MIAMI — There was a time, not all that long ago, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seemed to be on the same side when it came to just about everything. Not only did they wear the same uniform for four seasons, but they carried some of the same burdens and shared quite a few sensibilities.
For instance, neither was especially pleased with the setup of the 2013-14 schedule. Specifically, with the NBA's lack of respect for what they had accomplished over the past seasons, illustrated—in their opinion—by the Miami Heat spending Thanksgiving and Christmas away from South Florida. It was particularly odd, and irritating, that the league stuck the Heat in Los Angeles on Dec. 25 to play a Lakers team that wasn't all that impressive even before Kobe Bryant was sidelined a second and final time.
Prior to that 101-95 victory, James made his displeasure known.
"Great incentive, huh?" he said. "Growing up, I thought that was a rule. I don't know if it was a rule, but I just thought that was like given. I don’t remember ever, besides, I guess, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen M.J. play on the road on Christmas. Maybe in the Garden, maybe."
James' guess was correct, though Jordan's one Christmas at Madison Square Garden, in 1986, came before he'd ever won a championship.
"I always thought if you win a championship, you kind of get some perks," James said. "But we’ve been on the road, we’ve definitely been on the road. But it’s alright. Whatever."
Well, on Christmas 2014, James will be on the road again.
But this time, that's as it should be. After all, James is not a defending champion. Neither, for that matter, is Wade, who raised the champions-on-the-road issue with incoming commissioner Adam Silver when Silver visited with the Heat last fall.
Silver promised he'd take care of the next champions, and he has honored that promise, with the San Antonio Spurs hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder at 2:30 p.m. ET this Christmas. While that is a marquee matchup, a rematch of the 2014 Western Conference Finals, it will be a mere undercard to the contest that comes next, at 5 p.m. ET on ABC.
That time slot, as was predictable since James chose to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers on July 11, and as became official Wednesday night, will feature James returning to Miami to face the Heat for the first time in a regular-season game since joining them in 2010.
It won't be the first time he sees his old teammates since the free-agent period. Some, including Mike Miller and James Jones, are already on the Cleveland roster, and Ray Allen could be next. He's worked out with Norris Cole and is expected to attend Wade's Aug. 30 wedding, where he will see Chris Bosh, among others.
And, on Oct. 11, James will likely play a few minutes against the Heat in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in Cleveland's second preseason game.
But this will be most significant, of course, because it will be his first time back in AmericanAirlines Arena since the Spurs smoked his Heat by a combined 40 points in Games 3 and 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals.
And, at this stage, it's not entirely clear what sort of reception he'll receive.
It won't be anything near as nasty as what James encountered in Cleveland on Dec. 2, 2010, a date that was seared into his soul, so much so that he often referenced it without prompting, whenever he was asked about later visits to Quicken Loans Arena or any other environment.
"Nothing could be like that," James has often said.
Playing before a crowd that cursed his name during the national anthem, chanted about his mother throughout and carried signs with such warm sentiments as "Akron Hates You!," James refused to retreat or relent, scoring 38 points in three quarters before sitting back in his chair for the rest of a 28-point romp and then telling TNT in the postgame interview that he didn't "want to apologize" for his decision and that he was "satisfied and happy right now."
No, Heat fans won't greet him in that manner. The region never wrapped its identity around his broad shoulders and demanded that he carry it to prominence. Passion ebbs and flows in the Magic City like the waves just a short sandy stroll from Ocean Drive.
But now, four months out, it's a stretch to say they'll shower him with Christmas spirit, the way Staples Center patrons showered Shaquille O'Neal with it on Dec. 25, 2004. That's when O'Neal, after approving a trade from the Lakers to the Heat, returned with his new team and was greeted with a video tribute and a 40-second standing ovation.
What will Heat fans do?
"Well, listen, if they don't cheer LeBron, there's something wrong with them," Charles Barkley said Wednesday night during NBATV's schedule release show. "Listen, he got them two world champions, he got them to the Finals four years in a row, and he wanted to go home. If they can't appreciate two world championships, get them to the Finals four years and decided to go back home, there's something wrong with them."
Many Heat fans do appreciate all of that, as they absolutely should.
James, after all, never cheated them nor embarrassed them, not in the four years he represented them. He gave everything he had on the floor, and sometimes more.
But, over the past five weeks on social media, that grateful majority of fans has given way to the more strident minority, a minority that has expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the way James left.
That latter contingent, quite predictably, didn't take too kindly to Barkley's comments, especially after enduring four years of the analyst's bashing while James wore Heat colors. Barkley certainly isn't the only media member with a megaphone who has made Miami a target. The universal acclaim of James' return to his Ohio roots wasn't surprising, considering how few believed he ever should have joined the Heat in the first place, even if he accepted less money to try to win more, an action that is typically admired.
It might have been different had he gone in 2010 to New York, playing just a subway or short train ride from where many prominent media members reside. In that case, the move may have been celebrated as James' keen recognition of where basketball most matters, in the Madison Square Garden "Mecca."
Since James left, Heat fans—many of whom sweated out every second of the Alonzo Mourning/Tim Hardaway era of the late 1990s—haven't felt like they've mattered much to anyone. The conventional wisdom is that they now have merely gotten what they deserved, just like an unworthy, unappreciative mistress who stole someone from a faithful, if somewhat vengeful, wife.
That empty feeling has been exacerbated by James excluding Heat fans from his otherwise-comprehensive essay in Sports Illustrated and his frequent allusions to the greatness of Ohio fans, including at his foundation event/return rally in Akron on Friday: "Those four years, I missed y'all! I missed this home cooking!"
James did retweet a photo from the Miami Heat's official account, one in which he's standing on a table inside AmericanAirlines Arena, feeding off the frenzy of the "White Hot" Heat crowd. And he'll surely say some nice things about Heat fans in the lead-up to the Christmas game, if not sooner, in one forum or another.
But for some, that won't be sufficient, since they contend that they, as a collective, were his sole staunch defenders for most of those four years, as he endured an endless assault from any and virtually all media members and fans outside of Miami, from Bristol, Connecticut, to Northeast Ohio and all parts in between and well beyond.
Further, while the Heat executives, coaches and players have generally taken the high road since his departure, sometimes tying themselves in verbal knots to avoid sounding sour about the way it went down, that road has been paved with subtle insinuations. Heat fans have rallied strongly behind Micky Arison and Pat Riley and, while both have been enormously respectful about what James accomplished for the franchise, both have also exuded an unmistakable air of defiance, making it clear that the organization's success predated James and will absolutely outlast him.
And during a conference call with reporters, Riley made sure to say that he tried to connect with James by text and e-mail during the free-agent period, while trying to recruit reinforcements for the four-time MVP, and didn't receive a response for more than two weeks.
James has held one press availability since Riley's conference, at the Akron rally, and he wasn't pressed about anything Heat-related. Even if he had been, it's not clear he could ever offer Heat fans an answer that all of them would readily accept. Some of them simply need to feel aggrieved and angry, because it feels better than feeling nothing; ask anyone who's struggled to try to come to grips with losing a love. And it's clear that James simply wishes to move on, to a promising restart in the place that he understandably loves best, leaving the details and the drama behind.
Yes, the last four years happened. They were unforgettable.
But they are gone, and so is he, even though he'll be back on Dec. 25, attempting to win on that date for an eighth straight time.
Once again, and as he must have expected, James won't play at home on Christmas.
Instead, he'll be in Miami.