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Well, Boston - How Do You Feel About LeBron James Now?

LeBron James is taking the floor in Boston tonight - and for the first time in four years, he's wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform. It's hard to know what to feel. Some historical context might help.

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LeBron has praised the Celtics plenty over the years.
LeBron has praised the Celtics plenty over the years.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

"When I was in Cleveland, they were a hump that I couldn't get over. I knew from that point that I needed some help. I saw the way that they played the game, with Ray and with Paul and with KG and with Rondo, with the chemistry that those guys had and the weapons that they had, and I knew from that point that I needed some help. And for me to be in this position today, those guys challenged me. They helped me personally become the player that I am today."

That was LeBron James on May 14, 2014.

James' Miami Heat had just ousted the Brooklyn Nets from the playoffs. They had won a dramatic Game 5, sneaking away with a 96-94 victory over the visiting Nets aided by a clutch late basket made, fittingly, by Ray Allen. It was the last time LeBron will ever share an NBA court with Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett at the same time. James, in the prime of his career and with two fellow superstars by his side, had vanquished the aging Nets with relative ease.

Yet he couldn't help but think back to what Pierce and Garnett had meant to him earlier in his career. He gushed about the two veterans at length - not because of what they'd done for the Nets that season, but for how they'd impacted him over the years. He memorably quipped that even with Pierce and KG in Brooklyn threads, "You still see green on them," and he praised them for motivating him to become a champion.

This was not hyperbole on James' part. Some athletes are prone at times to making up dramatic sound bites for the attention, but you could sense the authenticity in James' voice when he said that Pierce and Garnett were his career's greatest challenge. It rang true because it was a tone he'd sung before.

It's been a running theme in his career. If you were casting the LeBron James biopic, you'd have James and his two Heat teammates in the lead roles, but Pierce and KG would be essential supporting characters. They're the driving force behind the whole plot. The Rosebud to LeBron's Citizen Kane. The Daisy Buchanan to his Great Gatsby. LeBron's an NBA veteran for 11 years and counting, and for a sizable chunk of that time, the Celtics haunted his dreams.

That's not exactly the case anymore. Tonight we begin a strange new era - one in which LeBron is no longer a Heatle, the Celtics are no longer his greatest rival and it's hard to know how to feel anymore. LeBron is taking the floor at the TD Garden. It's happening. What does it mean to us?


"I have no plans at this point. I've made no plans. I want to continue to win throughout the postseason - that’s what I gear myself toward. And the fact that it’s over right now is definitely a surprise for myself. It is what it is. A friend of mine told me today after the game that I guess you have to go through a lot of nightmares before you finally accomplish your dream. That’s what’s going on individually for myself right now."

That was LeBron James on May 13, 2010.

That night, of course, was the last time James was spotted in Boston wearing a Cavaliers uniform before tonight. The Cavs came up short against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals that year. En route to a seven-game NBA Finals with the Lakers, the C's ousted James and the Cavs in six games. James had a triple-double that night - 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists - but the Celtics' defense was smothering, KG was a force and Rondo was all over the place. The Celtics surged ahead in the third quarter and never looked back.

After that game, LeBron was drilled with questions about how it felt to lose, and how losing would affect his decision to stay with the Cavaliers long-term or look elsewhere. His answers sounded noncommittal, scattered, confused - but definitely determined. He wanted what the Celtics had. He wanted to be a winner, and he wanted to do whatever it took to reach that point.

There were hints that it wouldn't be in Cleveland. He had ripped off his Cavs jersey while walking down the tunnel to the Garden locker room that night, and his press conference answers afterward, while cryptic, were tellingly peppered with "I" answers and nary a word "we." You could tell he was thinking of making a change. He was getting an inkling that it might be necessary.

It's not a stretch to say that when James rocked the world eight weeks later, announcing his plan to "take his talents to South Beach" and join the Heat, he was doing so with the Celtics on his mind. The memories were raw for him. He'd lost to that C's team that spring, and also in 2008 when Paul Pierce memorably outdueled him in a playoff Game 7 on his way to a Finals MVP in June. During the seven years that LeBron spent in Cleveland, the Celtics had two East titles and one Larry O'Brien Trophy. LeBron had yet to win a Finals game.

He knew he had to change that.

But now he has, twice over, and it's hard to think back and recall that ringless 25-year-old. The almost-30 leader and champion coming to Boston tonight seems a completely different person. Do we still remember the old LeBron?


"Everything went through my mind at that point. Finally getting over this hump against this team. Everything I went through this summer, with the decision and deciding to come down here. I knew deep down in my heart I couldn’t, even as much as I loved my teammates back in Cleveland, I couldn’t do it by myself against this team. I knew that was a team that I wanted to get over the hump against."

That was LeBron James on May 14, 2011.

That was the night that James finally "got over the hump" and won a playoff series against the Celtics for the first time. The Heat and Celtics were tied 87-87 late in Game 5 before James took matters into his own hands. He scored all of the game's final 10 points by himself. The dust settled and the Heat were 97-87 victors; LeBron slumped to the American Airlines Arena floor in shock before getting up, hugging Doc Rivers and graciously thanking the rest of the Celtics for a great series.

More than that, really. He was thanking them for driving his career. He would later refer to that Game 5 against Boston as one of the biggest wins of his life, and it's not hard to see why. Winning that game, that series, was a gateway to so much more. LeBron's accomplished a lot in this league - an incredible amount for a man who's (until next month) still in his twenties - but before any of it, he had to get through the Celtics first.

It's hard to compare any of those classic Boston grudge matches to whatever it is we'll witness tonight.


"They've been great. Even in negative times, they've been great. Just to compete in that building, the rivalry that I have with the Big Three when they were there over the years has been cool."

That was LeBron James on November 13, 2014 - er, yesterday.

James is coming back to Boston. Always a gracious champion and savvy public speaker, he knows how to say all the right things. He told assembled media at the Cavs' practice yesterday that he still has fond memories of his battles with the Celtics, and there's no doubt that he does. But you have to imagine that now, with the Cavs spinning in the mud at 3-3 and looking to move forward, there are bigger things on James' mind than Boston nostalgia.

Every battle between LeBron and the Celtics used to be a national spectacle. There was media, there was hype. There was legitimate bad blood between LeBron and Pierce and KG and the rest of the Celtics. Now, though? Hard to say it's anything other than just another game out of 82. LeBron's mind now is on building his Cavaliers into a winning team again. That's the hump he's climbing over this time.

And as for us?

In Boston, we used to hate LeBron. He represented a fundamental clash of basketball ideologies. He was the glamorized individual star, anointed as a king before he'd won a thing; the Celtics were the complete team, with the "ubuntu" and the team spirit. It was easy to chastise LeBron then.

Of course, winning changes everything, and LeBron's in another place now. He's also in a much loftier place than the Celtics, who are coming off one of the most dismal seasons in franchise history and still looking for long-term direction. It was easy to build a rivalry when you had Pierce and KG. When your two cornerstone pieces may well be Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, what leg do you have to stand on?

LeBron's also just less hatable in general - for Boston or anyone else. He used to be an overhyped star on an overhyped team; he's now a magnanimous winner who graciously returned home to be with his beloved local team. He's building something with a young core group, and he knows he's running the risk of failure but does it anyway. There's something admirable about that.

So when LeBron walks into the Garden tonight, how will you feel? Is there still resentment there? Respect? Jealousy? Acceptance? Some strange emotional cocktail of all of the above? There's no right answer, but there are plenty of questions, and 11 years of context to back them up.

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