LeBron James' return to Cleveland highlights new era of former player tributes

Cavs aren't only fanbase ready to welcome back former player this season

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

* Tonight on ESPN: Lakers vs. Cavaliers (8 ET)

He will feel and hear the love tonight and bathe in a level of warm comforts that no other visiting player has ever experienced in Cleveland before. LeBron James will get squeezed into the bosom of Cavs fans and greeted fabulously when he makes his first return as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, which means this isn’t 2010 anymore.

Almost eight years ago today, Cleveland also pulled out all the stops during a LeBron return visit — meaning, to protect him from potential violence. The mayor pleaded for calm. Security at Quicken Loans Arena was on high alert — LeBron was escorted by more bodyguards than usual — and for that game, beer was sold only in cups instead of plastic bottles. This was months after LeBron famously dumped Cleveland for the Miami Heat in free agency and, for many Cavs fans, that return date was circled in red, the color of blood.

The reception was as hostile as expected: home-made signs scribbled with insults, chants of “Scot-tie Pip-pen” — linking LeBron as Dwyane Wade’s co-star — and an overall nasty atmosphere throughout the game in which LeBron was booed with every touch of the ball. LeBron incited the behavior at the start by performing his signature chalk-toss before tipoff, a gesture he previously reserved only for Cleveland.

But here’s what was more noticeable: after spending seven years with the Cavs, winning two Kia MVPs and taking a talent-starved team to The Finals in 2007, LeBron didn’t receive a video tribute that night, which has become standard in the NBA today for returning heroes.

To put this into context: Zaza Pachulia was once feted on film by the Atlanta Hawks. Zaza!

With free agency complicating the emotions of fans and front office officials, teams are often caught in a pickle when figuring how to salute the achievements of players who return in a different uniform. This is a phenomenon of the last decade or so; before that, there were no teary tributes or extended moments of applause or anything beyond a few claps during pre-game introductions.

For example, it may shock people today to learn the Bulls did nothing special when Michael Jordan played his first game in Chicago as a member of the Washington Wizards in 2002. Even the pregame intros were muted. Jordan’s name was announced over the PA with the same monotone used for other opposing players, although the Bulls did have the courtesy of delaying the intros of the home team while Jordan received a one-minute standing ovation at the United Center.

This would never happen today. Weeks of planning now go into constructing the most respectful way to recognize players making their returns, although again, these are taken on an individual basis and much depends on the circumstances that played a part of that player changing teams.

Entering this season presented two interesting cases: Gordon Hayward in Utah and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio. Both were beloved figures on their original teams and both left a bad taste when they left town, putting the Jazz and the Spurs in a tough spot.

Hayward left in free agency two summers ago, opting to sign with the Boston Celtics for four years and $128 million. His Utah return was delayed while he spent essentially all of last season rehabbing from a leg injury. But Jazz fans were willing to stash their emotions until a few weeks ago when they greeted Hayward with what they felt he deserved: boos.

Sensing the potentially awkward climate at Vivint Smart Arena well ahead of time, the Jazz made a 21-second, online-only Hayward tribute. Playing it in the arena would’ve certainly caused headaches and howls.

Hayward played seven solid years for the Jazz, made the All-Star team and created a follicle trend when some male fans rushed to get a “Hayward haircut.” But none of that mattered two weeks ago and he heard a “we don’t miss you” sing-song chant whenever he stood at the free throw line.

“I kind of expected some of that,” he said.

Leonard doesn’t make his first and only appearance in San Antonio until Jan. 3 and it’s not expected to be pretty. His quad injury, debated by armchair doctors everywhere, restricted him to nine games last season and kept him out of the playoffs, which he refused to attend. It greased his exit from the Spurs to the Toronto Raptors, where he’s healthy again and playing at a Kia MVP-type level. In a loyal place like San Antonio, where David Robinson, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan (among others) spent their entire careers, Kawhi will not feel the red carpet beneath his feet. And there’s no word yet on how the organization will (or won’t) honor him.

