CLEVELAND – Fresh from a postseason vacation, LeBron James was back among Cleveland fans for the first time since the Cavaliers’ playoff flop.
The reunion was somewhat awkward.
James, whose impending free agency could change the course of several NBA franchises, was a guest judge at an amateur dunk contest that drew a large crowd because of the two-time MVP’s appearance, his first public outing since the Cavs lost in the second round to the Boston Celtics.
Wearing a blue “Witness” T-shirt and designer sunglasses, James had little interaction with fans after arriving in a four-car motorcade and being escorted by police and security personnel through the crowd to a basketball court set up on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.
Some in the crowd seemed uncertain how to act around James, perhaps fearing the wrong comment could drive him away for good.
James ducked under a tent and slid into a folding chair next to former NBA player Darryl Dawkins to judge the final round of dunks as fans and several star-stuck competitors snapped photos with their cell phones of one of the world’s best players and Cleveland’s most revered pro athlete in generations.
As he sat at a table and held up scores, some Cleveland fans pleaded with him to re-sign with the Cavs.
“Don’t leave, LeBron!” one yelled.
“Please, please don’t go!” offered another.
James, who is eligible for free agency on July 1, smiled nervously as one of the dunkers missed several attempts and he politely applauded when the runner-up finally got a two-handed reverse down. After the event sponsored by Sprite, one of James’ corporate business partners, he posed for a group photo with all the dunkers and signed a giant check for the winner.
James did not speak with reporters as he excited and offered no hints about his future, adding more suspense to a story already spinning off rumors and guesses about his plans.
Maverick Carter, James’ manager and business partner, said “there’s nothing to say right now” when asked for details about James’ next move.
Before James arrived – about 45 minutes after promised – fans waited patiently on a grassy hill overlooking the hoop court. One of them, Audrey Staton, was convinced it would be one of her last chances to see James, who will be courted by the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and other teams.
“He’s going,” Staton said, keeping one eye on her 7-year-old son, Aaron, playing nearby. “We can’t keep him in Cleveland because we’re a dying city. There isn’t enough hoopla for him here right now. He’s young and he wants the excitement.”
Dawkins, who jumped from high school to the NBA decades before James did it, believes Cleveland’s All-Star should follow his heart.
“He should go where he thinks he’ll be happy,” said one of the most powerful dunkers in league history. “Make the right decision for your family and get as much money as you can. If he leaves Cleveland, basketball as we know it here is going to go down. They have to do what they can to keep him here. I would like to see him stay in Cleveland, but he has to do what is right for him.”
As James and his entourage made their way back to their vehicles, he offered one handshake and yelled “Hey, homey!” at a young fan screaming his name. James and his girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, then climbed into a Range Rover.
But before they left, one fan got the superstar’s attention.
Walking up the hill alongside James’ SUV, Greg Poulin of Sagamore Hills delivered a message on the minds of Cavaliers fans everywhere.
“Stay in Cleveland, my man,” Poulin told James, who nodded his head in acknowledgment.
Later Poulin said it was important for him to reach out to James.
“I just wanted to say what I had to say to him, which was, ‘Stay in Cleveland, don’t leave,’” said Poulin, wearing a wine-colored Cavs shirt. “I don’t think he knows what he’s going to do yet, but I think he’s going to stay. The King can’t leave his people.”