CLEVELAND » Carried onto the floor by an emotional ovation building for years, LeBron James is back where he began.
Introduced to a deafening roar from Cleveland fans, James was welcomed back Thursday night by a city desperate to end a championship drought that’s about to turn 50 years old. James came back to try and end it, and his journey is underway.
At 8:08 p.m. all was right in Cleveland again.
That when James, the last starter announced, walked onto the floor in a Cavs uniform for a regular season game for the first time in four years.
Nearly four months since proclaiming "I’m coming home" and shifting the NBA’s balance of power, James is again playing in front of family, friends and the Cleveland fans who had their hearts broken when he left for Miami four years ago.
This is a homecoming like no other.
"None of us should take this moment for granted," a relaxed James said following Cleveland’s morning shootaround at Quicken Loans Arena. "This is probably one of the biggest sporting events ever. I don’t feel it, but I know it is."
A crowd of 20,000-plus fans — with some paying as much as $5,000 for a ticket — packed the Q, which was updated during the offseason with a gigantic, fire-spewing scoreboard to welcome home James. The Akron native came back to his hoops roots hoping to deliver a title to Cleveland, a city that hasn’t finished on top in pro sports since 1964.
Before taking the floor, James huddled his teammates in a hallway and told them that "tonight is special." He then gave a playful tap to owner Dan Gilbert’s son, Nick, before walking onto the court that was his for seven seasons.
The pregame festivities ended with James going to midcourt and performing his "chalk toss" pregame ritual with fans tossing paper confetti along with him.
James, who has won NBA titles and Olympic gold medals, knew this season opener is a little more special.
"I understand how much I mean to this team, to this franchise, to this city and to this state," he said. "It’s a different feeling, but I’m still as calm and excited at the same time because it’s the first game of the season."
In the hours leading up to tip-off, thousands of fans gathered in the streets outside the arena. This was a party four years in the making.
Across the street from the Q, a 10-story-tall banner of James was unveiled in the same spot where one hung during his first seven seasons with the Cavs. The spot became a symbol of civic pride until that night in July 2010 when James announced he was leaving for Miami. In the hours after his decision, some angry fans burned his jersey and others hurled rocks at a banner that would be removed a few days later.
On Thursday, the new banner — showing James with his arms outstretched wearing a jersey with "Cleveland" where his name would normally be stitched — drew fans who posed for photos the same way they did when James was here last.
Chrissy Pavlik of Wadsworth, Ohio, and her brother, Brad, were among the fans who didn’t have a ticket for the game but wanted to be downtown to celebrate.
"I grew up playing basketball and LeBron was always one of my role models, so when he left I was devastated, crying, throwing fits," she said. "To see the banner back, we drove into the city and I was like, ‘Check it out, dude.’ It’s so cool. We’re very, very happy."
Along East 4th Street, fans wearing James jerseys and broad smiles mixed with patrons lined up to get into overflowing restaurants and bars and a free concert featuring hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and the rock band Imagine Dragons.
As they filed past, Barry Harris, 55, of Cleveland, was filled with pride. A lifelong Clevelander, he had never seen his city acting quite like this.
"It’s amazing," Harris said as his twin brother, Larry, snapped pictures of ESPN’s SportsCenter set. "I’ve been waiting 55 years for this. We got LeBron. We got Johnny (Manziel) Football. We got the Republican National convention coming in two years. We got casinos. It’s huge. We deserve this."
James’ return has Cleveland fans believing their tortured run of sports misery, which includes a series of close calls with nicknames like The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot, could be over.
James is the one to end the curse.
"It’s got to be him," Harris said. "It’s got to be LeBron. It was his destiny to come back and finish his career off here. No place else."