Editor’s note: in honor of the retirement of Big Z’s jersey this weekend, we’re going out of order. In addition, all the sites involved in #CavsRank, will be doing a profile on Ilgauskas. Here is WFNY’s profile,. While Kirk focused on the basketball side of Z’s contributions, I chose to focus on what a unique individual Z was, and his more ethereal contributions and history with the Cavaliers. Tom Pestak also contributed significantly to this article and will be posting more on Z tomorrow.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas was born in Kaunus, Lithuania, then a part of the USSR, on June 5th, 1975, when Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet Premier. Ilgauskas watched the collapse of the Soviet Union during his early teens, and when he was 14, Z’s country became the first republic to declare its independence from the USSR. Ilgauskas talked about that moment, and the corresponding Soviet invasion with Mary Schmitt Boyer in 2012, when the film, The Other Dream Team, about the 1992 Lithuanian Bronze Medal team, was released.
He [Ilgauskas] was 15 in January, 1991, when his father woke him up in the middle of the night to tell him the Russians had invaded their hometown of Vilnius, Lithuania. With air-raid sirens and car horns blaring, the family gathered around the television to watch the news. There were soldiers and tanks everywhere. One of the armored vehicles even ran over a young girl.
I was at a game during the holidays some years back, and they interviewed everyone and asked them what their favorite memory was, and Z’s answer was, “the first year we were allowed to have a Christmas tree.” Z’s career represents a bridge not just from the 90’s Mike Fratello led Cavs to the LeBron James years, but Z is also a bridge to the end of the Cold War and the first wave of basketball players from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc to play in the NBA.
The Plain Dealer’s Mary Scmitt Boyer penned a nice bio, this morning, on Z.
He grew up in Lithuania. His father was a bus driver. His mother was an engineer who suffered from diabetes. A former soccer and volleyball player who also played point guard, Ilgauskas went through a growth spurt as a teenager and decided to concentrate on basketball, his country’s national sport.“It still is like a religion back home,” Ilgauskas once said. “We say all the boys have to play basketball in Lithuania, and if they’re not good enough, they go on to do smaller things — like [be] doctors and lawyers.”
Though he harbored hopes of attending an American college like Georgia Tech or Alabama, after a downturn in the Lithuanian economy, he turned pro to support his parents and younger sister, Zivile. Instead of playing for a U.S. college, he played exhibition games against them with his national team, which is how the Cavaliers discovered him in a game against Kentucky.
After being drafted out of Lithuania in 1996, Z spent his first year on the injured list tending to his oft-injured right foot. In 1997-1998, Ilgauskas returned and started 81 games for a Cavs team that featured pre-lockout Shawn Kemp, Chuck Person, four rookies (Ilgauskas, Derek Andersen, Brevin Knight, and Cedrick Henderson), and second year man Vitaly Potapenko. All of the rookies were 22, save Anderson, who was 23 . Fratello’s team had four rookies in its top six players receiving minutes, with Potapenko seventh in minutes. Z finished third in minutes, third in scoring, second in rebounds, and first in blocks for that team. Ilgauskas made the all-rookie first team, along with Brevin Knight. (Henderson and Anderson made the second team). After that breakout season, the Cavs signed Ilgauskas to a six year, $70.9 million dollar extension.
Five games into his second season, Z broke his foot against Miami. After waiting for the foot to heal on it’s own, in a boot, for six months, Z decided to have his right foot reshaped by Dr. Mark Myerson of Baltimore. Z had his foot re-broken in several places and flattened out. Here’s a clip of Ilgauskas talking to Mike Snyder about his foot rehab process. 12 screws were inserted, which sounds incredibly painful. After the surgery, the giant had to wear two different sized shoes because his right foot was now a size longer than the other. He basically had to learn to balance all over again. And yet, he came back. Dealing with the rehab, Z missed all of the 1999-2000 season, and only played in 24 games 2000-2001… So, recapping, Z spent the bulk of four of his first five seasons NBA seasons, as well as two years of his career with Atletas in Lithuania, dealing with the complications of being a 7’2″ human being with high arches. Z certainly could have kept his money and retired, yet, he came back.
