Zydrunas Ilgauskas awaits reaction
MIAMI -- A former Cleveland favorite is about to return to his former home for the first time as an opponent, a bit eager to find out what sort of reception he'll receive when fans see him wearing Miami Heat colors.
We're not talking LeBron James, of course.
Windhorst: Man In The Middle
On Thursday, when LeBron James faces his former Cleveland fan base, Zydrunas Ilgauskas will likely get a warm welcome. But "Big Z" says he's treating it like any other road game, writes Brian Windhorst. Story
Zydrunas Ilgauskas has played 391 games at Cleveland during his career. No. 392 will be like none of the others, not with fans still steamed by James' decision to leave -- and, perhaps more notably, how he revealed that decision to the world.
Time has not healed that wound just yet, and those fans are likely to make the Cleveland Cavaliers' home floor seem most unfriendly when the Heat visit Thursday night.
"To be honest with you, I don't know what to expect," Ilgauskas said. "It's my first time as a visitor. I'm not going to separate myself from the team. I'm part of the Heat now, so these are my guys and obviously we are going to get a harsh, harsh reception as a team."
It'll be a quick trip.
Miami plays at home against Detroit Wednesday night, and the Heat aren't expected to arrive at their hotel until the wee hours of Thursday morning. A walkthrough at the hotel will take place Thursday afternoon, the Heat will board buses for the arena, arrive for an 8 p.m. ET game, then get shuttled back to the airport for a flight home to Miami.
So there'll be almost no time to see old friends, check out old favorite haunts, or anything like that.
"This is going to be a unique situation," said Ilgauskas, Miami's starting center who's averaging 6.2 points for the Heat. "The biggest part that people forget, there's still a game for both teams to play that both teams want to win. We're going to have to do the best we can to focus, to block out the outside attention."
People are going to pour out their feelings. But it's still a basketball game. He didn't kill anybody. He didn't commit any crimes. I just hope nothing stupid happens.” -- Ilgauskas on LeBron James'
return to Cleveland
And there will be tons of that, of course. The Cavaliers say this game -- LeBron's return -- is generating as much media interest as an Eastern Conference finals contest.
James has been thinking for some time about the reaction he'll get: He knows he won't be cheered, but can't help but wonder how negative things will seem that night.
With Ilgauskas, it's different.
Like James, he was a free agent. Like James, he chose Miami. Unlike James, he's not going to need a security detail on Thursday. Although there surely were some Cavaliers fans who didn't want to see Ilgauskas leave, he struck nowhere nearly as deep a chord as James' decision did.
"It's going to be difficult and I think he knows that," Ilgauskas said. "It's just a lot of hatred out there right now. People are going to pour out their feelings. But it's still a basketball game. He didn't kill anybody. He didn't commit any crimes. I just hope nothing stupid happens."
It's really a second homecoming for Ilgauskas.
He is Cleveland's all-time leader in rebounds, games played and blocked shots, and was traded by the Cavaliers to Washington last February. Ilgauskas never played for the Wizards, arranged a contract buyout, then returned to the Cavs -- to a hero's welcome.
On the day he returned, fans gave him a standing ovation, many hoisting placards with "Z" on them.
This return won't be the same, which is understandable. He may have been beloved, but he's on the team Clevelanders love to hate.
"I know it's going to be a hard, emotional game," said Ilgauskas, the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian whom Cleveland drafted in 1996. "But that's life, so you cannot worry."
When Ilgauskas signed with Miami, he said he intended to keep his Cleveland-area home and retire in the city.
The comforts of home await again, then, someday. Just not Thursday.
"I hope people appreciate what I did there for 14 years," Ilgauskas said, "because I appreciate what they did for me and my family."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press