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LeBron is now the man in black

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 12:44 a.m. MDT

Miami's LeBron James goes through his pre-game ritual. (Associated Press) Miami's LeBron James goes through his pre-game ritual. (Associated Press)

LeBron James will be wearing black tonight, making his transformation complete.

In several NBA cities, he is now a bad guy.

After signing James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Miami Heat should be one of the league's best teams, and certainly its most divisive. Some fans can't get enough of the potential powerhouse, others already are suffering from Heat exhaustion.

"I think Miami fans have high expectations and want to see their team win and I think fans of other teams want to see them crash and burn. I think that's normal," ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said.

There's more of it with this team, though. Their unprecedented free agent haul received unprecedented media coverage, a large amount focused on how James let the world know he was leaving Cleveland.

Miami's LeBron James drives against Atlanta's Marvin Williams during an NBA preseason game.      (Associated Press) Miami's LeBron James drives against Atlanta's Marvin Williams during an NBA preseason game. (Associated Press)

He invited the "haters" to send comments to his Twitter page this week and received some racially insensitive comments. He was booed during a preseason game in Atlanta, but that's nothing compared to what he'll hear when he shows up the first time in Cleveland, and probably New York and Chicago, too.

Van Gundy expects all the lingering free agency drama to end once the regular season opens tonight. But Miami's players don't think Heat hatred will stop just because the games have started.

"It may be dying down for us, but teams and players are still getting asked questions and they're still taking hits at us. And that's OK," James said. "From a basketball standpoint, we understand what we have in this locker room and in this franchise. So we just have to be able to tune out everyone's comments and what they're saying and just try to get better."

James has been one of basketball's most popular players since the moment he entered the league as the No. 1 pick in 2003. He arrived with a good story line: the kid from Akron who got to stay home and turn Ohio's team into one of the NBA's best.

Miami Heat forward LeBron James is fouled by Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collins as he drives to the basket during an NBA preseason game. (Associated Press) Miami Heat forward LeBron James is fouled by Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collins as he drives to the basket during an NBA preseason game. (Associated Press)

He decided it was time to leave this summer, understandable since he appears to have a better chance to win titles in Miami than he ever had in Cleveland. But he chose to announce his departure on an ESPN special titled "The Decision," a one-hour show that drew nearly unanimous criticism and ruined some goodwill it took years to build.

People couldn't comprehend why James would humiliate his home fans so publicly, and he could only watch as one burned a No. 23 Cavaliers jersey in the street.

"Listen, I don't get all the hatred — anywhere," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "I guess the press conference had a little bit to do with that."

Rivers' team put together a superstar trio three years ago when it acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in separate trades, pairing them with Paul Pierce. The Celtics stormed through the league to great fanfare and were largely a popular champion everywhere outside Los Angeles.

All three were veterans who'd never been close to a title, and Garnett in particular was well respected for how hard he fought for years in Minnesota. Rivers guessed the difference between his team and the Heat was that the Celtics built their team by trades instead of free agency, but Allen wasn't sure why Boston enjoyed a level of adoration that seems to be eluding Miami.

"I think people love the underdog and people love the story line. They love to see the guys that fought hard to get to that point want to win something. People love that Hollywood ending," Allen said. "So I don't know, I think their story has yet to be told. Obviously a lot happened over the summertime, but for us, so much drama now in the NBA that we all appreciate because there's no telling who could win."

James never told the Cavaliers he was leaving until the night of "The Decision," and Bosh similarly was vilified for largely breaking off communication with his Toronto Raptors. And while there's anger over the way the Heat were built, there's no doubt they are good for business.

ESPN.com is devoting additional coverage to Miami through its "Heat Index" page, and Commissioner David Stern expects the Heat to be playing before full houses on the road. And if they are the bad guys, so be it, since Stern said recently somebody has to be.

"You know, I grew up in 1985 as commissioner when the Celtics had four or five Hall of Fame players and the Lakers had the same," Stern said. "There is always, and if you lived outside of L.A., the Lakers were the bad guys, or if you lived outside of Boston, the Celtics were the bad guys."

Some of the Heat buzz is downright comical.

The Philadelphia 76ers announced Saturday that they would hold a "Beat The Heat" pep rally Monday, featuring the entire team roster — and even Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, not to mention an "interactive fire safety demonstration." The team rode through part of Philadelphia in a fire truck, a clear nod to the Heat's flaming basketball logo.

Stern even made a lighthearted reference to it all over the weekend, saying a number of teams have told him it's "premature" to mail the championship trophy to Miami already.

James will be greeted like a Lakers player tonight in Boston when he makes his official Heat debut. He may have lost his chance to be as beloved as Michael Jordan, but he's got a better chance to match him in championships. And as Jordan knows, it's about winning titles, not popularity contests.

"I'm pretty sure when we started winning, Detroit didn't like us, I'm pretty sure New York didn't like us, Cleveland didn't like us," Jordan said. "So if Miami decides to win, I'm pretty sure whoever felt like that move was not something that was well-liked are not going to support the Miami Heat. So to me, they would be champions, I could care less. They won, they beat everyone in the league, they're the champions — if they win."

Maybe all the hatred will fuel the Heat to do just that.

"You know, just let this team become what it can become or what it can't. Just let it happen," team president Pat Riley said. "And everybody out there is just trying to do something right now to raise the ante on us. And I think the more you raise the ante on a team, especially these guys, and how they talk about it, I think you might even see something even more special. So sometimes silence is better than a lot of noise, from outside."

In tonight's other two regular-season openers, Phoenix visits Portland and the defending NBA champion Lakers host Houston.

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