"The first question they all asked him was, 'How tall are you?' " said teacher Dorothy Helwig last week. "They were absolutely amazed by his height. He showed them that he couldn't get through the door without ducking his head."
McIlvaine paid a visit to Webster School on Monday, appearing at the school to actually read to the students as part of both the "Read Across America" tribute to Dr. Seuss and as part of the NBA's Team-Up for Reading and the Nets' "Reading Time-Out" program.
But before he read a word, he had to answer the question of the day. McIlvaine registers in at 7-foot-1 and 265 pounds.
"That's usually the first thing kids want to know when they meet me," McIlvaine said.
But he's more than just a very tall man who plays professional basketball. McIlvaine is a conscientious young man, a father of two (a 3-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl) whom absolutely loves to be with kids and wants to express the importance of education to all students, even at an early age.
"It's hard to relay that message so that second graders can understand it, but it still is important," said McIlvaine, a native of Racine, Wis. who graduated from Marquette University before moving on to the NBA. "They have to know that they're experiencing a special time in their lives and that they are receiving a great education. I try to tell them something that they can relate to."
That's why McIlvaine's visit to the students was more important than just a gentle giant reading a few Dr. Seuss books. He made an impact with his height and his profession, but he left an indelible mark with his demeanor and approach.
"He was such a nice guy with the kids," said Webster School Principal Arthur Palumbo. "He was charitable with his time and the kids all reacted so well to him. It was just a nice, generous act. He was also very personable with the kids and handled himself so well."
Helwig, who organized the visit by writing a letter to the Nets' community affairs department, agreed.
"He was excellent with the kids," said Helwig, who also was able to bring Devils' television announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick to the school earlier this year. "He didn't just read to the kids. He told them that they should eat right, clean their plate, eat their vegetables. He told them that they should clean their rooms and listen to their teachers and parents."
Added Helwig, "A lot of the teachers told me how impressed they were with the way Jim handled the kids. He said that he could relate to children because he has children of his own."
McIlvaine makes several appearances at schools on behalf of the Nets each year. Last Monday, he visited two other schools as well as paying a visit to Webster School. Teammates Stephen Jackson (North Bergen), Keith Van Horn (Guttenberg) and Sherman Douglas (Hoboken) also made appearances in Hudson County to read to youngsters.
"It really is a lot of fun for me and I know how important it is to the kids," McIlvaine said. "I remember when I was their age, we had the local weatherman, Jim Ott, from Channel 4 in Milwaukee, come to school, and I was impressed. I can only imagine what this meant to these kids."
Added McIlvaine, "The kids were excellent. They were very attentive and they were willing to share their experiences with me. I thought it was great that they could identify with me and talk to me. They asked me questions about myself, so that showed that they were paying attention."
Not that the kids had a choice, what with a seven-foot giant staring down at them.
"I was impressed by the kids," said McIlvaine, who is currently on the Nets' injured reserve list with a shoulder injury. "You never know what you say that might stick in their heads forever, so you have to make sure that you say the right thing. People think that reading in public is easy, but it's not as easy as it seems. But it's a lot of fun for me to go out and meet the kids. I'm glad I'm able to do it."
McIlvaine told Helwig that he would be glad to return again some other time.
"And we'd be glad to have him," Helwig said. "I think it was great for the kids."