Two days before Thanksgiving, LeBron James sat in his old high school gymnasium in Akron, Ohio, and reminisced. Off to the side, while St. Vincent-St. Mary practiced, James’ sons shot hoops on the same rims that helped turn their father into the best basketball player on the planet.
These Heat road trips to his hometown for games against his old team have been memorable for James ever since he signed with the Heat, and this latest visit to Northeast Ohio will be another emotional exercise in balancing his appreciation for the place that made him and his love for what now defines him.
On Wednesday, James’ Heat plays the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena and before the game a grassroots movement called “Come Home LeBron” will hold a rally outside the arena. After the game, the Heat is spending the night in the area instead of immediately boarding a plane to Toronto. On Thursday, James is hosting a Thanksgiving feast for the Heat at his home in Akron.
“I am happy that I'm able to do something for the team for Thanksgiving,” James said.
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In describing James’ house, Chris Bosh mused that if the Heat’s players had to be away from their families, “it might as well be the biggest house in the world.” Dwyane Wade joked that he would make sure to wear “the right socks” because the house is too fancy for shoes.
In a season that will feature the constant backdrop of James’ basketball future beyond 2014, it’s mildly ironic that his back-to-back championship team is celebrating Thanksgiving so close to Cleveland, the city James left because he couldn’t envision winning a championship there. The Heat will have plenty to be thankful for Thursday, and most of it is because of James.
That’s one way of looking at it. The inversion of that perspective, of course, is that James finally realized his full potential thanks to the Heat.
James might have needed to leave Cleveland to win a title, but he never left Akron, and his estate of 30,000 square feet will serve as proof on Thanksgiving as teammates such as Bosh and Wade sit around an enormous table and stuff turkey, fish and fixings into their mouths in between jokes, conversations and the advent of more memories.
If Shane Battier breaks out his “I’ve eaten a raw turkey” story, it’s sure to win some laughs. The first time Battier tried to fry a turkey on Thanksgiving, so the story goes, he got some bad advice on how long to keep the bird submerged in boiling oil.
“That was probably the worst of it,” said Battier, who contributed his culinary folly to a “classic father-in-law” holiday scenario. “We learned a great lesson — that I am in charge of the turkey.”
Off days on the road such as James’ Thanksgiving celebration have helped form lasting bonds between Heat teammates, who have experienced so many intense and raw (but not raw turkey) emotions together. The closeness of the team — the brotherhood, to hear James describe it — at this stage in the saga stands in stark relief to national speculation before the preseason that some kind of distance had grown between Wade and James, and James and the Heat. That doesn’t appear to be the case as the Heat takes a moment to celebrate the first month of the season and everything before it.
On Monday, Wade was asked if he was disappointed to be away from his family on Thanksgiving. No, he said, because he would be with his family. Later that night, Wade did a cartwheel through James’ postgame interview as a gag.
If there is a division forming between Wade and James, they certainly do a good job of faking it for the cameras.
“I had that in my back pocket,” Wade said. “I said I was going to break out my cartwheels. It’s on now. We took it to another level.”
So amused by the cartwheels was James that he was still talking and thinking about Wade’s antics hours after the game.
“Yo did @DwyaneWade really do cartwheels during my interview tonight,” James wrote on Twitter. “Video bombing took a whole new jump tonight. Hahahahaha!”
Cartwheels, championships, good times and surviving a helter-skelter beginning to the regular season relatively injury free are just a few of the things the Heat will be thankful for on Thanksgiving. A victory against the Cavs on Wednesday would be the team’s eighth win in a row and — who knows? — maybe Thanksgiving in Akron will be just the thing to kick start another historic winning streak. The Heat’s 27-game winning streak last season began after a victory in Toronto and, more importantly, a trip to a local sports bar together to watch the Super Bowl.
At the time, Battier called it the most memorable and important thing he had ever done with teammates off the court during his NBA career.
The Heat entered its two-game road trip as one of only three teams in the Eastern Conference with a winning record. The Indiana Pacers are 13-1 and the Atlanta Hawks were 8-6 before Tuesday night’s game against the Magic. Less than one month into the season, and the East already has the look of a two-team race.
Cleveland, which was supposed to be one of the East’s resurgent teams, is 4-10 and a long way from being that young and vibrant squad that’s supposed to lure James back with the promise of championship runs. In the West, Kobe Bryant just signed a two-year extension that wrapped up a significant portion of the Lakers’ future payroll.
In other words, as James celebrates Thanksgiving in Akron, he is perhaps looking more at home in Miami by the day.