CLEVELAND — LeBron James left Quicken Loans Arena a happy — and thankful — man Wednesday just before midnight.
In his return to Cleveland to play his former team, James scored a game-high 32 points and had 14 rebounds and seven assists in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 109-105 victory against the Cavaliers.
He received a standing ovation from fans, and the organization played a tribute video during the game’s first timeout in the first quarter.
As he walked from the interview room to the team bus, James carried a milkshake from Swensons, his favorite burger joint as a kid growing up in Akron.
“Banana shake — with real ice cream,” said James who had Swensons catered for the team’s postgame meal.
The day — which began with James visiting students at his I Promise School in Akron — couldn’t have been any better for him.
“To come here tonight and go out and hear the fans’ reception — 11 years playing here,” James said. “I just tried to be the best basketball player, the best role model, the best leader I can be both on and off the floor by example for this franchise. They showed their appreciation not only for myself, but for my friends and family at the game tonight. It was a great moment.”
Let’s get the basketball stuff out of the way first. These are two teams headed in different directions, as is the case when James leaves one team for another.
Cleveland, now 2-14, is bound for the lottery, which is exactly what should be happening: rebuild through the draft and with the young players on the roster.
The Lakers are rising. Maybe not yet good enough to compete for the Western Conference championship this season. Then again, who knows. The NBA is in Bizarro World right now. Memphis is atop the West standings, and Golden State has lost four consecutive games for the first time in the Steve Kerr era.
After the Lakers’ 2-5 start, they have won eight of their past 10 games and are right alongside the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings in the standings.
They are far from a polished team, but they are getting better, and James is finding his offense. In the last four games, he has scored 44, 22, 51 and 32 points. In the past 10 games, he is averaging 29.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and six assists and shooting 53.7% from the field and 49.2% on 3-pointers.
As gracious as Cavs fans were, there had to be a forlorn feeling, watching James perform the way he did, the way he used to perform when he was with Cleveland the previous four seasons. They know what they’re missing, and they know it’s gone forever.
The Lakers trailed 96-87 with 7:33 remaining in the fourth quarter, and it seemed for a moment that the Cavs might just pull off and upset.
But James scored 10 of Los Angeles’ next 17 points, assisted on a Kyle Kuzma 3-pointer and registered a hockey assist on a JaVale McGee layup that put the Lakers ahead for good.
More important than the outcome was the way he was received by fans and the organization — a much different experience than eight years ago when he returned to Cleveland for the first time with the Miami Heat. That was a vile, sinister night filled with profane behavior from fans who remained angry he left Cleveland.
“I’m a different person. We’re all different,” James said. “It’s all about growth, and we’ve all grown from that moment eight years ago. I leave the past in the past, focus on the present and see what happens in the future.”
But James admitted when he landed in Cleveland on Tuesday, the feeling was much different than it was when he arrived in Cleveland from Miami eight years ago.
Hate has been replaced by love.
Fans gave James a lengthy standing ovation when he was introduced as a starter. The public address announcer called his name with the kind of excitement reserved for the home team’s starters.
The touching video tribute thanked James for bringing Cleveland the 2016 NBA championship and for what he does in the community. (He said visiting his I Promise School earlier in the day already left him feeling “blessed and thankful.”)
The recognition from fans and the team was a moment he deserved.
“I appreciate these fans just as much as they appreciate me. Every single night we stepped out on the floor, they showed their appreciation to not only myself but my teammates for those 11 years, especially those last four years, those championship runs we were making. That was my salute to them for them appreciating what I was able to accomplish with my coaches and teammates.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.