LeBron James is bracing himself for what could be a cold and nasty reception when the Miami Heat visits Cleveland tonight. Once the pride of Cleveland and the NBA's Most Valuable Player, it'll be James' first homecoming since he ditched the Cavaliers for Miami - sending the Ohio native from hometown hero to public enemy number one.
When James announced he would "take my talents to south beach," during the infamous nationally televised "Decision" special, he crushed the hopes of a city that had crowned him king, reports CBS News correspondent Don Teague.
At the time, in a public letter, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert called James a narcissist and his decision a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal."
Now it's the fans' turn to let James know what they think of him.
"I think it's gonna be tough," James said. "But I'm there to win a basketball game. … I understand how passionate fans are about sports so I'm ready for whatever response I'm gonna get."
The same crowd he once thrilled will be outwardly hostile and hateful toward him, but hopefully, harmless. He'll be booed, taunted and subjected to ridicule beyond his imagination.
"He deserves every bit of it," said Jim Osherow, a Cavaliers' season-ticket holder for 36 years. "When you leave a team the way he did, that's what you got coming. It was rotten what he did. It's not just that he ruined the fans' expectations of him, but he ruined this franchise from being able to pick up any other free agents. Then he goes and has his own show? Wrong. Wrong, man."
No one knows exactly what to expect before, during or after James' hyped return, a game Cleveland fans first circled on their calendars months ago and a nationally televised event that civic leaders and the NBA trust will not develop into an embarrassment.
Extra security measures have been implemented to prevent trouble and to protect James. The Heat typically distribute the team's travel itinerary as a courtesy to beat writers covering the team, but did not for the trip to Cleveland, which will begin following Wednesday night's home game against Detroit.
The Cavaliers, who were James' caretakers for seven years, are taking extra steps to safeguard the two-time league MVP. There will be uniformed and undercover police officers in the stands, near Miami's bench and lining the tunnel area leading to the Heat locker room.
Fans will pass through metal detectors - as always when entering The Q - and any purchased beverages will be poured into cups, so plastic bottles can't be thrown.
Gilbert, fined $100,000 for blasting James and accusing him of quitting in the hours after the All-Star announced his intentions to leave, believes fans will react strongly ... but safely.
"I'm sure a lot of them will make their feelings known, but as long as everybody plays by the rules and doesn't go over the top, everything will be fine," said Gilbert, who added he has "moved on" from James' departure. "I really believe that Cleveland people will do the right thing."
That hasn't always been the case. Sadly, two of the most memorable instances of fan-related misconduct happened here. In 1974, Indians fans fueled by 10-cent beers, stormed the field during a game and fought with Texas players. In 2001, Browns fans pelted officials with plastic bottles after a controversial call.
With potential for violence once again, some in Cleveland have preached for peace. The city, after all, doesn't need another black eye. Bishop Prince J. Moultry of the inner-city In Touch for Christ Christian Center has urged his congregation to stay positive when James returns.
"Kill him with kindness," Moultry said. "Don't be no fool, keep your cool."
The atmosphere will be charged. Any spark could ignite rage.
"It's going to be a strange night," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I'll be happier when its done and everyone has gotten their say out of the way and everybody feels better about it. Then, they can go on their merry ways and play basketball. I tend to like it when it's about the game of basketball."
This is about so much more, though.
To the fans, it's a chance to repay James for embarrassing them. It wasn't that he decided to leave as a free agent - other big-name Cleveland athletes like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle had done that - it's the way he left.
"LeBron stabbed us in the back," said Cavaliers fan George Halbert, who will make the trip from Youngstown to give James an earful. "If he wanted to leave, he had the right, but why go on national TV to do it? My kids had LeBron stuff all over their rooms and they took it all down the night he said he was leaving. I'm going to boo him."
Others think a better route is to mock James. Organizers of a Twitter campaign known as LaughAtLeBron feel laughter would be the best medicine for James' return.
"Cleveland, this campaign is dedicated to you and all Cavalier fans who were humiliated by LeBron James," reads the movement's page. "So, Dec. 2nd don't boo LeBron, LAUGH at him."
Heat forward Chris Bosh doesn't see that happening. In fact, he laughed at the notion.
"I don't think a crowd could just be oh-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha," Bosh said. "Since the beginning of time, people have booed to show their support or lack thereof of the other team. I doubt if that changes."
James will be joined by Bosh and Dwayne Wade, who together made the Heat preseason favorites to win the championship. But much to the delight of Cavs fans, their dream season has gotten off to a sputtering start, compiling a respectable but still disappointing 11-8 record, while the James-less Cavaliers are a reasonable 7-10 heading into Thursday's matchup.