As a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, I love Zydrunas Ilgauskas. You should too! Here's why:
The Cavaliers drafted Kaunas, Lithuania native Zydrunas Ilguaskas in 1996, back when the team was a collection of well-coached, blue collar semi-stiffs that were just good enough to make the playoffs each year, yet bad enough to be eliminated in the first round every single time. That was a pretty crappy formula, and the Cavs brass knew it. Here they were, the leftover scraps from the salad days of Price, Daugherty, Nance, Hot Rod and Ehlo, playing in an widely unpopular, brand spanking new arena, going nowhere fast, and wearing the worst uniforms in the NBA. Drafting the 7'3" center (along with the 6'11" Vitaly "Ukraine Train" Potopenko) was meant to give the Cavs an inside presence that would fill the void left by perennial all-star Brad Daugherty when a spinal injury cut Daugherty's career short.
Nobody knew much about Ilguaskas at the time, except that he was tall, gangly, pasty and, according to scouting reports, had all the "skills" to be an proficient NBA player. In NBA Draft parlance, that translates roughly into the common tongue as "will probably never amount to anything." Not that we'd get the chance to see how well we had spent the 20th pick, because however blessed he was with height and athleticism, Ilgauskas was cursed twofold with the feet of a 123-year-old with a calcium deficiency. He had his first foot operation before he ever put on a Cavs uniform, and wouldn't be ready to play NBA basketball until the 1997-98 season. That year he played all 82 games, averaging 14 points and 9 rebounds for a young playoff team and looked every bit the anchor a legitimate squad needs in the middle. With his quickness and agility (oh yes, there was a time when he was quick and agile), a soft shooting touch and rebounding ability, there was no reason to think Z wouldn't be the Cavs starting center for the next dozen years.
Then the trouble with Z's crispy, crunchy feet really began, and with it came the demise of the once promising team. Z would miss the better part of the next four seasons with foot injuries that required another four surgeries. The last one had the big man mulling retirement at the ripe old age of 25, a year after he had signed a six-year contract that would pay him more money than I could possibly earn in 10,000 lifetimes. Ilguaskas could easily have called it a career and spent the rest of his life living like a god. No one would have blamed him, really, not after an endless cycle of injury, surgery, rehab, injury, etc. Any professional athlete will tell you that the process of coming back from an operation is long and punishing. Even when you are healthy enough to play, it takes weeks or months to regain your top form, if you ever do. Big Z never did quite regain the speed and footwork that had him running up and down the court, even leading fast breaks, when he entered the league. Growing up he had been a point guard, until a growth spurt turned him into a 7'3" guy. The surgeon's blade then turned him into a earthbound plodder who was still good enough to start on a team that would go all the way to the NBA finals in 2007. Ah, but Cavs fans and teammates will never really know what could have been. Those four lost years and all those fractures really cost him, and us.
That's why Z's breaking the Cavaliers team record for games played tonight against Phoenix is so remarkable. His last foot operation was a new and controversial procedure that involved a combination of tiny screws, krazy glue, spit, velcro and 1.21 gigawatts of electricity. It worked so well that he became, astonishingly, one of the most durable players in the NBA. Part man, part machine, Ilgauskas blossomed into a two-time all-star and one of the best centers of his era.
However, not all was well at Gund Arena. The team he came back to had somehow metamorphosed into a laughingstock. After that playoff season in '98, all-star forward Shawn Kemp traded fame and glory for fast food and cocaine. While Z rehabbed, Kemp was ballooning into an amorphous blob with all the athleticism of a tub of mayonnaise. Cast off was one set of young players, replaced with fools gold like Ricky Davis and Darius Miles. Through it all, Z played. The horrific teambuilding strategy, orchestrated by the great Jim Paxson, culminated in a 17-win season in 2002-2003, just bad enough to earn the first pick in the 2003 draft, also known as LeBron James.
Along the road to that low point, Z was steadily earning the adoration of fans who appreciated a guy who always worked hard, played right and never once complained about Ricky Davis and Darius Miles chucking up shots that mostly missed. Losses mounted. Z played. Fans stayed away. Z played. He was rewarded by ending up on what has become one of the most formidable teams of the decade, and certainly the best in Cavs history. This record is great, yes, but there's no beating the embrace that Z and LeBron shared when the final buzzer sounded in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Cavs advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time ever. This year, the Cavs have another legitimate chance at the title. When they brought in an even older Shaquille O'Neal to replace Big Z as the starting center, Ilgauskas didn't bitch or whine. He kept playing, as he has done, almost uninterrupted, for the past 9 years.
Z's career has been of particular interest to me because we're exactly the same age, and more than any other Cavs player, I have followed him. Alex and I were in Cleveland, at Quicken Loans Arena, when he was slated to break the record. Inexplicably, unforgivably, coach Mike Brown chose NOT TO PLAY HIM on what was to be his record breaking night, when his family was in attendance, when 20,000 fans were ready to stand up and cheer for a guy who for 14 years had gone through everything good and bad a professional athlete can go through, when Z himself declared a couple of days before that this was the record that meant the most to him, more than his team record for rebounds or blocked shots, when years of hard work and loyalty were about to pay off in the form of a landmark that no one, NO ONE, would have given him a chance to break ten years ago. It was the first time in Z's career that he was available to play and was benched. If ever there was a call for a WTF, this is it. Z was hurt bad by that mind-boggling benching. He was right to be. Thanks, coach Brown, for taking a piss on that particularly important moment.
So Z had to wait another few days to break the record--held by former teammate and good friend Danny Ferry--at home against the awful, awful (yes, I say awful) Phoenix Suns. Not only did Big Z break the record, he did it in style. His team-high 14 points off the bench (and in thumping victory over that crap team) bumped him into third place on the Cavs all-time scoring list, ahead of Austin Carr and behind LeBron James and Brad Daugherty. That's damned good company to be in. Here is a brief, emotional interview that basically sums up what Cleveland and the Cavs mean to him:
I look forward to seeing Ilguaskas' no. 11 raised to the rafters of Quicken Loans arena one day. He will retire (hopefully not after this season) as the Cavs leader in games played, rebounds, blocked shots, and he will be second in points scored when he surpasses Daugherty sometime this year. All that's missing is the ring.
In honor of Big Z's big accomplishment, McBone declares that December 2nd will henceforth be known as Zydrunas Ilgauskas Day.
McBone and Cleveland thank you, Big Z, for keeping Cleveland basketball afloat in the dark times and bringing us to the brink of a title. As it turns out, you were the starting center for the next dozen years, and, with apologies to LeBron, I am glad to have been a Witness.