x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

LeBron James facing serious heat

As he is about to find out, Cleveland fans have not forgiven their 'King' for abdicating.

The Heat’s LeBron James, third from left, will face angry Cleveland fans on Thursday.
The Heat’s LeBron James, third from left, will face angry Cleveland fans on Thursday.

He was Cleveland's very own Man Who Would Be King, a homegrown superstar. For seven years it was a story and relationship so perfect as to border on the unbelievable.

LeBron James was that rarest of sports figures, a schoolboy prodigy who exceeded expectations and then was able to take his talents to Cleveland, the big city near his hometown of Akron.

Through felicitous fortune, the Cleveland Cavaliers held the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft and immediately asked the local youngster to join them. He was only too happy to do so.

Soon, he carried the nickname "King James", and he went on to become the NBA's rookie of the year and twice its MVP.

James pledged to bring an NBA title to the city. It was sports love. But now that local veneration has turned into venom.

James became a free agent last summer. He spurned an offer by the Cavs and on an nationally televised broadcast, announced he was signing with the Miami Heat.

People in Cleveland burned his jersey and called him a traitor, a back-stabber, a coward. The owner, Dan Gilbert, bought newspaper adverts to print an open letter accusing James of betraying Cleveland.

And now James is returning to Cleveland: the Heat will play the Cavaliers there on Thursday, a game bitter fans have been waiting for since The Announcement.

The NBA, the Cavaliers and the local police have huddled for months to ensure the "welcome" does not turn too ugly. Everyone recognises that emotions will run high; whatever the NBA record for booing is, it will be broken.

But concerns run deeper than noise. To make sure James is physically safe, dozens of extra police will be on hand, some undercover, and extra security will be stationed around the Heat bench. Uneasy lies the head that wore the crown.

Outwardly, James expressed confidence that the Cavaliers and the NBA would take measures to keep all the players safe from what is anticipated to be one of the most hostile crowds in US sports history.

"I'm not concerned," he said. "It is a good league and they do their best to try to make sure the players and the fans have a good time."

James knows what awaits him. "How can I not? It is going to be a real hostile environment, " he said. "It is going to be pretty intense."

Gilbert is walking a fine line, wanting not to encourage a reaction that might turn dangerous while still positioning himself as the injured party in the "betrayal".

Last week, Gilbert wrote on his Twitter account: "Obviously no profanity, vulgar stuff [you] wouldn't want kids [to] see, but we are not going [to] be the Gestapo."

The team will force supporters to turn over T-shirts and signs deemed offensive. Arena officials will watch for inebriated fans.

"We don't want to create a police state,'" said a Cavaliers official. "But we don't want fans to cross the boundaries of decency."