CLEVELAND (AP) — The air was heavy, heaving with hatred.
And when LeBron James skipped onto the Quicken Loans Arena floor on Dec. 2, 2010, with his Miami teammates, scorned Cleveland fans aimed their fury at one of their own, the kid from Akron who was shaken by the experience.
James was profanely taunted, booed and mocked. It was vile. It was personal.
James returns to Cleveland on Wednesday night for the first time since leaving as a free agent last summer and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s coming back to a city still grappling with losing him again and wondering what might have been had the world’s best all-around player stayed.
But unlike his previous comeback, the 33-year-old is coming home to be saluted for what he did during 11 years with the Cavaliers.
He revived a franchise, lifted an entire region and brought a championship.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Cavs forward Kyle Korver, who spent two seasons with James. “LeBron had an incredible run in Cleveland. He touched Cleveland. He touched Akron. Us as individuals, we were all fortunate to get some time with him. I think hopefully he feels that. I think it’s going to be positive overall, and it should be.”
Early in the game, the Cavs will show a video tribute of the franchise’s career leader in virtually every statistical category.
The images will capture his stirring run in Cleveland — the buzzer-beating shots, the iconic chase-down block on Golden State’s Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, James’ teary reaction to winning an NBA title and the parade celebrating the city’s first sports championship in 52 years.
There will also be reminders of his immense impact off the court, including the opening of his I Promise School in Akron, an elementary school for at-risk kids.
But he’s keeping his perspective on this Thanksgiving week homecoming.
“I don’t try to put too much into it,” he said Sunday night in Miami after scoring 51 in a win over the Heat. “I will see some familiar faces. I’ll think about some of the good. I’ll think about some of the bad. I’ll think about some of the great times that I had with the franchise, obviously. And then once the tip-ball gets going, it’ll be time to go to work.
“It’ll be good to see some of my family that’s going to come to the game, see some of my friends as well, and get the thing going.”
On that cold December night in 2010, James wasn’t sure what to expect months after his “taking my talents to South Beach” announcement had incensed Cleveland fans, driving some to burn his jersey.
More frightening was the reception James received in his first game back.
Security was beefed up to unprecedented levels, but nothing could shield James from the vicious words. There were chants of “Ak-ron hates you” and “Scott-ie Pipp-en” and fans held up signs calling him a traitor, liar, sellout and worse while a national TV audience watched an ugly divorce played out in real time.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert had fueled the disdain in a letter written to Cleveland fans on the night James announced he was joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
But while the negativity crashed down upon him, James, as is usually the case, soared. He performed his pregame chalk-toss ritual and then dropped 38 points on the Cavs in Miami’s 118-90 rout that galvanized the Heat and teased two future titles.
James passed on a chance to apologize for his leaving afterward, and there seemed to be no chance for reconciliation with Cleveland or its fans.
That, of course, changed four years later when he forgave Gilbert, came home and carried the Cavs to the title he had promised to deliver.
In 2010, he came back a villain. Now, he’s a champion — Cleveland’s own.
James said he isn’t sure what kind of reaction he’ll receive, but he’s confident it won’t be anything like before.
He’s changed. The city is different, thanks in part to him. His second stint with the Cavs may have ended earlier than anyone in Cleveland wanted, but anger has been replaced by appreciation.
“I think whatever happens, happens,” he said. “But I will be in uniform, I will be there and I will be trying to get a victory. That’s what’s most important.”
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami and Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this report.
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