TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — For LeBron James, the journey begins anew.
Right back where it began.
Nearly four months since proclaiming “I’m coming home” and shifting the NBA’s balance of power, James will play Thursday night in front of family, friends and the Cleveland fans who had their hearts broken 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 that is expected to include several celebrities will be inside the Q, which was updated during the offseason with a gigantic, fire-spewing scoreboard, to welcome home James, the Akron native now back to his hoops roots to deliver a title to Cleveland, a city that has known mostly sports misery the past 50 years.
When James is introduced after new teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as Cleveland’s final starter before the Cavs tip off against the New York Knicks, Cleveland fans will be able to put four painful years without him behind them.
This a fresh start for everyone.
James, who has won NBA titles and Olympic gold medals, knows 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.”
As James spoke with reporters, a 10-story-tall Nike banner with his likeness was being readied for an unveiling in the hours leading up to tip-off.
James also tweeted Wednesday morning to launch a new 2-minute Nike ad, an emotional tribute to Cleveland featuring several city landmarks and a large crowd. The sneaker giant released James’ new $200 shoe for sale the same day.
James planned to take a nap during the afternoon — a pregame ritual for 12 years — and then check his Twitter account. On Wednesday night, he went on the social media site asking fans if he should bring back his signature pregame chalk toss.
The 29-year-old said he has considered what the charged atmosphere expected to greet him when he takes the court for the first time wearing the iconic No. 23 jersey.
“I’ve had thoughts of how it might be, how loud it might be, how great it is to be back on this floor,” he said. “It’s great.”
On Wednesday, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said James’ impact on the area is immeasurable — economically and emotionally. It’s created new jobs and other growth, giving the city a substantial shot in the arm as it undergoes an urban renaissance. Beyond that, James has renewed hope that Cleveland can help generations of Clevelanders forget well-documented, nicknamed misery: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, and, of course, The Decision.
“For us, the thing that drives us the most is delivering this for the fans of Cleveland,” Gilbert said. “It will be 51 years, and that’s what the emotion is really about that.”
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