Zydrunas Ilgauskas: The Ups and Downs of the New Mr. Cavalier
Ilgauskas, who recently became the team's all-time leader in games played (724), has endured a career that has become an paradoxical mix of success and failure, pain and joy, and tragedy and exhilaration.
Since being selected by the Cavs in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft, the then-gangly Lithuanian youngster has become a consummate professional and one of the few true "nice guys" in professional sports.
Today, the bald, slow-footed Cavs reserve is loved by the franchise's fanbase not only due to his steady basketball contribution of points (14.2 career average), rebounds (7.8), blocks (1.7), high free throw percentage (78 percent), and the occasional Jason Kidd-esque pass, but also because of his amiable personality, dedication to Cleveland, and perseverance through a difficult yet rewarding stint with the Cavaliers.
Big Z's laundry list of unfortunate mishaps begins with the seemingly endless foot injuries and surgeries that hounded him early in his career and forced him to miss the 1996-'97 and '99-'00 seasons entirely while also limiting him to action in just five games during the '98-'99 campaign.
The same nagging foot problems again relegated Ilgauskas to a long-term position on the bench in the '00-'01 season after 24 games.
Equipped with almost as much metal in his feet as bone, Ilgauskas has since been surprisingly durable, playing in over 60 games in each of his past eight seasons (equally surprising is the fact that a post-foot injury Z once admitted that he was the only player on Cleveland's roster who never wears ankle braces).
The early 2000s were not only rough for Ilgauskas. The Cavs were the doormat of the NBA and struggled with attendance nightly. The contrasting personalities and playing styles of players like Z, Shawn Kemp, and Ricky Davis led to one of the bleakest periods of Cavaliers basketball.
Ilgauskas' roller coaster of a career can possibly be best exemplified in the year of 2003, when he was selected as an NBA All-Star, but his languishing Cavaliers crawled to a league-worst 17-65 record. However, in one of the rare moments in the sun for Cleveland sports, the Cavs obtained the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft and selected LeBron James. One of the greatest duos in Cavaliers history was formed.
The next handful of seasons saw James, Ilgauskas, and their Cavs rise to respectability (along with another All-Star selection for Ilgauskas in 2005).
After the '05-'06 season, Cleveland finally made the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed. The Cavs nearly knocked off the mighty Detroit Pistons in the conference semifinals before succumbing in a Game Seven blowout.
Things were looking up for Z and the Cavaliers. Then, in February 2007, Ilgauskas went through what he called the most difficult experience of his life.
Ilgauskas' wife, Jennifer, went into premature labor and delivered stillborn twins.
This unimaginable tragedy and low point in Ilgauskas' NBA tenure was quickly followed by an emotional high (did I mention Z's career has been a bit up-and-down?) when the Cavs upset the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals and earned the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals.
James, who single-handedly carried Cleveland to the '07 Finals, ecstatically leaped into Ilgauskas' arms immediately following the final horn in that series. Overcome with emotion, the two said that they loved each other during the exchange.
Now, as the large Lithuanian inches closer and closer to retirement, he's going through yet another high/low moment.
Anticipating to break the aforementioned record for games played in a Cavaliers uniform in a Nov. 28 contest against the Mavericks, Z was promptly benched by head coach Mike Brown and didn't enter the game.
Ilgauskas has said that Brown's decision did indeed upset him—a justifiable reaction to the unnecessary delay of one of what was undoubtedly one of the most proud moments in Ilgauskas' life.
Ilgauskas broke the record four nights later when the Cavs played the Suns in Cleveland. Upon entering the game, Z earned an overdue ovation from the appreciative home crowd.
The people to whom Ilgauskas has so deeply endeared himself helped make that moment an emotional one for the big guy, who described it as "the closest I've come to tears on a basketball court."
Ilgauskas is in the twilight of a career that will surely end in his No. 11 jersey being hoisted among the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena. Basketball fans may remember him for his mile-long injury list, ultra-smooth jump shot, or maybe simply for his odd, multi-syllabic name (which Hubie Brown still can't correctly pronounce).
But Cleveland sports fans will certainly remember Z in a much more fond, close way once he has left the game. Not unlike the fans of the downtrodden midwestern city, Ilgauskas has been through the best of times and the worst of times.
This season, the Cavaliers appear to be on their way to (at the very least) a top four seed in the East and are considered by many as legit contenders for the NBA championship.
Cavaliers center Shaquille O'Neal—the man who replaced Ilgauskas in Cleveland's starting lineup this year—stated that he wanted to "win a ring for the king" upon his signing with the team. However, it's overwhelmingly evident that "King James" may not be the most deserving player of a championship on the Cavs' roster.
In a year already marred with another disappointing moment for Ilgauskas, winning an NBA title would unquestionably be the most appropriate next (and perhaps last) step in the career of one of the most likeable, talented, loyal, and consistent players in Cavaliers history.
Cavs, if you're going to win it all for anyone, do it for Z.
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