He came back to be an all-star on an awful 17 win Cavs team in 2003. Then, when the Cavs drafted LeBron James, he helped to mentor James and a year later, Anderson Varejao. He helped those players go from raw to incredibly skilled. And it may be no coincidence that the best basketball of Tristan Thompson’s career came in January of 2013, under the tutelage of Z. When James arrived, Z slowly changed his game to help the team, too. Ilgauskus went from being a low-post player to a stretch five. Z’s shots came farther and farther away from the basket; he eventually became a 48 percent three point shooter in his last year in Cleveland. Despite that, he was still a pretty good rebounder, and one of the best touch “tip-in” offensive rebounders I’ve seen. He could volleyball-tip the ball two or three times to get a bucket. In addition, Z played at a time that the center position was losing its prominence in the NBA. Kelly Dwyer ranked him the sixth best center of the first decade of the 21st century, and noted that Ilgauskus “turned into the best opening tip-off winner we’ve ever seen.”
Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the star who stayed; who didn’t chase big(ger) money and greener pastures; who didn’t complain when he was surrounded by awful players. The Cavs certainly compensated him well throughout his career, but in an age of players who seem to passive aggressively demand changes every time things aren’t going optimally, Z put his head down and played. And let’s be real here, the Cavs did not always treat Z very well. Ilgauskas suffered slights that lesser men would not have endured silently. In 2008, Ilgauskas had one of the few NBA contracts that precluded him from being allowed to compete in international play. He very much wanted to play for Lithuania’s Olympic team. Injuries robbed him of his first chances in 2000, and 2004. Z’s friend and GM, Danny Ferry, denied him the opportunity.
Ilgauskas suffered indignity after indignity in ’09-’10. First, the Cavs traded for Shaquille O’Neal, and didn’t Z complain, even though the difference in production wasn’t very palpable. Z never took it personally, even though the Cavs literally had a promotional campaign called “Win a Ring for the King” and “We won’t ever have to double Howard again,” which was basically just loudly proclaiming “Z’s not getting it done.” Really, Orlando beat the Cavs because they got ridiculously, flukey hot from 3, and because Ben Wallace was abused all series long — not because of Z. The +/- numbers back that up. (I still maintain that Cleveland should have tried to move Shaq, change, and picks in a godfather offer for Chris Paul and all New Orleans’ bad contracts that year, when George Shinn was still trying to hold on to the team).
On Nov. 28th 2010, a home game against the Dallas Mavericks, Ilgauskas was set to break the all-time games played record by any Cavalier. He even had a contingent of family and friends in the arena for the celebration. Instead of asking Shaq to come off the bench for a game, as he should have, Mike Brown didn’t play Z at all. Ilgauskas recorded a DNP-CD. It was a stunning snub and oversight, for which I still haven’t forgiven Mike Brown. LeBron James had a lot to say on the insult.
Me, personally, I definitely thought he should have played. I’m not trying to stir up anything with coach or the organization. I don’t know who made the call. But sometimes one game is a smaller thing. What was on the line the day before yesterday was way bigger than us playing the Mavericks, and that was Z breaking the record to become the franchise leader in games played.I stand behind Z and whatever Z feels at this point in time, I definitely — if I was in control of it — would have put him in, probably would have started him. You could have easily started him and subbed him right out and had the standing ovation from the fans with a timeout. If you didn’t want to play him, there were a lot of ways for that accomplishment to be accomplished.It’s a sensitive subject. I’m not one to raise havoc or raise fire into the locker room or our team. But, for me, I speak the truth. I stand behind Z and I feel like Z not playing wasn’t the right thing. As a friend of his, I was very upset, and I know he was also.
Compounding insult onto injury, the Cavs traded Ilgauskas to Washington in February, in a deal that netted them Antawn Jamison. Ilgauskas was reportedly bewildered by the deal, and a buyout of Zydrunas was not guaranteed. Furthermore, Ilgauskus had been shooting fantastically in December and January of that season, and the trade ruined his rhythm and his conditioning. He started playing better before the season ended, but did not play much in the playoffs, averaging 8.3 minutes, and recording three DNP-CDs in the Boston series before playing 14 and 15 minutes in the final two losses. The Cavaliers treatment of the man who had been a cornerstone of the organization for much of the previous twelve years is an under-discussed element of “The Decision.” The Cavs expected LeBron James to be loyal to them, when they hadn’t been loyal to the man who was the face of the organization before the King’s arrival.
