Nets get glimpse of what could've been

NEWARK, N.J. -- Mikhail Prokhorov had another Russian oligarch sitting with him in the owner's box, which means two very, very, very rich men got to see and hear exactly where the loyalties of the paying customers resided on this particular afternoon.

At first, it seemed like the fans were on the side of the New Jersey Nets. They booed LeBron James during player introductions, booed him the first time he touched the ball and booed him some more as the first few minutes elapsed.

But then, as James blew past a defender and threw down a ferocious dunk, the opposite happened. The place erupted, and the cheers were definitely not for the home team.

"That's the goal, a shift," Dwyane Wade said afterward, sitting alongside his new superstar running mate who claimed he did not even notice the shift in the crowd's attitude as Miami's 101-78 victory over the Nets unfolded Sunday.

Apparently, James is so focused on his haters, he has tuned out his admirers.

"I didn't hear a shift," James said after the Heat put on a clinic in their first visit to one of the cities he spurned last summer when he chose Miami as his free-agency destination. "You hear it. There's no way you can not hear it, but it doesn't have any impact with me."

Prokhorov, who was seated with countryman Roman Abramovich, owner of the English soccer club Chelsea, departed afterward for the long flight back to Russia, but not before issuing a statement saying he had "a great time at the [first three] games and being part of all the fun. I'll be back."

It seems like eons ago, but only four months have passed since Prokhorov and Nets minority owner Jay-Z got first crack at making their sales pitch to James at the downtown Cleveland offices of James' marketing company, back when James was still viewed as more of a global icon than a national villain.

"I think Avery [Johnson] and the owner, Prokhorov, those guys, they were unbelievable. They presented something that I responded to very well, and it was a great process," James said. "It was a great meeting, and I left with a respect for this organization. [There was] nothing bad from that meeting, and nothing bad I have to say about this organization."

The Nets lost for the first time this season, receiving a reality check about how they stack up, measuring stick-wise, against one of the Eastern Conference's elite teams. And it is not a flattering reality. They allowed Miami to shoot 71 percent in the first quarter as the Heat opened up a double-digit lead they never relinquished, and they learned how fleeting their own fan support can be as those early boos turned into pro-LeBron cheers well before halftime.

"I think that's going to happen. They're going to boo, and then eventually real fans of the game appreciate somebody that's out there doing something nice, that's playing the game the right way. He started playing the game the right way, making the right plays, so then you applaud that," Miami's Eddie House said. "But haters will continue to boo, and like I said, true fans of the game understand exactly what's he's out there doing."

In the third and fourth quarters, the Nets' new home -- the place where James could have taken his talents had his decision been different -- was about as quiet as the Meadowlands used to be in the final months of last season before Prokhorov completed his purchase of the franchise.

"I did [think about it]. On the way to the game, I even mentioned it to Chris [Bosh], saying this is a point where we could have ended up," James said. "And D-Wade, if he hadn't decided to take the second bus, I'd have told him the same. But at the end of the day we're the Miami Heat team and a Miami Heat franchise that has a goal. But it did cross my mind."

The ultimate Hating on the Heat game is still more than a month away, when James takes his talents back to Cleveland on Dec. 2, and folks on the other side of the Hudson River will get an opportunity to vent their frustrations 15 days later when Miami plays New York at Madison Square Garden. You can count on the folks in midtown Manhattan being a tad bit more vehement and steadfast in expressing their feelings to James.

By then, if this first week of the NBA season is to be used as a measuring stick, the Heat should have a record somewhere in the area of 22-5, or 23-4, and there's no telling what will have unfolded in the continuing saga of "What Does the Future Hold For Carmelo Anthony?" It's unlikely, but not completely impossible, that Anthony's desire to be traded will have been fulfilled by then, and James' next visit to what he once called his favorite city, New York, could have a buzz surrounding it on the night of Dec. 17 to match what went down last Tuesday night at the season opener in Boston.

If it is the Nets who manage to acquire Melo, the date to circle on the calendar is April 3 -- the next time James, Wade and Bosh return to the Nets' temporary home until their new arena in Brooklyn (Anthony's birthplace) is built.

It remains to be seen whether the villainization and antagonization of James will have subsided by then.

"He's my great friend, one of the best friends I have, and I'm supportive of whatever happens," James said of Anthony. "My words get blown out of context so much when I'm talking about my friends, so I'll just leave it at that. Best of luck to him."

Chris Sheridan is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.

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