CLEVELAND: Three years, seven months and 27 days after “The Decision” and “The Letter,” LeBron James walked into Quicken Loans Arena to celebrate a part of Cleveland.
Forget tampering. James’ appearance at Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ jersey retirement ceremony Saturday night wasn’t tampering. It was the end to months — years — of hard work spent repairing a relationship that was previously detonated in one night.
The man wearing the tool belt all these years was there Saturday, too, a quiet spectator and now former employee lost as just another face in the massive crowd honoring a dear friend. Chris Grant spent the past three-plus years mending this relationship on both sides, then took a seat Saturday night on the Cavs’ bench next to James for Ilgauskas’ ceremony Saturday.
Yes, James spent the ceremony sitting on the Cavs’ bench next to the general manager who was fired a month ago, while the Cavs players sat along the baseline after leaving the locker room and watched. You can’t make this stuff up.
Grant and James laughed and chatted throughout the speeches, snapping pictures of Ilgauskas and his plaque, then took more pictures as his honorary jersey was raised for the first time.
As Ilgauskas left the floor, he thumped James on the chest, then his wife, Jennifer, hugged James on her way out.
The fact James could walk into the Q and listen to a speech from Dan Gilbert at center court, just 3½ years after the two managed to set the organization on fire, is nothing short of remarkable.
How did we get here? Follow along.
James is represented by his close friend Rich Paul, who also happens to be Tristan Thompson’s agent. Paul is also the man who called Grant on the night of July 8, 2010, and told him LeBron wasn’t coming back to Cleveland. Five minutes later, James went on national television and told everyone else himself.
At the time, Paul wasn’t James’ agent, just a close friend and one of the “R’s” in James’ LRMR marketing firm. The agent thing came later. But despite all the shots fired in Gilbert’s epic letter, Grant and Paul remained close. Having Thompson on the team kept the lines of communication open, then Paul conveniently took James as a client.
In order for LeBron to entertain the idea of some day returning to Cleveland, Grant had to repair that relationship. That’s what made the Yahoo Sports story a few weeks ago misguided. Grant was portrayed in it as the scapegoat, the bumbling general manager who missed on so many top picks in the draft and squandered away any chance at James returning.
In truth, Grant’s relationship with Paul was the launching point to any reasonable thought about James ever coming home.
Now Grant is gone and Ilgauskas, the man James adores, the man for whom he made this highly unusual trip, will likely be next. It’s an open secret in certain circles that Ilgauskas is unhappy in his role with the Cavs. He was the assistant to the general manager, only that general manager is gone.
Ilgauskas has become a ghost at Cavs games, rarely spotted around Cleveland Clinic Courts or the Q since Grant was fired. It’s what made Saturday’s ceremony so surreal. There remains palpable unhappiness from Ilgauskas toward certain facets of the organization, yet all that was put aside and the halftime show with no budget went off as planned Saturday night.
There was a touching video tribute of Z’s career, speeches from Wayne Embry, Gilbert and Ilgauskas himself. Friends and former players lined the entrance as Ilgauskas walked on and off the floor.
It was such a production and involved so many moving parts that it required a midweek practice run just to make sure all the key parties knew of their responsibilities. Michael Jordan didn’t even get this type of treatment from the Bulls when his jersey was retired.
It’s no coincidence how this night was chosen. The Cavs, and specifically Grant, carefully selected this date. The Heat were off for the previous two nights and happened to be in Chicago, just a short flight away. The New York Knicks, and by extension a larger-than-usual visiting media contingent, just happened to be in town. That’s what made this the perfect night for what was perhaps the first gigantic step toward James’ return to this franchise.
It was all the intricate planning of the former general manager, who was the architect for this ceremony and James’ role in it months ago. The rest of us didn’t figure it out until last week.
As for Ilgauskas’ future, no one really expects Z to return to this role next season.
He made more than $124 million in his career, so he certainly isn’t working for the money. Ilgauskas remains incredibly close to Grant and will probably move on to something else next year.
Yes, the Cavs underachieved this season. Yes, Grant tried feverishly for the past two years, but could never find that second star to pair with Kyrie Irving and ultimately serve as the bait to lure James back to the Cavs.
But the Cavs privately believe it’s not too late. They still have the assets to pull off a mammoth trade this summer at the draft, the type Grant tried so hard to make. Kevin Love will be entering the final year of his contract, as will LaMarcus Aldridge. Grant tried for two years to unsuccessfully pry both stars out of their current cities, but each had too many years left on their contracts for their current teams to consider it. That’s no longer true.
If either the Minnesota Timberwolves or Portland Trail Blazers come to the conclusion they can’t re-sign their stars, this summer is the time to move them and the Cavs will be at the front of the line, stocked with young players and future draft picks.
After the ceremony ended, James lingered on the floor. He gave Daniel Gibson a hug and greeted Delonte West. Then the three former teammates posed for a picture, along with former assistant coach Melvin Hunt.
I repeat, James and West posed for a picture together on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena.
The entire night was strange, surreal and electric. The picture of former teammates was a striking memory to the franchise’s glory days, when players laughed, danced and pretended to pose for pictures during pregame introductions — and even during those lopsided blowouts.
And when it was over, LeBron climbed onto his charter flight and flew to meet his team in Chicago, returning to the life he chose four years ago. The Cavs have been busy preparing for the moment when he’ll come back and sit on their bench again.
Is it a fantasy? It might certainly appear that way from the outside, but inside the walls of Cleveland Clinic Courts there is a strong belief they will be in the discussion this summer, that maybe, just maybe, LeBron James will fly to Cleveland again and sit on their bench next season.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.