-M. I knew Bob Huggins pretty well (Huggins was the coach at Cincinnati at the time) and I knew he’d been up in the fall to look at them. A few days before the game I called Bob and asked, ‘Hey, how good are these freshmen?’
"He said, ‘Mike, I don’t know. They’re just kids. But from what I saw, one of them is good enough that we’re not going to get him. We’ll try, but there’s no chance.’"
St. V-M would go 27-0 and win the Div. III state championship. Dambrot said the week after the state championship game James measured at 6’4 and weighed 170 pounds.
"He wasn’t a monster like he is now," Dambrot said. "But it was coming. His skill level and his understanding of people were way, way ahead."
Today, Meneer is an assistant coach at St. V-M, and the team is outfitted by LeBron’s Nike line. Meneer chuckled and said it’s safe to say James is the only player he’s ever coached against and later wore his logo.
The only way James, then 18, was going to meet growing expectations in his first NBA game was to put on a show.
He did, scoring 25 points and adding 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals.
"I’m just going to try to do the best I can," James said after the game.
He was just getting started.
The Cavs starting lineup was James, Carlos Boozer, Darius Miles, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ricky Davis. Mike Bibby, Doug Christie and Vlade Divac were among the starters for the Kings, who won the game 106-92.
Divac, who made his NBA debut when James was five years old, said after the game he believed James was "the real deal."
*Nov. 5, 2003. Gund Arena.**
A Northeast Ohio guy took over the game in the second half.
Earl Boykins. All 5’4 of him.
Boykins scored all 18 of his points in the second half as the Nuggets won the game, stealing a little — no pun intended — of the spotlight away from James and Anthony.
James would finish with 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks in addition to those 7 points. Anthony scored 14 points in 39 minutes. Ilgauskas led the Cavs with 23 points. He now has his number retired inside what’s now called Quicken Loans Arena. Somebody’s No. 23 will join him in the rafters eventually.
**Oct. 26 2010. TD Garden, Boston.**
In July 2010, James took his talents to somewhere near South Beach.
He made his Miami Heat debut in Boston — and the fans weren’t friendly, showering him with chants of "overrated" and traitor."
The Celtics weren’t especially friendly, either, winning the game 88-80 over James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat’s vaunted Big Three.
"It’s a feel-out process," James said after the game. "When you have so many options, it’s something I’m not accustomed to, having that many threats out on the court at the same time."
James led all scorers with 31 points. His longtime rival, Paul Pierce, led the Celtics with 19.
The next night, the Celtics came to Cleveland and lost to the Cavs. It seems they’d been pretty geeked up to play James and the Heat.
Four years and four days later, James makes another debut with the Cavs. He swears he’s never leaving again. There are concerts, fireworks and all sorts of top-secret plans on deck. There’s going to be another pregame chalk toss, too, and probably an ovation like no other.
Plenty of people, everywhere, will be watching.
"Obviously everybody grows up, everybody develops," Dambrot said. "LeBron is his own man. He’s made mistakes like everyone has. But I hear people now talk about how he’s so different, and maybe he is. I just know he was always a good person. As a player, he was always beyond his years. But he’s always been a great teammate, always cared about winning, always been great with people.
"I don’t know where this thing is going, but it’s going to be special. I think he’s going to write a pretty special ending."