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Cleveland struggles to exorcise ghost of King James

By Steve Keating

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - The specter of LeBron James continued to hang over the team he jilted as the Cleveland Cavaliers claimed a surprise season-opening win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.

While James has "taken his talents to South Beach" to form an NBA super team in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, his betrayal remains fresh in the minds of Cleveland sports fans united in their hatred for a player they once lavished with love.

Try as they might to erase all evidence of 'King James', his unwanted presence continues to linger over a franchise that has gone from being one of the NBA's biggest draws and championship contenders to one of the league's biggest question marks.

A giant billboard of James that had looked down on fans as they arrived at Quicken Loans arena has been stripped and replaced, while James' Cavaliers jersey, once the NBA's biggest seller, are as rare as palm trees in Cleveland.

Jerseys that were not burned or sent to Florida as gifts for the homeless were simply left in closets as Cavaliers fans turned their back on James, the hometown prodigy who grew up in nearby Akron but was lured away by Miami's glitz and glamour.

In pubs and bars around the Cavs arena where James was once the toast of town, you can now order a "No-Bron-Bomb" shooter while a sign out front of the Harry Buffalo assured opening night success claiming "No LeBron, No problem."

Many, including Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, still cannot bring themselves to even utter James' name while a Cleveland radio station hired a witch doctor to put a curse on the two-time NBA most valuable player.

OPEN LETTER

The comments earned Gilbert a sharp reprimand and a $100,000 fine from NBA commissioner David Stern but the Cavaliers owner refused to back away from his comments during a frank opening night discussion with the media.

"I don't regret it," Gilbert told reporters. "That letter was to the fans and supporters of the Cavaliers. It wasn't to the player (James) that left.

"Those were the feelings. If you read the letter, it (winning a championship) wasn't before Miami, it was before the player that left," Gilbert added.

Gilbert could not hide his delight at Miami's opening loss to the Celtics but jumped for joy as he watched his team score a rousing 95-87 win over Boston.

"We're all focused on the future, I'm just like every other fan to kind of just waiting see what this is going to look like," said Gilbert before the opening tipoff.

"We're trying not to focus on the past and channel all our energy and all of our emotion toward this team and the future.

"I really believe if you do that, good things are going to happen."

(Editing by John O'Brien)