Leonard was a Finals MVP and NBA champion in San Antonio, but the player he was traded for (DeMar DeRozan) never took the Raptors further than the Eastern Conference finals. Yet DeRozan will certainly get a standing ovation on Feb. 22 for his return to Toronto.

These welcome-back events are all different and sometimes strange. Take DeMarcus Cousins, who was suspended multiple times by the Sacramento Kings and the league during his six-plus years there. He never took the Kings to the playoffs and showed little leadership skills (except off the court, where he gave his time freely in the local community) … and not only did Cousins get the video treatment, the fans stood and applauded loudly for him.

“I’ve got nothing but love for (Sacramento),” he said then. “I came here as a kid and left as a man. As I’ve stated many times, I’ve got people here that I consider family. These fans have been great to me throughout the years, the love will always remain the same.”

Paul George was the core of a handful of very good Indiana Pacers teams that gave LeBron and the Heat all they could handle in the early 2010s. George carried himself with quiet dignity and he triumphantly returned from a broken leg. But he was booed last season when he returned with Oklahoma City. And a video of former Pacers greats aired during that game, which George wasn’t included in (but Jeff Foster was).

“I knew what the atmosphere was going to be when I walked in there,” George said.

Kevin Durant was the greatest player in Oklahoma City Thunder history, yet two years later, he’s still hearing hisses there — where, apparently, Midwestern hospitality only goes so far. Even Draymond Green didn’t throw cupcakes at Durant in their locker room spat.

When Dwight Howard returned to Orlando as a Laker, he did get the video treatment six years ago after he left the Magic in a huff and subsequently ruined the franchise in the process. But there’s no evidence of Howard at Amway Center today. A photo collage on the wall outside the team locker room is conspicuously missing Howard (but does have Horace Grant).

And of course, Isaiah Thomas’ return became the gold standard of clumsiness. Thomas was caught in a bind involving a bigger hero in Boston, Paul Pierce, and a clash of tributes. Thomas had a splashy two-plus seasons with the Celtics when he developed a cult following, helped resurrect the franchise and nearly averaged 30 points for one season. Then he was hurt. Then he was traded, to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving.

The Cavs made two trips to Boston last season but Thomas, who was injured for the first one, asked to have his video played on the next and last trip (“Isaiah deserves it in our mind,” said Celtics boss Danny Ainge). That conflicted with a long-planned retirement ceremony for Pierce, who bristled when asked if he’d OK with a Thomas salute.

“I’m not saying Isaiah shouldn’t get a tribute video,” Pierce said then. “But on February 11, the night I get my jersey retired, I’m not sure I want to look up at the Jumbotron and see Isaiah highlights.”

Thomas respectfully asked to postpone his tribute and … he’s still waiting. Now with the Denver Nuggets, Thomas is still recovering from the same hip injury. Denver doesn’t visit Boston until March 18. Will he be healthy by then? Better yet, will anyone in Boston still remember?

For sure, the angry reception given to LeBron eight years ago was a one-and-done thing for him. His subsequent trips to Cleveland as a member of the Heat were much tamer. His return to Miami after he boomeranged back to Cleveland was respectful and heartfelt. Given the title he won four years ago and his abundant charity work in Ohio, his visit to Cleveland tonight will be a complete 180 from the last one; expect to see the 2016 championship parade video on the big screen.

“I’ll see some familiar faces like I did when I arrived (in Miami on Sunday),” he said. “I’ll think about some of the good, I’ll think about some of the bad, I’ll think about some of the great that I had with the franchise. And then once the tip ball gets going it’s time to go to work.”

So with LeBron playing again in Cleveland for one night only, the conquering-hero-returns-home recurring story will get a fuzzy and warm flip of the page.

This will do until Jimmy Butler returns to Minnesota.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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