Instead of running an extended pregame show before LeBron’s return to Cleveland last night, TNT opted for a rerun of “Bones.” The episode’s description: “A corpse is found hanging from a tree.” You couldn’t have a more striking setup for our first Cavaliers-Heat game of 2010-11, with the possible exception of “20,000 spurned lovers seek revenge on the same guy” or “Bones makes an important decision that goes horribly wrong.”
The Cleveland fans were bitter and had a right to be. It wasn’t that LeBron left, more how he left. Everything he said and didn’t say after going to Miami just made it worse. Fans don’t ask for much. We know it’s an uneven equation. We will buy tickets to see you, wear your jersey, cheer for you, defend you, believe in you, make excuses for you and, in an ideal scenario, make you wealthy. Just stay in shape, give your best and don’t kick us in the teeth. That’s all we ask. Betray us, you will feel our wrath. We knew Cleveland would shower LeBron with venom Thursday night; we knew he deserved it; we couldn’t wait to watch it unfold. We just hoped it didn’t go too far.
I have attended two basketball games (both in Boston) in which the fans truly despised an opponent.
Game 6 of the 1986 Finals: Houston’s Ralph Sampson played in Boston one game after punching our tiny point guard, Jerry Sichting (15 inches smaller than Ralph). I was sitting right off the players’ tunnel that day; when Ralph walked by and those boos nailed him like a bucket of water, you could see the fear in his eyes. He was done. I think he went 1-for-42 in the game.
Game 5 of the 1987 conference finals: Detroit’s Bill Laimbeer clotheslined the Basketball Jesus in Game 4 and nearly broke Bird’s back, leading to a melee and Bird getting ejected. We had a tsunami of haterade ready for him in Game 5, so much of it that I will always believe we willed one of our players (Robert Parish) to punch him. Which he did. In the second quarter. For no real reason.
We didn’t hate Sampson; we were only trying to rattle him. But we loathed Laimbeer. We cheered when Parish punched him in the face. Think about that for a second. From everything I read and heard, it sure seemed as if Cleveland was brewing a similar level of hatred for LeBron James. I thought for sure it would affect him. Imagine being loved and revered for 11 solid years, since you were a ninth-grader in high school then imagine that switch getting flicked and suddenly you’re a villain. How would you feel? How would you react?