COLUMBUS, Ohio — In mid-October last year, Tyronn Lue wandered onto the floor of Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center hours before his Cleveland Cavaliers were scheduled to play their final preseason game.
“O-H!” a member of the Cavs’ traveling press corps joked to Lue.
“What’s that?” the Cavs head coach replied, indifferently.
Lue, after all, has proud Nebraska Cornhuskers lineage.
Big Ten rivalries aside, Lue has built a deep admiration for his new home state’s flagship school. Hours before he declined to return an “I-O,” the defending NBA champion coach addressed the Ohio State football team at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“Every time I see clips of Game 7 [of the NBA Finals] or even in a preseason game when they show it on the Jumbotron, I get chills in my body just for how we did it and how we came back and were able to come together and win a championship the way we did,” Lue told the Buckeyes in a video posted by Cavs.com.
Nearly a month later, LeBron James and his Cavaliers teammates returned to Columbus to witness No. 2 Ohio State knock off its rival, No. 3-ranked Michigan, to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Now it’s time for the Buckeyes to return the favor.
When the Cavs take the floor in Oakland, Calif., for Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals Thursday night, they’ll do so with a large contingent from Columbus watching. Among that group will be several — perhaps most — members of the Ohio State football team, many of whom come from Cleveland.
“Hopefully after the season plays out, we have another parade in the 216 [area code],” Buckeyes linebacker and Cleveland native Chris Worley told WBNS 10TV last week.
Last winter, Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker put his affection for his hometown in simpler terms.
“If you’re from Cleveland or Northeast Ohio, you just know,” Baker said in December. “It’s Cleveland vs. Everybody.”
That’s a sentiment that James has shared often since returning to Cleveland in the summer of 2014. Although the NBA megastar is most often associated with the northeastern portion of his home state, the Akron native has shared his affection for Columbus — and, in particular, Ohio State.
“It’s always special,” James said prior to that preseason game in Columbus. “It’s just truly special. I don’t really have to harp on it; we all know that it’s always been a special place for me. Being here and getting an opportunity to play in front of these fans and being in this city, it’s always special.”
Elite teams are defined by their response to adversity! Let’s go Cavs! pic.twitter.com/u9HAruBBJj
— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) June 5, 2016
So there was James, standing on the Ohio State sideline before the Buckeyes’ biggest football game of the season in 2016, fulfilling his role of superfan. When Ohio State won the 2015 College Football Playoff, the four-time MVP watched from a suite before celebrating on the field. Even as a member of the Miami Heat, James attended games at Ohio Stadium. He was there, for example, when the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin in their Big Ten opener in 2013.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer appreciated his company.
“It’s big. He means a lot in recruiting,” Meyer said in 2014. “You can’t measure the positive feeling of him standing on the sideline for an Ohio State game. He truly loves Ohio State.”
And Ohio State loves him and the Cavs. Take a tour of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and you’ll find photos of James addressing the crowd at a “Skull Session,” as well as mementos from Lue’s visit in October.
The Cavs’ presence is even more prominent on social media, where the Buckeyes tout their latest LeBron James Nike gear.
We ride with @KingJames.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) March 1, 2017
In April, receiver Parris Campbell told Land of 10 he believed Ohio State was on its way to becoming a “LeBron James program.” But while the Buckeyes don’t wear James’ Nike logo on their uniforms yet, they might as well be considered that now.
Between their mutual visits to their shared support on social media, Ohio State and the Cavs go hand in hand. Plus, a win for the Cavs is a win for the LeBron James brand. And the Buckeyes are all about promoting their most famous fan.
As the Cavs prepare for a third straight appearance on basketball’s biggest stage, a football program 150 miles south will be watching with a vested interest.
And as for Lue’s refusal to take part in Ohio State’s favorite battle cry, fear not, Ohio State fans. J.R. Smith has you covered.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) May 18, 2017