Miami Heat star forward LeBron James no longer plays for the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003, but he's expected to be in attendance when the Cleveland Cavaliers send Zydrunas Ilgauskas' jersey into the rafters.
Update: Thursday, March 6 at 8:20 p.m. ET
The Miami Heat brass has given LeBron the go-ahead to attend the ceremony, ESPN reported Thursday. Ilgauskas also reached out to Heat assistant coach Ron Rothstein, who sat on the Cavs' bench during the center's tenure.
"I think it's an incredible night; it was very touching that Big Z would reach out to Ronnie," Eric Spoesltra said. "We have the ultimate respect for Big Z and we view him as a Miami Heat guy even though he's as much of a Cleveland Cavaliers as Udonis Haslem is to us. For that one year, you could see why they view him as so special."
While ESPN reports that James plans to charter a plane to Cleveland for the event and return to Chicago shortly thereafter, James' comments to the Palm Beach Post on Thursday suggest the plan is probable, but not yet set in stone.
“It’s looking like I may be able to make it, still not quite sure, but if I can I would love to be there to support him and be there for one unforgettable night,” James said before facing San Antonio.
While LeBron finalizes the logistics of his jaunt to Cleveland, the Cavaliers have already designed and unveiled the visual for the ceremony.
Update: Tuesday, March 4 at 10:30 a.m. ET
"I want to be there, but we'll see. I'm not sure just yet," James said. "But I think it's going to be a great day for my friend, a real dear friend of mine. And I'm excited for him."
--End of update--
Per Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer:
James is expected to be (in Cleveland) this weekend when the Cavaliers retire Ilgauskas' No. 11 jersey on Saturday night. He will not have a speaking role in the ceremony, but wanted to be here for his friend. The Miami Heat do not play on Saturday and are at Chicago on Sunday.
The two were teammates during LBJ's seven seasons in Cleveland and for one more in Miami before "Big Z" retired in 2011.
LeBron still holds his good friend in the highest esteem, per Schmitt Boyer:
I talk to Z very often, probably once or twice a month. He meant everything to me. When you come in as a rookie you try to find a leader, that veteran, that guy who's been around to learn the ropes from. He taught me how to be a professional on and off the floor. That's something you cannot ever take for granted.
He was everything to me.
The 7'3" Lithuanian was named an NBA All-Star twice: in 2003 and 2005. During the 2002-03 season, when he earned the first All-Star nod of his career, Ilgauskas averaged 17.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
Despite his success, the talented big man nearly had his career cut short by nagging foot injuries. He missed the entire 1999-00 season as a result of the ailment, but underwent a procedure to reposition the bones as a means of redistributing his weight—the same operation Brooklyn Nets' center Brook Lopez had this year, per CBS Sports' Ken Berger.
Although he experienced a major career setback, Z was able to return to the court and play 11 more seasons after surgery, which is truly a remarkable feat.
With James expected to be in attendance as a means of supporting his friend, however, it will be interesting to see what type of reception he gets from the Cavs' faithful.
As Stepien Rules' Brendan Bowers writes:
There could be a contingent of fans who appreciate James paying homage to a Cavaliers' legend like Z who is universally loved and celebrated on the night his jersey is being retired. There could also be other fans who are upset to find out that he's there.
While many Cleveland fans likely still hold animosity toward James, his presence shouldn't override the primary purpose: honoring an all-time Cavs great.
Ilgauskas is the franchise's all-time leader in games played (771), rebounds (5,904) and blocks (1,269). He also ranks second on the Cavs' all-time scoring list with 10,616 points—trailing only James, who scored 15,251 in a Cavaliers uniform.
In the midst of a disappointing season marred with negatives, Z's ceremony should be a welcome distraction for Cavaliers fans.