Michael Kim's US Sport column: LeBron James isn't the only one returning to Cleveland - but don't expect Big Z to feel the Heat

Michael Kim, host of ESPN America’s SportsCenter, looks at LeBron James’ return to Cleveland...

Emotions are sure to be running high in Cleveland on Thursday when a player who was once loved unconditionally by Cavaliers fans returns for his first game since taking his talents to the Miami Heat.

'It’s going to be a hard, emotional game,' said LeBron James in a recent interview with Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com. 'I know that.'

Enlarge   Super six: LeBron James (left) goes for the dunk against Dallas at the weekend

Super six: LeBron James (left) goes for the dunk against Dallas at the weekend

He participated in more games than any other player in Cavaliers franchise history.  So beloved by the fans during his playing days there that the team renamed the home arena in his honour for one game last season. 

He claims he will always consider himself a Clevelander despite his decision to leave the city in order to pursue a championship.

Returning home: Giant Miami centre Zydrunas Ilgauskas (left)

Returning home: Giant Miami centre Ilgauskas (left)

But it wasn’t his choice. 

Zydrunas Ilgauskas wanted to end his career in Cleveland. The seven-footer from Lithuania played for parts of 13 NBA seasons there.

However, the team showed little interest in retaining a player they had already traded during last season – only to have him return when late-season injuries depleted the team’s front line.

So, it was off to Miami, where the news of his signing there received as little fanfare as his return to Cleveland this week.

Big Z also revealed to ESPN.com that he continues to follow the Cavaliers by reading their articles and box scores and remains in contact with former team-mates and staffers – something a fellow former member of the Cavaliers now playing for the Heat would probably not admit to doing.

In the meantime, the veteran center has played a much larger than expected role with the injury-depleted Heat.  

Ilgauskas, 35, has been around long enough to know that even a sub-zero, winter breeze off Lake Erie would serve as no match for the deep freeze inside Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night.

Idol threat: LeBron James was once worshipped as Cleveland's No 23

Idol threat: James was once worshipped as Cleveland's No 23

'The reality is that I’m playing for the Miami Heat now and our team is going to get a harsh reception,' said Miami’s starting center.

Whatever chilly response comes his team’s way, little of the anger will be directed toward Ilgauskas, who may actually receive a warm welcome home, in contrast to the boos, jeers and vitriol directed at another certain former Cavalier. 

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Under normal circumstances, the return of LeBron James would be enough drama for one evening. But LeBron just wouldn’t be LeBron if he didn’t tote a triple-double dose of Shakespearean subplots with him. 

There’s talk of locker room unrest and buzz about a possible coaching change to go along with the less-than-spectacular results on the floor and in the standings.   

But for one game and one night, one player will be thrilled about his chance to play again in front of a fan base that once adored him – and vice-versa.

'The fans have meant so much to me over the years and that will never change,' says Ilgauskas, making certain that not all the emotions in Cleveland Thursday night will be negative.

Michael Kim

Michael Kim is the host of SportsCenter, ESPN America’s flagship US sports news programme, now airing in the UK on ESPN America every weekday morning live from 6:00am with an updated show at 10:30pm.

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