CLEVELAND - Fans lined up 200 deep Wednesday at a downtown sportswear store that was giving away "Re-Established 2014" T-shirts with LeBron James' face on it. A coffee shop poured free drinks between 2 and 3 p.m. in order to celebrate the return of James, who wears No. 23. And downtown restaurant owners were beefing up their kitchens and adding extra servers to prepare for Thursday night when the Cavaliers host the Knicks.
The LeBron James Show resumes in Cleveland -- having survived a painful, four-year hiatus while James was in Miami -- and residents of this Rust Belt city are giddy with anticipation. For businesses near the stadium, the return of the King means the return of ka-ching! Sellout crowds, and their wallets, are expected to return to support a team that hasn't had a winning record or made the playoffs since James' departure in 2010.
"LeBron is a one-man economic stimulus package," said Nick Kostis, the owner of Pickwick and Frolic Restaurant and Club. Kostis said James' return should mean at minimum an extra $150,000 in added business for his restaurant this year. "It's going to benefit everybody."
Said Jason Rutushin, the manager of Flannery's Pub: "Every business downtown is expecting to get crushed for his first game back. When he left, a lot of people were heartbroken. The team was so horrible it wasn't worth it to come down here. This changes everything."
It is hard to quantify how much James' return means to the Cleveland area, though that hasn't stopped people from trying. Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald estimated this summer that James could bring almost $50 million a year in new economic activity to the region. Bloomberg News recently predicted that James will generate as much as $215 million annually in new and redistributed money for the franchise and Cleveland from tourism, taxes, service industry spending and the team's business.
Edward Hill, the dean of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University and an economist who studies development, said that the current thinking in economics literature is that the impact of sports teams doesn't necessarily mean an infusion of new dollars in a local economy. Instead it leads to a reshuffling of consumer dollars that would have been spent elsewhere.
Hill, however, believes that James' return to Cleveland is different for many reasons, the most interesting being that he gives the city name recognition around the world.
"LeBron is a global brand and Nike puts a ton of money into it. The result is that Cleveland, a mid-size city and region, gets the spillover," he said. "I was just in Guangzhou and took a picture of a man in a Cleveland LeBron James jersey. LeBron gives the city some positive name recognition and at no cost to us."
Cleveland certainly is a city in need of some positive recognition. In the most recent census, Cleveland ranked just behind Detroit as the country's second-poorest city with a population of 250,000 or more and 36.9 percent of its residents living below the federal poverty rate. In 1970, Cleveland was the country's 10th-largest city. It has since tumbled to 45th with 400,000 residents.
James, who grew up in nearby Akron, acknowledged the stress the area has been under when he announced his return to Cleveland in a Sports Illustrated essay this past summer. "I want kids in Northeast Ohio to realize there's no better place to grow up," James wrote. "Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."
James said after practice Wednesday that his love for the area is a bond he shares with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert with whom he had a very public falling out when he left four years ago. "We both have something in common: That's to bring a championship back to this city," James said. "That's what our drive is."
That, of course, is music to Cleveland fans' ears. No Cleveland professional sports team has won a championship since 1964 when the Browns won the NFL championship, but now they believe they have a horse in the race.
Tickets for tonight's game were selling for an average of $758 Wednesday on the resale market, according to SeatGeek. That's the most for an NBA regular-season game here in the last five years and 14 times the $53 that last season's home opener commanded. Those who can't get a ticket to the game are expected just to come downtown for the party, and there will be plenty to see.
ESPN will be broadcasting live shows throughout the day from outside the arena, beginning at 9 a.m. An outdoor pregame concert will feature hip hop recording artist Kendrick Lamar.
And every local bar will have its drink special with one of the more interesting being the Radisson Hotel's $2 Lebron Bomb." Invented by manager Brett Murphy on the day that James announced his return, the drink consists of a shot of whiskey, grenadine, orange juice and Sprite and comes with a packet of sugar that drinkers can pour in their hands to mimic James's pregame ritual of tossing powdered chalk into the air.
"Everyone feels like celebrating," said Kostis, who expects a full house. "It's almost like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. LeBron came back. He chose to be here in Cleveland. It uplifts us all a little bit."