Zydrunas Ilgauskas: What's Next for Big Z?

Michael HammonsCorrespondent IJune 19, 2010

PHOENIX - DECEMBER 21:  Zydrunas Ilgauskas #11 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a free throw shot during the NBA game against of the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on December 21, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 109-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After watching the Lakers win the title, and observing the euphoria from the podium, I couldn't help but think what a moment like that would have meant for not just the Cavaliers, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas, in particular.

While everyone would've been discussing the impact of a title on LeBron's legacy, and running with that storyline, I would like to think that the team, in some way, shape, or form, would have taken that moment to recognize the contributions, sacrifices, and personal hell that big Z went through for the Cavaliers organization.

Barring extreme circumstances, Ilgauskas will never experience the joys of raising that trophy, or feeling the postgame confetti rain down on him.  However, he carries something that is worth just as much.  He will go down as one of the most beloved Cleveland athletes of all time, a man who spent his entire career with one team, and gave them everything he had.

In many ways, he has embodied the spirit of the city, with his "never say die" attitude.  Everyone knows the story with him.  Early in his career, he couldn't stay healthy.  The foot injuries were derailing his career, as he essentially missed two full seasons, and big parts of a third one.

Already financially secure for life, he could have said "to hell with this," sat at home and played Xbox, or whatever busted up athletes end up doing, but he persevered.  Following an experimental foot surgery in 2001, he actually ended up being one of the more durable big men in the league, rarely missing time due to injury.

That wasn't the end of his troubles, though.  In 2007, his wife gave birth to stillborn twins.  He has also dealt with fits of insomnia.  Imagine dealing with giants such as Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming on only three or four hours of sleep a night?

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On the court, Ilgauskas played with a quiet, calm demeanor, displaying an effective inside-outside game with an underrated defensive prowess.  He was never one for theatrics or yucking it up, as he went about his business in a professional manner. 

However, don't mistake that for not caring. He wasn't afraid to mix it up once in awhile and get confrontational, when the situation called for it.  A brief skirmish in 2004 with Greg Ostertag proved that point, and was actually a turning point for Cleveland as it went on to win that night.

Probably his biggest moment occurred when the Cavs won the 2007 Eastern Conference Championship.  It was great to see Ilgauskas finally get a chance to play in the finals.  It wasn't to be for the Cavs, but he was a key role player in helping them get there.

The acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal this past season, the Antawn Jamison trade, and general old age reduced his role in the latter half of the season.  He had very little impact on the playoffs, as there were nights when he didn't even get off the bench.  Instead of complaining, he handled it with class and cheered on his teammates.

He may re-sign for another year, he may not.  That is still very much up in the air.  I know this will get lost in the LeBron free agency hype, which obviously will alter the course of the franchise one way or another. 

For those who need a break from the madness, though, I think now is the proper time to reflect on the era of Zydrunas Ilgaukas, as we may not be seeing much of him anymore.  That is, until they raise his numbers up in the rafters of the "Q."

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