The Heat won.
Miami did, too.
Team and city, players and fans. Win, win.
A half-year of speculation and debate had funneled into Thursday’s much-anticipated Christmas Day basketball game at the downtown bayside arena — ever since LeBron James left the Heat last summer to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Would he be loudly booed as a traitor or welcomed back appreciatively as a favorite son? Would Miami fans be naughty or nice to their departed superstar upon his first return?
The game itself was secondary, though exhilarating. The Heat would beat the Cavaliers 101-91 led by Dwyane Wade’s 31 points and Luol Deng’s 25, and despite the injury-absence of Chris Bosh. It continued a strange season that left Wade noting Thursday night how the team still was searching for its “identity.” Miami still is only 14-16 and only 6-10 at home, and the previous game had lost to lowly Philadelphia.
Clearly, LeBron inspired a different level of play from the Heat. “He is going to bring out the best in you,” said Wade. James scored 30, and it was fun watching the two old friends trade examples of brilliance. The story of the night, though, what made it a holiday event, wasn’t so much about beating Cleveland as it was about how Miami — fans and franchise — raised its game in welcoming back James.
Cheering for LeBron overwhelmed booing as he was announced in pregame introductions, but that was fleeting. No effort was made to call James’ name louder, or last.
The club and its fans instead had a chance to reveal their class during a break in the action with 5:44 to play in the first-quarter, with a 1-minute tribute video that highlighted James’ four seasons here — including four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and two championships.
“None of us has forgotten his contributions,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.
There had been some thought the club might not offer the tribute because of the rather clumsy way LeBron left, first keeping the Heat wondering and then having club president Pat Riley fly to the West Coast for a meeting even though by then James had decided to leave. There also was a perception James had snubbed Heat fans by not specifically thanking them in an essay on his decision written for Sports Illustrated.
Privately, Riley was upset. Publicly, he looked up and watched the tribute video he had OK’d. Many Heat fans were upset, too. But Thursday, they were mostly gracious, mostly grateful. This was the Heat and its fans setting aside the hurt of bruised pride. This was Miami, team and city, taking the high road, even as the gutter was so viscerally tempting.
The response was appropriately perfunctory. It was amicable, not fawning absolution (another Heat-turned-Cavalier, James Jones, also got a one-minute video later). The minor booing that was heard for James was not without cause, given the way he left more than the fact he did. But the overriding positive reaction was earned.
It was a stunning contrast to what happened in Cleveland in the summer of 2010, when the Akron-born James left his hometown team for Miami. He was vilified as a traitor, his jerseys burned in effigy. His first time back in Cleveland in a Heat uniform found the building filled with venom and hatred.
Here, Christmas night, the tribute video ended and the fans James had forsaken six months earlier showered him with a warm ovation, and the player raised his left arm in acknowledgment.
“Very emotional,” James called the night, afterward. Of the video tribute, “It’s cool,” he said. “Lot of emotions come back. I spent four years with those guys …”
Before the game and after it, James exchanged hugs and embraces with Wade, Udonis Haslem, Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen and other former teammates. James and Wade sat together at the scorer’s table at one point, smiling and joking.
It wasn’t entirely a love-in; that would have been disingenuous. Riley and James did not make a point to seek each other out. And you heard boos for James early in the game when he touched the ball or stood at the free-throw line, though it sounded more like a pledge of allegiance to the home team. “Let’s Go Heat!” chants sounded a little louder. An “M-V-P!” chant bloomed for Wade during his 24-point first half.
James had said he looked forward to being “back in that building with those unbelievable fans,” but before the game he tried to claim this was just another game, one of 82. Nothing special. He had arrived at the arena wearing his ubiquitous headphones. His music du jour? A rap song called “Pocket Full Of Stones” by hip-hop duo UGK.
“They won’t leave my a-- alone,” America’s biggest sports star sang to the music.
Later he downplayed his return to Miami by saying, “I don’t circle games [on a calendar] no more in my career.”
Something closer to the truth seeped out, though.
“It felt a little different going in,” he admitted. “I did have some butterflies coming in. I gave this city everything I had.”
Wade had joked about the buildup to the game.
“Hey, we got some media here!” he kidded reporters after a practice this week. “LeBron must be in town.”
The next time that happens, it won’t be as big a deal. This was the first time, though, and a city had a statement to make about itself.
Miami, team and fans, made the right one.