CLEVELAND — It's 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday evening at Quicken Loans Arena, and Section 200 is hopping.
Jordan Clarkson has just drilled a short runner, capping a one-man 7-0 run for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their lead over Charlotte has ballooned to 19 points, setting off momentary celebrations throughout the Q's upper deck.
Brandon Michael Bass can't stop smiling.
"Excellent, man," he says from his perch in Row 15, high atop the arena.
Clarkson has been hot, rookie Collin Sexton has been steady and a victory is nearly in hand. Soon, the final buzzer will sound, and "Cleveland Rocks" will boom from preposterously large speakers.
"I'm pumped," says Bass, a 35-year-old Cleveland native, speaking with the giddy fervor of a true believer.
At night's end, the Cavs will be 2-11—dead last in the Eastern Conference.
Five months ago, these fans were cheering for a title contender. Now, they revel in the slightest success.
Yes, life after LeBron James is strange and dismal. Or whatever comes after dismal. Hope is hard to find. So the diehards cherish the small things—like a rare lopsided win over a nondescript opponent.
A third of the arena is empty on this mid-November night, though it's announced as a sellout. A second-row floor seat sold for under $50 less than an hour before tipoff.
The nearby bars and restaurants are frightfully quiet. The East 4th Street plaza, once a bustling social scene on game nights, is nearly devoid of people, lifeless. The T-shirt hawkers are hawking their hearts out, but they can't make a sale.
And, on most nights, the Cavs can't win.
The roster is semi-familiar—a JR Smith here, a Tristan Thompson there—but these Cavs bear little resemblance to the team that, just last spring, played in its fourth straight NBA Finals. Or that, just two-and-a-half years ago, set off the wildest street party this town had ever seen. But that team and those fuzzy feelings are already a fading memory.
LeBron took all the glory with him to Los Angeles in July.
Now James—wrapped in Lakers purple and gold, flanked by new allies and old rivals—is set to return Wednesday night, just in time for a really weird Thanksgiving in his native Northeast Ohio.
One might reasonably expect the city to be bitter, resentful, depressed, distressed, dispirited or just plain angry. A canvassing of fans on a recent game night reveals none of this.
There is wistfulness (over what the Cavs were), some intrigue (about what comes next) and some stubborn, irrational optimism (over what they may become). Expectations have been adjusted.
Sure, they miss LeBron, but he left them a thoughtful parting gift: the wine-colored tapestry that hangs above Section 200. The one from 2016, the one emblazoned with the Larry O'Brien Trophy wrapped in the team's iconic "C" logo.
"We got the title," says Bass, articulating a sentiment held by just about every fan you encounter here.
Eight years ago, James infamously ditched his hometown for a superteam on South Beach. For that, he was branded a traitor and a villain—his jerseys burned, his reputation torched. His first game back, in December 2010, was an ugly, hostile affair—punctuated by profane chants, insults about his mother and various thrown objects.
Not this time. The locals almost uniformly predict James will be cheered Wednesday night. Any stray boos or taunts will likely be drowned out. A tribute video is expected, though team officials won't acknowledge it.
Everything is different now.
"I don't think anybody cares about LeBron coming back [for this game], honestly," says Larry Martin, a self-described lifelong Cavs fan, speaking from a seat in Section 204. "It's not a big story."
"The ring and the banner came," Martin says. "There's no ill will."
It's 50 minutes to tipoff, and business is brisk at the Harry Buffalo, just across the street from the Q. It won't last.
John Pezzente is already celebrating a personal victory: He just snagged two seats behind the scorer's table through Flash Seats, a secondary-market service. Cost: $45 each. A year ago, that sum would have put him in the upper deck.
This will be Pezzente's third game of the season. The arena has been about three-quarters full each time.
"It's tough," he says over a tall bar table. "They've been losing quite a bit. Not like it used to be."
