I have honestly never been in an arena half as happy as Value City Arena was last night.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the Chicago Bulls at Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on Ohio State's campus last night and beat the Bulls 107-98. But honestly, nobody cared about the outcome at all. Derrick Rose looked like 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, slicing through the defense on the way to 30 points. Kyrie Irving took on that challenge and took over the game once Rose got the Bulls within striking distance on his way to 28 points.
LeBron "only" had 18 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, but he was the star of this game.
Walking into the Schott about an hour before gametime, you would have thought this was at least a playoff game for the Cavs or a conference game versus Michigan for the Buckeyes. Scalpers were lined up all down Lane Avenue to try to sell or buy tickets. Random people on Woody Hayes were trying to sell the worst looking Cavaliers hats you have ever seen. You got free cotton candy with them so maybe it wasn't the worst idea to buy one. Cars were having trouble going at green lights since the herds of people crossing the streets close to the Schott were so huge. Oh, and it was raining so we were all out there getting soaked.
People I know were actually organizing their days around a Cavs preseason game, too. Think about that.
Once you got in the arena, the playoff type atmosphere from outside, with the people crowded all around and willing to get soaked just to get inside or try to get tickets close to gametime, dissipated and it basically became a party.
Everyone got free Cavaliers team pictures so they could figure out who was actually on the team besides LeBron, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs Scream Team was running all around the concourse and dancing. One looked just like LeBron James. I don't think this was a coincidence. The cheerleaders were just doing random cheers and taking pictures with weirdo old men. Quaker Steak & Lube had multiple sections where you could make your own sign. Guess what about 99% of them said? They all had some kind of variation on the King being home or welcome back LeBron or "Forgiven" (the 1% was my "Bring Back Bennett" sign).
Grown men were carrying around signs showing their reverence for a 29-year old man like they were waiting to see Santa Claus at midnight and give him cookies. Little kids who probably didn't even remember LeBron from his first run with the Cavs all had signs and shirtseys. Entire families had matching LeBron t-shirts they clearly had just gotten a few days ago. I somehow got seats on the Huntington Club level, where you'd think that the people in luxury boxes would be more refined and well kept, or at least not looking like they just crawled out of a bar. You would be wrong. They were all marks for LeBron too, with luxury boxes I caught peeks into in all LeBron paraphernalia. The richest guys in the building, who had to give thousands upon thousands of dollars to Ohio State to get those seats were dressed no differently than the poor 25-year olds so happy to have their savior back.
Once you got to your seats, it somehow rose to a whole new level. Just seeing everyone in the sold out arena cheering and running around when nothing was going on on the court was something strange. It was almost hard to describe. You could palpably feel the excitement in that arena last night. For a preseason game. But it was there. There were no mentions of any Cavs players from the PA system. No Cavs running on the court aside from a few stragglers warming up with the OSU Men's Basketball team. Just an air of "this is really happening and I'm here to see it."
People weren't walking around saying how happy they were and how excited they were that the Cavs were going to be relevant again thanks to one decision. You could just feel it. You could see the smiles people had on their faces. The grown men with the signs. Rich guys in LeBron jerseys. The fancy Huntington Club bars filled up an hour before tip-off. The number of people just taking pictures of the court to say that they were there. When you go to an Ohio State football game, you feel the excitement, but it was honestly nothing close to this. I'm not a Cavaliers fan, but you could just sense how happy these people were. This wasn't so much a basketball game as a welcome home party for The King.
And once the game started it got to a whole new level. LeBron being introduced for the starting lineup set the entire crowd into cheering like you could tell they hadn't for the Cavs since 2010. It wasn't the Cavs first preseason game, but it was central Ohio's chance to welcome him home. He got a standing ovation just for being there, essentially.
Every time he touched the ball you could sense people wanting to explode. He hit a three early in the first quarter and the crowd gave a much larger cheer than for any of Anderson Varejao's turn around jumpers. Kevin Love tried a few outlet passes but none quite came to fruition in leading to a breakaway Tomahawk slam. The Bulls fouled both him and Kyrie a few times to prevent them from getting breakaways. Tristan Thompson probably had the most thunderous dunks. But the crowd didn't want to explode for him. Sure, they gave him and Love and Kyrie their due in cheering as they would normally, but they just wanted LeBron to make a great play and have the number one Sportscenter play in front of them.
It didn't really happen. He had his steals and rebounds and threes but never really had that superhuman play. The funny part was that the crowd would get louder than they would for anything else at even the possibility of LeBron dunking or blocking someone from out of nowhere. On one play relatively late in the game, for example, Kevin Love *juuuust* missed on a court long outlet to LeBron to spring him loose as it was tipped by a Bull. The crowd was building on that pass and let out a collective sigh when it was tipped. But then LeBron caught it off the tip and the crowd started building again before he ended up not being able to bring it home itself. Another collective sigh. Those instances of the crowd building weren't as loud as they were for when Kyrie took over the game, but had anything actually happened, the roof would've been blown off the Schott. The crowd wanted to show how loud it could get.
Once the Cavs had the game in hand, LeBron came out of the game, the sole player being substituted for the Cavs during that timeout, and got a standing ovation once we saw him take off his sleeve. He slowly walked to the end of the bench, raised his hand to the crowd and blew us a kiss. The crowd started clapping once we saw he was done, but once he raised his hand and blew that kiss, everyone stood up and cheered for a full minute. When someone like Derek Jeter retires, they get similar ovations for what they have done. LeBron got it for what he has done and what he will do. It was something I hadn't really seen before. Regardless of whether he learned from his mistake or just thought the Cavs are in a better situation to win than the Heat, the fans didn't care and were so happy to have him back and lead them to where he couldn't before on his own with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Players who are in the prime of their careers just don't get minute long standing ovations in preseason games. But LeBron James did. And it was surreal. It was the "this is really happening" moment. People were so happy they didn't even leave afterward with the game in hand. Nobody wanted it to end.
During one timeout, there were little kids dunking basketballs on small hoops. One kid couldn't have been more than 2 years old so the Cavs mascot picked him up and flew him around, putting him inches from the basket so he could drop it in. When he got put down, he was jumping up and down and pumping his fist, as happy as you could ever see a person. That's pretty much how every Cavs fan felt in that arena last night.