CLEVELAND -- The tribute began long before tip-off and didn't end even after the final horn. It was emotional, comedic, slightly over-the-top.
And straight from the heart.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas will never forget it.
"It was something I'll remember for a long time," Ilgauskas said. "It's probably one of my favorite experiences as a Cavalier."
Cleveland welcomed back its adored center on Sunday, honoring the big man best known as "Z" throughout the Cavaliers' 97-90 win over the undermanned Sacramento Kings, who nearly wrecked the celebration with a gutty performance that came up just short.
LeBron James scored 23 of his 34 points in the second half, Antawn Jamison added 26 and the Cavs finally put away the pesky Kings in the closing minutes to cap a day when Ilgauskas returned to the only home court he has known as an NBA player.
Afterward, the humble, gentle giant said he was overwhelmed by the public display of affection.
"I didn't know that's what it was going to turn into, Z day," said Ilgauskas, who re-signed with Cleveland earlier this week after being traded to Washington in February for Jamison. "I'm sure people appreciate what I've done and stood for all these years and I appreciate what they've done for me and my family.
"It's been a great ride."
It's not over.
Ilgauskas finished with just four points and six rebounds in 22 minutes, but those numbers hardly mattered. What was most important for Cleveland fans was seeing the beloved No. 11 back on the floor, the Cavs' floor. Starting in pregame warmups, they cheered his every move.
When the 7-foot-3 center checked in with 4:02 left in the first, fans gave him a standing ovation, raising "Z" placards with his likeness on them and filling Quicken Loans Arena -- "The Q" which was renamed "The Z" for the day in Ilgauskas' honor -- with the familiar chant of "Zeeeeeeeee."
Ilgauskas raised his hand to acknowledge the cheers, which grew at the end of the first when he grabbed a miss by James and laid it in.
"I haven't been nervous before a basketball game in a long time," he said. "Today I was. The kids stayed away from me because I was a little testy. I just wanted to get here and start playing because it's been a long time."
While touched by the day's emotion, James said he and his teammates had a little fun with their tallest teammate.
"We kind of laughed and joked that it was probably the second-most anticipated comeback besides when [Michael] Jordan retired," James said. "It was a circus for Z -- a good circus. I think these fans and Z definitely have something they cherish in one another."
If not for James, the party would have been spoiled.
With Cleveland leading by four, James made a crucial 3-pointer with 2:02 left as the 24-second clock expired and then had a rebound and steal to help seal it for the Cavs, who have won 28 straight games against teams with losing records. Cleveland played without forward Anderson Varejao, who is nursing a sore left hamstring.
Beno Udrih had his first career triple-double (18 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds) for the Kings, who because of injuries dressed only nine players and then lost forward Dominic McGuire in the first quarter with a foot injury.
But despite being short-handed, the Kings didn't lay down.
"I was really proud of our team," coach Paul Westphal said. "We were playing with one guard [Udrih] and one center [Jason Thompson] and really seven players and I thought we got a phenomenal effort from a lot of people. We're very proud of our team."
Sacramento only trailed by two entering the fourth and a basket by Udrih -- the team's first field goal in nearly six minutes -- brought the Kings within 94-90. That's when James, the clear front-runner to win a second straight league MVP, dropped his big 3.
"He's just a great player," Udrih said of James, who added eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals. "I can't really give him enough credit. He does everything: rebounds, pushes the ball, finds his teammates. A lot of people still think he can't shoot. But he knocked down big shots."
Thompson added 16 points and 14 rebounds for Sacramento.
It's been a strange, emotional season for Ilgauskas.
He lost his starting job when the team traded for center Shaquille O'Neal last summer. In November, on the night he was expected to set the Cavs' record for games played against Dallas, Ilgauskas was inexplicably benched by coach Mike Brown. Then came the trade, a move that pained Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry, a close friend of Ilgauskas'.
Ilgauskas never played for the Wizards. Instead, he bought out his contract, and despite feeling somewhat betrayed and being courted by several other teams, he decided to return to Cleveland, signing a deal for the remainder of this season.
When he was gone, Cleveland fans wrote letters and e-mails to Ilgauskas and the club, urging the Cavaliers to re-sign him. Ilgauskas said the lovefest contributed to his return, along with the fact that the believes Cleveland can win an NBA title.
He doesn't have any hard feelings.
"I don't hold any grudges," he said. "What happens, happens and I move on. I've been through a lot worse stuff in my life. I'm not that kind of person. Treat everybody the same way I want to be treated. That's it."
The playoffs are approaching, and Ilgauskas feels this season could finally be the one Cleveland ends sitting on top.
"I always thought that if you knock on the door long enough, at some point it's going to open," he said. "We've been knocking on it for a while. Something feels special about this year, at least for me."
Jamison topped 17,000 career points in the second quarter. He is the 12th active player to reach the plateau. ... It was Westphal's 500th game. He dropped to 291-209. ... The Kings fell to 2-8 without rookie Tyreke Evans, who is out with a concussion. ... The Cavs went 10-0 against the Pacific Division.
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