As James Blair stood in the upper deck of the Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland last Thursday, he felt connected with LeBron James.
Even before he had tickets to the Cavaliers’ home opener, he knew that somehow he would be there to witness every second of LeBron’s return. He tracked LeBron during warm-ups. He got chills watching LeBron’s Nike ad flash on the newly installed “humungotron.” He screamed when he heard LeBron’s name announced in the starting lineup and echo into the rafters. It had all finally sunken in: LeBron was back. And so was Blair. It was a homecoming for both of them.
Blair, a 22-year-old physical therapy student – and lifelong Cavaliers fan – from Ashtabula, Ohio, had spent last season in exile, banished from the Quicken Loans Arena. This was his punishment for pulling off a meticulously planned scheme on March 20, 2013, when the Cavaliers hosted the Miami Heat and their star – LeBron James.
Of course, James’ subsequent return to Cleveland makes that night feel longer than 19 months ago. Back then, the arena boiled with rage at the sight of him and his (then) upcoming free agency seemed like a yet another opportunity for him to spurn his hometown. “The Decision” tested Blair’s faith in LeBron, whom he idolized, but he continued to root for James on the Heat. Still, as Cleveland spewed vitriol, Blair begged LeBron to come back.
On that March night, Blair snuck down an aisle, sprinted on to the hardwood untouched, interrupted the game and walked up to LeBron. James turned to see Blair backpedaling from security and stretching out his shirt, on which he had penned a pair of messages: “WE MISS YOU” on the front and “2014 COME BACK” on the back.
As security dragged Blair off the court, LeBron shook Blair’s hand and patted his head.
After that moment, Blair was no longer just a LeBron fan. He was the LeBron fan. He was also on his way to jail for criminal trespassing. When he posted bail 23 hours later, his Twitter followers had doubled and footage of his court storming had gone viral. Later, during an appearance in court, the judge recognized him and asked about his crusade: “You really want him to come back?”
The arena delivered a more lasting punishment: a lifetime ban.
Blair filed a request to have the ban lifted, but the Cavaliers did not budge. He behaved himself – for the most part. Although he didn’t try to sneak into a game, he began a rally outside the arena as part of his “Come Home LeBron” campaign, printed some 2,000 T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan and gained enough donations to pay for a billboard near LeBron’s former high school.
Then this past summer, LeBron signed with the Cavaliers and everything changed. It was as if the franchise hit the reset button, constructing a hopeful image of the future and erasing previous transgressions – including Blair’s. In August, he received an email from the Cavaliers inviting him in for a meeting. Security vetted him and he promised to never act out again if allowed back. On October 1, he made his triumphant return to the Q, attending the Cavs’ annual “Wine & Gold” scrimmage. His ban had been lifted.
In retrospect, just like with LeBron, no one should have ever doubted Blair would be back. He has become a symbol of this promising new era in Cleveland sports history, albeit a slightly lesser one than James himself. Blair readily admits that going to jail for interrupting an NBA game made him a famous poster child for LeBron loyalty. ESPN recently packaged footage of his infamous stunt and embrace with LeBron for a segment that verges on propaganda for Cavaliers.
“It’s literally the best thing that could have happened,” Blair says.
The validation of Blair’s earnest fandom fortified over time. When asked about the incident in an interview with Sports Illustrated, LeBron laughed, “Yeah, that’s James Blair, he’s my guy.” James even confirmed spotting Blair at a Heat championship after-party in Miami.
Blair is recognized constantly in Ohio and says he never gets tired of the attention. He has heard his name whispered while waiting on line at a Sandusky, Ohio amusement park and been corralled for selfies with spring breakers in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A newspaper in Italy once called for an interview and a magazine in Canada conducted a photo shoot. Strangers in the Philippines sent him Facebook friend requests.
The acclaim has not gone to his head. He takes pride in remembering radio hosts and Twitter users who have flip-flopped on LeBron, while he has never waivered. He has committed to not making money off his cause, turning down a $5,000 offer to trademark the original T-shirt he wore the night he ran on the court. And although it’s tempting to credit Blair with helping lure LeBron back to the Cavaliers, he downplays his significance.
“I tell people all the time I don’t think I had any drastic role in him coming home,” Blair says. “But I think it did show him and remind him how passionate these fans in Cleveland were.”
Last week he had the chance once again to show LeBron how he felt. It was difficult for him to stand out in the frenzied arena, but these days he is less concerned with catching LeBron’s attention. After enjoying a life-changing 19 months, Blair may actually get the thing he wanted when he first hatched his bold plan to confront LeBron on the court: A Cavaliers parade overtaking Euclid Avenue to celebrate the city’s first title in 50 years.
“I already said me being allowed back and LeBron coming home, that was like the cherry on top of it,” he says. “That would probably be the cherry on top of the cherry.”