Ahmaad Crump, the Cavs' indefatigable hype man, still screams through the PA system at every timeout, and the towering video screen, dubbed the Humongotron, still rouses the fans with gimmicky images, such as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"But it's definitely not the same," says Pezzente, wearing a Kevin Love T-shirt.
It's not the same for the Harry Buffalo, either. The downstairs is momentarily packed, but the upstairs dining room and bar are closed—as they have been every game night. The upper level was open for every contest of James' tenure.
"And packed, every single game," says Dave Howes, the bar's manager.
"The business, it's definitely taken a hit without LeBron," Howes says, estimating a drop of about 25 percent. Reports are similar throughout downtown. James "single-handedly changed the Cleveland economy."
Over his 11-year run—from 2003 to 2010 and 2014 to 2018—James pumped "hundreds of millions of dollars" into the city, according to Joe Roman, the president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, who spoke to ESPN.com last summer. (Roman did not return calls for this story.)
The post-LeBron malaise is "probably worse than expected," Mark Klang, the president of Amazing Tickets said in a telephone interview, "because I don't think we expected the team to be 2-12."
The ticket resale market is particularly brutal. Klang says he's averaging about "35 cents on the dollar," for his stock of Cavs tickets. "It's pretty bleak right now."
A seat in the lower-level corner, purchased at face value for $75, would go for about $25 on a weeknight or about $45 on a weekend, Klang says. A third-row floor seat with a box office price of $450 is going for $175 on a weeknight or $225 on the weekend. Upper-deck tickets that were purchased for $40 apiece are selling for about $10.
It doesn't help that the Cavs, who defiantly insisted they would remain competitive after they re-signed Love for $120 million and retained most of their veterans, are instead one of the worst teams in the league.
"They might not even win 20 games," Klang says.
The rebuilding of the roster will take much longer than the ongoing, top-to-bottom $185 million renovation of the Q.
"I was down there opening night," Klang says. "It was quiet. It's just different. LeBron created electricity. He moved the meter. There's not many guys in the entire league who do what he does."
At this point, Klang can only count on one team to drive ticket prices higher: LeBron's Lakers. Those seats are going for five or six times face value.
At the Harry Buffalo, they even plan to reopen the upstairs for the evening. The last time they used it was the night of an Elton John concert.
"It'll be an all-day event," Howes says. "The energy will be back downtown for a game."
But not tonight. The place has almost emptied by the middle of the first quarter. About a dozen people are scattered about the booths and bar seats. None are watching the game.
It's a rough time to be a Cavs fan. But they've been through worse—the Boobie Gibson-Samardo Samuels years, the Ricky Davis experience, the Shawn Kemp era and nearly every season for the last 30 years that didn't involve LeBron.
"We have some work to do," Howes says. "But we'll be back."
It's an hour before tipoff, and all is quiet on East 4th Street—other than the two guys yelling, "Dilly f--king Dilly!" to the occasional passer-by.
The slogan—adapted from a beer ad and adopted by Cleveland sports fans—is emblazoned on a pile of T-shirts the two men are selling for $20 a pop. (Other options include "B---h I'm from the Land," "Woof Motherf--ker Woof" and "B---h I'm a Dawg.")
Except, no one is buying right now. No one is here.
"It used to be jumping," says Jamill Lane, standing beside a stack of fresh cotton tees. "It used to be packed. All this be packed. Right now, it's like—they don't care."
For the past four years, Lane says, he could count on raucous Cavs fans to scoop up his shirts on the way to the arena a block away. Even on a crisp 30-degree November night like this.
Game-night sales are down "a good 80 percent," he says. "LeBron bring a lot of money to the city. When he was here, we sold a lot of T-shirts. When he left, it's like he took all the fans with him."
That would seemingly be reason enough for a local businessman to curse James but, you know, there's that banner.
"He promised a championship, he brung us a championship," Lane says. "I never seen no championships in this city. I'm 39 years old, and I ain't seen no championships. So that was a great experience. I'm grateful for it."
It's 95 minutes to tipoff, and the main concourse at the Q is humming.
