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Where the hate is

Cleveland fans ready to home in on James

Cleveland fans will be waiting tonight with plenty of ammunition for LeBron James — including “Queen James’’ jerseys. Cleveland fans will be waiting tonight with plenty of ammunition for LeBron James — including “Queen James’’ jerseys. (Amy Sancette/Associated Press)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 2, 2010

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CLEVELAND — A town that has been victim to every sports malady imaginable is bracing for a first tonight at Quicken Loans Arena. And the event has sparked excitement, anticipation, and unadulterated anger.

Democrat, Republican, or Tea Party. Working class or upper class. Beer drinker or wine connoisseur. There is universal disdain in Cleveland for LeBron James, who returns to the city he cemented on the NBA landscape tonight for the first time since agreeing to join the Miami Heat after seven years with the Cavaliers.

The consensus is that if James had simply placed a call to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert a few days before announcing his decision to leave, then this game might have been met with a semblance of celebration.

But James decided to make everyone wait for his prime-time, hourlong special on ESPN, and that sparked hatred in a town where many sports fans still grunt when the name Rocky Colavito is mentioned.

Of course, James was a free agent, and Cavaliers fans realized that he was considering other clubs such as the Knicks, Heat, Nets, and Bulls. But would he really step onto a podium, place his hulking body in a director’s chair, and stomp on the hearts of a loyal fan base by announcing that he was leaving — without a championship.

On that July night 147 days ago, he did. And the citizens have harbored resentment ever since, putting James atop their list of sports enemies. Michael Jordan would get a larger ovation tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.

And to add to the drama, Yahoo! Sports is reporting that the Cavaliers are investigating whether the Heat tampered with James prior to free agency.

Special case This could be the most volatile comeback game in history for any sport. Sure, there have been other athletes soundly booed after leaving a team for a bigger market, more money, and greener pastures. Many working-class towns have felt betrayal when their beloved first-round pick heads to New York, Los Angeles, or Miami.

But very few superstars receive national media attention by age 14, get to play in their hometown as a pro, and have the power to call for roster moves and privileges for friends and loved ones. James received all of those perks, so his departure was viewed here as outright betrayal.

“It’s not so much about the fact that he elected to go to another team,’’ said Dennis Roche, president of Positively Cleveland, the city’s visitor and convention bureau. “We’ve seen that a lot in the past. We’ve had legendary kinds of changes [in Cleveland]. From what I can remember, this has to be the first time an athlete of his stature left for less money than he could get.

“But the big drama on ESPN and the show and the general comment just left a real sour feeling among Clevelanders. With the LeBron deal, I think it was insulting the way he did it.

“Zydrunas Ilgauskas left; I would bet you he would get a standing ovation when he comes back.’’

The Ilgauskas return adds another twist, because the longtime Cavaliers center, who battled career-threatening foot injuries and became one of the franchise’s best post players, also left for Miami in hopes of winning a title. But he signed his contract quietly.

Looking for precedents Veteran Cleveland fans and media members have spent the past few weeks pondering the scope of tonight’s game, and one previous event came to mind. On June 3, 1997, Albert Belle returned to Jacobs Field as a member of the White Sox.

Belle spent eight productive but emotionally uneven seasons with the Indians, then bolted for a five-year, $55 million deal with the White Sox. Indians fans were furious and felt abandoned given how they had supported him through his dubious low points.

“The fans bunched up at ‘home run porch’ above the left-field wall and tossed coins and batteries at him,’’ Associated Press reporter Tom Withers recalled. “And they had to close the porch for the final two games of the series.’’

Belle didn’t endear himself to the fans by calling them “village idiots’’ and making an obscene gesture with his middle finger.

Cleveland fans felt disrespected, but the precedent for these returns came a few years later in Seattle, when Alex Rodriguez returned to Safeco Field for the first time since signing a mind-boggling 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2000.

Seattle, like Cleveland, is a sports town high on pride but low on titles. The city generally adores its former sports stars.

But Rodriguez said his decision to leave was about a better chance to win in Texas, and that infuriated Seattle fans who were still bothered by the departures of Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey.

On April 16, 2001, Rodriguez returned to Seattle, with fans holding up posters of dollar signs and throwing monopoly money onto the field. The hatred, according to SeattlePI.com sports columnist Art Thiel, has lasted for 10 years.

“It’s probably the most intense and hostile audience that mild-mannered Seattle has produced,’’ said Thiel. “No one really blamed the Mariners. This was directly at him.

“It was a classic sense of betrayal that the Cleveland fans feel because it was the player’s choice. And the fans felt justified in vilifying Alex because he made this selfish decision that went against all that he had said before.’’

Shaq’s take on it That sounds strikingly like the James case. And perhaps only one other NBA player can relate.

Celtics center Shaquille O’Neal was the No. 1 overall pick in 1992 by the Orlando Magic, took the club to its first NBA Finals in 1995, and then left a year later, opting out of his contract and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. He told reporters that a move to Hollywood would help his budding acting career.

O’Neal, who has maintained a home in Orlando, has vivid memories of Feb. 22, 1998.

“I got booed every time down,’’ he said. “But my situation in Orlando was a 6 and my situation [coming back to LA with the Heat] was a 7, but this one is a 12.

“I’ve always taken [boos] as a sign of respect but it depends on how you are as a man. If you are sensitive, you let it get to you.’’

When asked how James would react, O’Neal said, “I don’t know. I will be watching.’’

And he won’t be alone.

“This game has been circled,’’ said Cavaliers guard Mo Williams. “It’s more than a game. It’s going to be big. The whole world is watching.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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