Miami Heat

Miami Heat hoping for more cheers than jeers when LeBron James returns to AmericanAirlines Arena

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Dec. 23, 2014.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Dec. 23, 2014. NBAE/Getty Images

The codename used by police and arena security guards for LeBron James during his first game back in Cleveland was actually the least frightening thing on the night of Dec.2, 2010.

That date still lives in infamy for the self-proclaimed “kid from Akron” who Cleveland cops simply called “The Traitor” when relaying secure information about James throughout the night.

“The Traitor is leaving the locker room,” squawked the radio hand-helds before the game.

“The Traitor is in the tunnel.”

“The Traitor is on the court.”

“The Traitor is warming up.”

“The Traitor is being targeted with batteries.”

Then it got really ugly.

Imagine an angry mob of thousands standing and screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs for basically an entire game. The chants from the arena were many, but there was only one fit to print here: “Akron hates you!”

After that night, it’s hard to imagine that Cleveland would ever love LeBron as much as it once hated him.

“You could feel the intensity and the anger in that arena,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

James, of course, has never been a traitor — not then, and certainly not now as he returns to Miami for the first time since leaving the Heat. People in Miami get that, say Heat coaches and players. Sure, there might be some boos Thursday during the Heat’s Christmas Day game against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at AmericanAirlines Arena, but there will almost certainly be a cascade of cheers, and genuine appreciation for a player who, along with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and others, turned Miami into the center of the American sporting universe for four years. James took the city to the NBA Finals four years in a row, and the Heat won back-to-back NBA championships in 2012 and 2013.

For that, Miami will always be grateful.

“Our fans aren’t ignorant,” Spoelstra said. “We know the contribution that LeBron had on our organization and the city for the last four years.”

The Heat, with a record of 13-16, is struggling without James, and actually lost to the worst team in the NBA, the four-win Philadelphia 76ers, on Tuesday. But for many sports fans around the country, the NBA season doesn’t actually begin until Christmas. Millions will be watching on the national holiday to see how James is received by his old team and its fans.

And that’s just in Miami.

“Obviously we’ve all seen players come back to a place that they’ve played, and there are only three things you can do,” Wade said. “You can boo the whole time, you can cheer the whole time or you can boo and cheer. That’s it.”

Wade would prefer the second option, and so would Haslem.

“I can’t speak on how fans will be, but I hope that people will be classy and appreciative of what he has done for us the last four years,” Haslem said.

Both Wade and Haslem remain friends with James despite the breakup over the summer. Those closest to James know that his decision to leave Miami wasn’t all about just wanting to return to Cleveland, but the relationships with teammates he left behind certainly had nothing to do with the move back to Northeast Ohio. There are still close bonds between James and his former teammates.

Wade indicated Tuesday that he might be inviting James to his house on Christmas Eve. On Wednesday after the Heat’s Christmas Eve practice, Wade referred to LeBron James Jr. as his nephew, if that offers any insight into the lasting relationship between Wade and James.

“I look at the situation he was put in, and I don’t know too many people who wouldn’t have made the same decision that he made,” Wade said of James’ move back to Ohio.

Haslem understands the draw of home more than anyone.

Over his 12-year career with the Heat, Haslem has taken less money three times to either remain in Miami or help sign other players to the team. Last summer, both Haslem and Wade took pay cuts in the hopes of keeping both James and Bosh in Miami. Despite that, Haslem and Wade say they hold no grudges toward James for his return to Cleveland.

“It’s all love,” Haslem said. “I have no ill feelings toward LeBron. I’m one person who understands being home and staying home. I’ve done it my whole career. I can’t fault him for that.”

But he can thank him. After all, it was James who took less money in 2010 so Haslem could be a part of history in his hometown.

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