Zydrunas Ilgauskas Embodies What Cleveland Cavaliers Hoped to Be

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Zydrunas Ilgauskas Embodies What Cleveland Cavaliers Hoped to Be
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Saturday night was a special one in Cleveland, as the Cavaliers retired the jersey of longtime center Zydrunas Ilgauskas during a halftime ceremony of a game against the New York Knicks.

Quicken Loans Arena was decked out in the letter "Z"—the players wore "Z11" patches and fans were sporting commemorative T-shirts. His family even flew in from his native Lithuania for the festivities. Even former teammate (and Cleveland prodigal son) LeBron James flew in on his day off to pay respects to Ilgauskas.

Big Z delivered, as he always did, with a heartfelt, entertaining speech that dwarfed the tributes presented to him during the ceremony.

He is the seventh Cav to have his jersey retired, along with players Austin Carr, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Nate Thurmond, Bingo Smith and Larry Nance. It is a most deserved honor.

Statistically speaking, Ilgauskas earned his place in Cleveland's ring of honor a long time ago. The sheer volume of his accomplishments speaks for itself:

  • First in team history in games played, total rebounds, offensive rebounds and blocks.
  • Second in team history in minutes played, points and defensive rebounds.
  • Third in team history in free throws and free-throw attempts.
  • Fourth in team history in field goals, field-goal attempts and win shares.

But the man was so much more than the sum of his statistics. He will be long remembered in Cleveland for his perseverance and courage in coming back from a series of career-threatening foot injuries. 

The fact that Ilgauskas ranks so high on so many of the Cavs' career lists is doubly amazing when you consider the fact that he played just 25 games between the ages of 23 and 26 (five in 1998-99, none in 1999-00, 24 in 2000-01). That should have been the prime of his athletic career, but he could barely walk as he rehabbed from all manner of foot surgeries.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Ilgauskas thanked his doctors during his halftime speech. He also took a moment to thank former Cavs owner Gordon Gund for the patience he displayed during those injury-riddled early years: "Thank you Mr. Gund for never giving up on a skinny Lithuanian kid who spent more of his first few years on crutches than on his feet."

 

Ilgauskas' Place in Cavaliers History

In a way, Ilgauskas was a bridge between the two most significant eras in Cavs history. He joined the team in the 1997, a few years after culmination of the Lenny Wilkens era, when stars like Price and Daugherty led the Cavs to the Eastern Conference Finals. He played on the last of the Mike Fratello teams, when Cleveland was known for its almost unwatchable brand of slow-em-down, defense-heavy basketball.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Those late-'90s Cavs teams were the embodiment of that low-scoring era. Ilgauskas' first Cavs team gave up an average of 89.8 points per game; to put that into perspective, the 2013-14 Cavs give up an average of 101.5 points.

Despite playing on a team with several young, highly drafted players (Brevin Knight, Derek Anderson, Vitaly Potapenko), Ilgauskas, the No. 20 overall pick in the 1996 draft, quickly established himself as the third-leading scorer on a team led by recent superstar acquisition Shawn Kemp.

The franchise's reliance on Kemp, who quickly fell apart in Cleveland, doomed it to years of irrelevance. The team would not make the playoffs again until 2006, when Ilgauskas was 29 years old.

Of course, another star player had come around by that time and reversed Cleveland's fortunes: some kid named LeBron. By making the 2003 All-Star team, Big Z was the only Cav to be named an All-Star between Shawn Kemp (in '98) and James' first appearance (in 2005). His second and final All-Star appearance came in LeBron's first year on the team.

It comes as no surprise that Ilgauskas' best years came playing with James. He had finally moved past his early-career foot problems and had a teammate who could help him reach his potential.

The highlight of the James-Ilgauskas partnership came when they upset the favored Detroit Pistons to reach the 2007 NBA Finals. SB Nation's David Zavac recalls what it was like when Cleveland finally defeated its hated Rust Belt rival:

Anytime I would bring up how good Ilgauskas was, a quick 'yeah, he's great, until he's in a wheelchair' retort would quickly follow.

A funny thing happened, though. Ilgauskas stayed remarkably healthy, a great testament to his character and perseverance. It was incredible. He was incredible. He could score, he protected the rim some. He was a clear positive influence on the team around him. My roommate was left to stew in the corner of our freshman year dorm room at Ohio State while Ilgauskas celebrated around his Detroit Pistons and secured a spot in the NBA Finals. It was a crazy moment I never thought could happen.

A 35-year-old Big Z actually went on to join LeBron during his first season as a member of the Miami Heat. He retired after the Heat were upset by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, one season before his longtime teammate James would claim his first championship.

The fact that fans in Cleveland never held it against Ilgauskas for ending his career on that despised Heat squad speaks volumes to just how beloved he was. He quickly rejoined the Cavs in a front office capacity after retirement.

His current position with the team ensures that Zydrunas Ilgauskas' future will continue to be entwined with that of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Neither Big Z nor his legions of fans would want it any other way.

 

* All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

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