INDEPENDENCE — An upcoming ceremony may have just gotten bigger.
LeBron James could be at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night when the Cavaliers retire the No. 11 jersey of former center Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Ilgauskas, who played with James for seven years in Cleveland and another in Miami, had the Akron native on a list of former teammates he wanted to invite to the event, which will take place at halftime of a game against the New York Knicks.
James, who left Cleveland in July 2010 and can opt out of his contract with the Heat this summer, is reportedly strongly considering attending but doesn’t want to detract from Ilgauskas’ night. Miami is off Friday and Saturday and plays in Chicago on Sunday.
“I talk to ‘Z’ very often, probably once or twice a month,” James told The Plain Dealer. “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 Cavs are planning an elaborate ceremony to honor the 38-year-old Ilgauskas, who is now special assistant to the general manager — David Griffin has taken over for the fired Chris Grant — and holds franchise records for games played (771), rebounds (5,904), offensive rebounds (2,336) and blocks (1,269) while ranking second in points (10,616).
Originally the No. 20 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, the shy, Lithuania-born Ilgauskas will be the subject of an 18-minute, 3-D halftime video that will be projected onto the court.
There will also be a special pregame introduction ceremony that will combine past and present Cavs players, while all fans in attendance will receive commemorative Z11/AllforZ T-shirts.
Following the halftime video presentation, Ilgauskas’ No. 11 jersey will be hoisted to the rafters alongside those of Austin Carr, Nate Thurmond, Bobby “Bingo” Smith, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and the longtime “Voice of the Cavs,” Joe Tait.
More than four years ago, James was one of Ilgauskas’ staunchest supporters when Cavs coach Mike Brown, who is now in his second stint with the team, did not play the center on the night he was slated to break Danny Ferry’s franchise record for games played.
It was the first time Ilgauskas had not played due to a coach’s decision in his NBA career, and he quickly left the arena without talking to reporters after the Cavs beat the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 28, 2009.
Ilgauskas, who is tentatively scheduled to talk to local media members later this week about his impending jersey retirement, broke the record for games played when he came in for Shaquille O’Neal in the first quarter of a Dec. 2, 2009, game against Phoenix.
Between the Mavs game and the Suns game, James criticized Brown for not playing Ilgauskas, who had friends in town for the Dallas game and asked that no mention of the record be announced over the public address system at the Phoenix game.
“I definitely thought he should have played,” James said at a practice soon after the Dallas game. “I’m not trying to stir up anything with Coach or the organization. I don’t know who made the call, but sometimes one game is a smaller thing. What was on the line (for Ilgauskas) was way bigger than us playing the Mavericks, and that was ‘Z’ breaking the record to become the franchise leader in games played.
“I stand behind ‘Z’ and whatever ‘Z’ feels at this point in time. I definitely, if I was in control of it, would have put him in, probably would have started him. You could have easily subbed him right out and had the standing ovation from the fans with a timeout. …
“It’s a sensitive subject. I’m not one to raise havoc or raise fire into the locker room or our team, but, for me, I speak the truth. I stand behind ‘Z’ and I feel like ‘Z’ not playing wasn’t the right thing. As a friend of his, I was very upset, and I know he was, also.”
Asked Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts about not playing Ilgauskas the night he was first expected to break the record, Brown, who attributed his decision to “matchups” at that time, said, “Every blip I’ve had while I’ve coached with every player I’ve had, along with my wife, I’d like to take back. I really would.”
Asked what other players could learn from the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas, who overcame numerous foot surgeries early in his career, Brown said, “Throw basketball stuff out the window. He’s a great human being. He’s a terrific, terrific human being. I really enjoyed being around him on and off the floor in my time here.”
Brown went on to compliment Ilgauskas and his family before adding, “He’s a professional. He helped a lot of our guys while he was here, not just on the floor, but off the floor. … (The jersey retirement) is well-deserved. Hopefully, he’s looking forward to it as much as we are.”
The night he broke Ferry’s mark by appearing in his 724th game with the Cavs, Ilgauskas did not take questions from the media for one of the few times in his career.
“I’d like to thank the fans for the reception tonight,” he said. “That was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in my life. That’s the closest I’ve come to tears on the basketball floor.
“I’m not going to go into any details,” he said about not playing in the previous game. “I’m going to be a bigger man and walk away from that. I know when I go to bed at night, my conscience is clear.”
Later that season, Ilgauskas was dealt to Washington in the trade that brought Antawn Jamison to Cleveland, but eventually re-signed with Cleveland for the rest of the season after the Wizards bought him out of his contract.
Ilgauskas, who saw his dreams of winning a title in Cleveland end when the Cavs lost to Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals, played the following season with James in Miami and then retired.
“I love this team and I love my teammates,” Ilgauskas said the night he broke the franchise record for games played. “They’re like family to me. I’m going to come to work every day and try my hardest. Hopefully, we can win a championship for this city, because (the people) deserve it.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.