The souvenir jersey racks are stocked with 0s (Love), 2s (Sexton) and 22s (Larry Nance Jr.). Fans stream in wearing just about every recent model—a lot of Loves, a smattering of Kyrie Irvings, a surprising number of Thompsons.
And more No. 23s than any of them.
There are black LeBron jerseys, wine LeBron jerseys, even a blue-and-white "East" All-Star Game jersey with James' 23 on the back.
Worth noting: None of them are on fire.
LeBron may have abandoned Cleveland—again—but his Cleveland fans remain loyal.
"I mean, the guy gave the city what it's been waiting for, for 52 years," says Scott LaMoreaux, a 25-year-old fan who's wearing a navy blue James jersey. "You can't fault a guy for making a business decision."
Everyone has their own rationale for justifying James' departure. To LaMoreaux, it was about James' prioritization of family and business and the chance to join an iconic franchise.
"When you're a kid growing up, just like in baseball, you think of playing for the Yankees; you think of playing for the Red Sox. The Lakers are that of basketball," he says. "The Celtics, the Lakers. You can't fault a guy for wanting to fulfill a dream."
It all sounds rather magnanimous, coming from a fanbase that demonized James eight years ago. The championship helped, of course. So did the mere act of coming home in 2014. And the school he built in Akron.
It helped, too, that this exit was graceful, respectful—in contrast to the tacky show James staged in 2010, when he blindsided the Cavaliers and their fans on live TV. This time, James simply issued a brief press release on a Sunday afternoon to announce a decision that most people expected.
In 2018, the locals allow themselves to be Cavs fans and LeBron fans simultaneously.
"I don't think that he can go anywhere in the country and be respected or loved as much as he was in Cleveland," LaMoreaux says. "I wish him the best."
Other than the championship banner, the ubiquitous No. 23 jerseys are the only reminder that LeBron once was here. The massive James mural that once faced the arena was taken down months ago—replaced by a picture of a local statue, the Guardian of Transportation. LeBron no longer calls the Q home, but he still haunts the place, his image lurking in various nooks and crevices. You might spot him flashing his championship ring on the inside of an elevator, but only when the doors are closed.
Nolan Arnold was 10 years old when James left the first time, "and not really into the Cavs as much, but I understood why people were upset." Now 18, Arnold chose this game to break out his bright blue-and-orange "city edition" No. 23—one of six LeBron jerseys in his collection.
"LeBron won a championship for us," he says. "So like I feel like I need to show him some respect."
Arnold says he was lightly heckled by another fan on his way into the arena, but that's a rarity.
"I think Cleveland puts on an act that they're mad at him," he says. "But deep down, they really want him to succeed wherever he goes."
Arnold says he's still rooting for James, even in Los Angeles, and hopes to see him make a respectable playoff run.
And when James is introduced Wednesday night as a Laker?
"I hope there's a standing ovation, for sure."
It's lunch hour at the Tower City Center, six hours before tipoff, and—stop us if you've heard this before—all is quiet at Playball Sports & Fashion.
"Extremely slow," says the man at the register, who declines to give his name.
The shop has cut back on Cavs gear, but there are still healthy stacks of T-shirts and hats, including a "2018 NBA Finals" edition.
"Most of the fans, they buy things when teams are winning," the man says. "There are very few true fans."
The music that comes through the mall PA system is faint but unmistakable: Tupac's "California Love." The same tune used in the new Beats by Dre commercial, which features LeBron. The universe has a strange sense of humor.
The vibe is no better down the hall at Champs Sports.
Sales are down about 45 percent from last year at this time, says Kelly Golias, an assistant manager.
No one is clamoring for Collin Sexton jerseys.
But sales are robust for one team—in particular, the yellow jerseys and T-shirts with No. 23 on the back. Golias says they've had to restock multiple times. Yes, Clevelanders are eagerly buying Lakers gear.
"Last time, they were lighting jerseys on fire," Golias says. "This time, they're actually keeping them."
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His work has been honored by APSE each of the last two years.
Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.