Despite a fifty year drought without a major championship, sports fans in Northeast Ohio are among the most passionate in the world. As a result of this passion, fans have embraced and supported countless athletes over the years in the hope that they would be the missing piece that could help the Cleveland Indians, Browns, or Cavaliers deliver the championship that we all so desperately craved. Some of these men, such as Albert Belle or LeBron James, were loved by the fans only for that relationship to end in a messy divorce. Others, such as Sandy Alomar, Bernie Kosar, or Mark Price developed a bond with the people of Cleveland that has stayed strong long after their careers here have ended. This weekend, the Cleveland Cavaliers will honor a man who undoubtedly belongs in the latter group when they retire of jersey of their former longtime center, Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
For those who question such an honor for a very good (but not truly great) player such as Ilgauskas, there are several arguments to be made in his favor. Remove the specific team and player from the discussion, and most people would agree that a 44 year old professional basketball franchise should retire the jersey of a player who is its all-time leader in blocks, rebounds, and games played, and is second in points scored. This is especially true when that player was also a cornerstone of the most successful run that franchise has ever had, and was arguably the second-best player on the team during the first two-thirds of that run. When that player has had a transcendent relationship with the fans the way “Z” has over the years, then that honor makes even more sense.
Ilgauskas holds a special place in the heart of many fans because of the many highs and lows they have seen the big man go through. This started right off the bat as he missed his first season after being drafted in 1996 due to a broken bone in his right foot. He followed that up with a stellar rookie campaign the following season, averaging 13.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game on his way to being named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. Indeed the future of the Cavaliers seemed especially bright on All-Star weekend in 1998 when Ilgauskas was named MVP of the Rookie Challenge while playing alongside teammates Derek Anderson, Brevin Knight, and Cedric Henderson. From there the rollercoaster of highs and lows continued.
In three seasons from 1998 to 2001, Ilgauskas played only 29 games. The 2000-2001 season was particularly frustrating as the Cavaliers started the season 15-8, but after Z was once again lost for the season, the Cavaliers completely unraveled and went 15-44 the rest of the way to finish 30-52. After groundbreaking surgery in which his foot was essentially reshaped, Ilgauskas returned to the court in 2001 and made his first All-Star Game in 2003, when he averaged a career high 17.2 points to go along with a 19.4 PER (Ilgauskas had a career PER of 18.5, higher than Rasheed Wallace, Vlade Divac, Jermaine O’Neal, and Tyson Chandler).
The drafting of LeBron James led to Ilgauskas returning to the postseason for the first time since his rookie year, and his play was essential to the Cavaliers’ success over the next few years. He also served as a mentor to young players such as James and Anderson Varejao. Besides making his second All-Star appearance in 2005, Z was an effective player in the postseason, particularly in 2007, when he had a PER of 18.0 as the Cavaliers made their first trip to the NBA Finals. Even the excitement of the biggest moment in his career (and Cavaliers history) was muted as Ilgauskas and his wife lost twin children to miscarriage during February of that season. This terrible tragedy and the pain it causes cannot be put into words, and many fans in Cleveland truly hurt for this young Lithuanian man who had become one of their own.
As his career began to head into its twilight, the Cavaliers seemed to value Ilguauskas’ contributions on the court less and less. Before the 2009-2010 season, the team traded for future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, supposedly to act as a counter to Dwight Howard, who had destroyed the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season. The fact that the Cavaliers outscored Howard’s Orlando Magic during Ilgauskas’ time on the floor during that series was ignored, as was the fact O’Neal was also at the end of his career. Rather than sulk about losing his starting spot for the first time in his career when healthy, Ilgauskas embraced O’Neal’s addition to the team in the way only a true leader would.
The hits kept coming throughout that season. When Ilgauskas had the chance to become the Cavaliers’ all-time leader in games played, head coach Mike Brown seemingly forgot to play the big man in the first half of that game, and the embarrassment caused Z to request that he not play in the second half either. While Ilgauskas broke that record in the Cavaliers’ next game, he was later traded to the Wizards for forward Antawn Jamison, a man whose tenure with the Cavaliers was highlighted by being dominated by Kevin Garnett in the playoffs, going home while injured as the team suffered through the longest losing streak in NBA history, and letting then rookie Tristan Thompson guard two players any time he shared the court with Jamison. When the Washington Wizards bought out Ilgauskas’ contract, he had several offers from other playoff teams to join them, but instead returned to the Cavaliers out of loyalty to the franchise that had deemed him expendable.
After that season ended in disappointment and a Decision by LeBron James changed the Cleveland Cavaliers forever, Ilgauskas decided to leave the only team he had ever played for, to join James and the Miami Heat. While some fans vehemently protested this choice, Z showed his class once again, taking out an ad in the Plain Dealer to thank the fans for their support and let them know how much they meant to him (to be fair, it is unlikely he fit into the Cavaliers’ plans after James left anyways). While it was uncomfortable watching him play that one season in Miami, and it didn’t get him the championship he so deserved, Ilgauskas quickly returned to the Cavaliers upon his retirement and continues to work in the front office today, while he and his wife raise their adopted twin sons in Northeast Ohio.
And that’s the story of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a good-but-not-great player who grew up in front of a group of fans, who played his heart out for them and gave everything he could to this franchise (and continues to do so today). As Brian Windhorst recently stated in an interview with Tony Rizzo of The Really Big Show, Ilgauskas is one of the fathers of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a man whose impact is not just measured by his play on the basketball court, but by the people whose lives he has touched both in and out of basketball. For that we should be proud of this adopted Clevelander and on Saturday night take a second to let him know how much we care.