Once the video tribute ended, a simple sentiment filled the giant scoreboard. Against a black backdrop, giant white letters delivered the heartfelt message.
Wednesday’s game marked LeBron James’ first game in his old city since moving to the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer. And Cleveland wanted to say something.
“THANK YOU, LeBRON,” it said.
Eight years after he was treated like a thug, James was welcomed back properly.
Back on the court where he performed for 11 seasons, and under the title banner he helped raise, James rallied the Lakers to a 109-105 win over the Cavaliers, who played their best game of the season against their former teammate but couldn’t stop him when it mattered most.
James finished with 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. He also scored or assisted on 11 straight points as the Lakers overcame a 99-91 deficit in the fourth quarter.
But basketball took a backseat to James’ homecoming, which was so different than his return in 2010, when betrayed Cleveland fans unleashed their fury on him.
There were no profane chants this time. No derogatory signs. No venom.
Only love, and James felt it.
“From the time we landed yesterday, it just felt a different way,” he said. “I’m a different person. We’re all different from eight years ago, both good and bad. But more importantly, this experience has been great.
“So it’s all about growth and we all have grown from that moment eight years ago. So I kind of leave the past in the past and always focus on the present and see what happens in the future.”
The Cavs, who came in a league-worst 2-13, gave James and the Lakers all they could handle. And even after giving up an eight-point lead, they had a chance to tie late, but Kyle Korver missed a wide-open 3-pointer with 17 seconds left and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made four free throws in the final 15 to seal it for Los Angeles.
Jordan Clarkson had 20 points and Tristan Thompson 14 and 15 rebounds for Cleveland.
From the moment he stepped back onto Quicken Loans Arena floor, James was treated like a returning champion.
On the night before Thanksgiving, Cleveland said thanks to the Northeast Ohio son, the one who ended the city’s 52-year championship drought.
“A hero has come back,” Cavs coach Larry Drew said before tip-off.
James was the last Lakers player introduced before the game, presented with a line familiar to all Cavs fans: “A 6-foot-8 forward from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School,” said arena announcer Sean Peebles. “Welcome home! LeBron James.”
The crowd roared and stood as James walked out and huddled with his new teammates, who must have wondered what was in store for them.
But unlike that ugly night of Dec. 2, 2010, when James returned with the Miami Heat and was subjected to a toxic, charged atmosphere of hatred unlike anything seen before or since, this was a night for celebration — and maybe more closure.
James has moved on.
The Associated Press contributed to this report