MIAMI — LeBron James doesn't have any apprehension for this homecoming.
There's nothing to fear, no real worries about his safety, unlike what awaited him the last time he had one of these return games. Then again, this might not even classify as a homecoming — because, it turns out, Miami was never truly his home, just a place he called home for four years while playing with the Heat.
He came. He won. He left.
On Thursday, James returns to face the Heat, the team that turned him from a superstar to a two-time NBA champion superstar. And as he and the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for what will certainly be an emotional Christmas visit, James said he's expecting to be flooded with positive vibes.
"To say I haven't thought about going back, I would be lying," James said in Cleveland on Tuesday night after he and the Cavaliers beat Minnesota. "It's going to be great to be back in that building around those unbelievable fans and the memories will definitely come back, being a part of the organization for four years."
For their part, the Heat insist that they're looking forward to the reunion.
It goes without saying that some in the organization were angry when James left this past summer, in large part because of how long it took him to tell Miami that he would not be returning. But the building has hardly been scrubbed of reminders: Heat coach Erik Spoelstra still has photos of James in his office, and huge prints of some of his most memorable moments still adorn the walls of "Championship Alley" — the hallway leading from the Miami locker room.
James remains in contact with some Heat players, and his close friendship with Dwyane Wade continues.
"It hasn't changed," Wade said. "It won't change. ... We have a great friendship and great respect for each other. It won't change."
The homecoming drama was so different four years ago.
When James returned to Cleveland on Dec. 2, 2010, for the first time after signing as a free agent with Miami, the city that adopted the Akron native as one of its own turned on him. He was booed incessantly by Cavs fans who felt that he had betrayed them despite seven great seasons.
The Heat won that night. And they knew they would never face an atmosphere that daunting again.
"It was just us," James said.
James has spent the past few days downplaying his return to South Florida, but the four-time MVP has found himself reminiscing about what he accomplished alongside Wade, Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and those former Heat teammates who remain in Miami.
They became a family, and for James, family is everything.
"I'm one person who understands being home, being able to stay home and making sacrifices to be home," said Haslem, a Miami native who has spent his entire NBA career there despite the chance to make more elsewhere. "I've done it my whole career and I can't fault him for that. We had a great four years together, we had a lot of success together and we'll continue to be friends."
Like James, Haslem is downplaying the Heat vs. James story line. After all, they've already played once — at Brazil, in the preseason.
"It ain't about Bron," Haslem said. "It ain't about beating Cleveland because he left to go to Cleveland. It's about the Miami Heat against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and we'd want to win that game whether it was last year's Cleveland Cavaliers who won 25 games or whatever, or this year's Cleveland Cavaliers who everyone thinks are going to win it all."
It's anyone's guess what crowd reaction awaits.
Some will boo. Some will cheer. Some will probably do both.
The Heat will honor James with a video tribute that's planned for one of the early timeouts, as they do with many returning players, and will have another for former Miami guard James Jones.
"I don't really get involved in what to expect," James said. "My job is to go down there and win a basketball game and live in the moment."
There was scorn when James left this past summer, of course. Some fans felt like James could have at least publicly thanked Heat fans who welcomed him in 2010, though it could also be argued that those fans getting to enjoy four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals were thanks enough.
But it was nothing like the venom that came from Cleveland when he left there in 2010, and that's why whatever scene awaits James when he takes the court for warmups around 4:40 p.m. on Thursday won't come remotely close to matching that avalanche of negativity when Miami visited the Cavaliers for the first time four years ago.
"It's a different blow when you lose the best player in the world," Haslem said. "But life goes on. Basketball goes on."
Reynolds reported from Miami. Withers reported from Cleveland.