Z followed LeBron to Miami, but took out a full page ad in the Plain Dealer to thank the Cavs fans for their support during his 12 seasons as a Cav. Z’s season in Miami was his last, and it was marred by one last, horrific injury. This time, a staff infection in his foot left him hospitalized for three days. Ilgauskas quietly retired after the Heat lost to the Mavericks, and held no ill will towards the Cavs. Z returned to Cleveland as an Assistant GM in January of 2012. They deserved him more than he deserved them. This year, Z has “cut back on his duties — and especially his travel” to spend more time with his family.
It’s hard to look at Z’s career, per minute and per game numbers and say, “that’s a guy that deserves to have his number retired.” He played 13 seasons in the NBA, and finished with career averages of 13 points, and 7.3 rebounds per game, and a more respectable 17.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes. Z, only twice, had a PER above 20 (03-04,and 05-06). His APM data isn’t mind blowing. Only in 04-06, was it significant, when he averaged an APM of 4.44, and a SWAg of 18.9 wins in two seasons. We should not forget that Z was among the best at his position during the time he played, a position that had been de-emphasized by many teams. What makes Z special is his impact on the elite Cavs teams during the LeBron years, his surprising longevity, his perseverance, his decency, his humble nature, and his loyalty. The most convincing argument that Z is deserving? Z was the second best player on the only Cavaliers team to ever make an NBA finals.
Zydrunas means more to the Cavs and Cleveland than his numbers or what the team did and didn’t win. The News-Herald’s Bob Frantz wrote yesterday that “Ilgauskas’ jersey retirement feels like [a] desperate move.” But as much as a marketing ploy as this may be, and as much as a sly attempt to get LeBron back in town, retiring Z’s jersey is the best thing the Cavs organization has done since drafting Kyrie Irving. Z is a player and a man whose contributions to Cleveland and the Cavs transcended box scores. Many of the things Z did were barely covered. Here he is in 2009, asking for unclaimed legal funds to go to charity. Z visited an orphanage in Lithuania in 2006 as a part of an NBA Goodwill trip. Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post wrote this fantastic piece about how that trip was reminiscent of Z’s trips there as a child and how it led to the adoption of his two children.
Maybe it was those trips to that same orphanage he made as a boy with his father, who had grown up nearby. The purpose was to deliver gifts for the orphans, although Zydrunas’ father clearly was giving his son the greatest gift: a lesson about compassion.
lgauskas and wife Jennifer returned to the Pagyne Children’s Home on the outskirts of Kaunas, Lithuania [in 2009], to adopt two brothers, Deividas… and Povilas.
I’ve heard so many tales of how Z is just a good, decent, approachable guy. Here’s a story from CtB contributor, David Wood.
When I was in the fourth grade, I saw Zydrunas Illgauskas at a bowling alley in Parma. Z was always one of my favorite players growing up just because I was tall from a super young age, and I wanted to shoot, and not just be Shaq, styling other fifth graders. I was with some of my friends I would always play basketball with, and we rushed him. He was the tallest man I had seen in my life that close up. I’m sure I told him that a lot. Z spent far too much time with us. He was pleasant, took pictures with us, and answered my questions about being tall. I still have the picture, somewhere.
What I really remember about Big Z is Taco Bell. I grew up with my mom, aunt, and uncle all living in the same house as me. When I was in fifth grade, my aunt had a second job at a corner store in Brunswick. One night Big Z stopped in. He paid with a hundred. That’s not out of the ordinary for a fairly wealthy man, but he only had a two dollar drink and told my aunt to keep the change. That night my aunt brought home a bunch of Taco Bell courtesy of Big Z. Now, every time I seek out the nourishment of Taco Bell I can’t help but think that Big Z once spotted me on a burrito.
He’s the kind of player that fans want representing their city, and as much praise as we try to put upon him, he tends to defer and say it’s not that big of a deal, which makes us love him all the more. We watched Ilgauskas grow from a boy into a man, and then into a father and well-spoken representative of the town and the franchise.
He’s never once said he was too big for Cleveland, and he persevered, through all those tough times and career-threatening injuries. At times, he was better to the town and the team than they were to him. And that’s why he’s getting his number retired. Z said, in his farewell to Cleveland, in 2010, “As I look back on those early days, I realize how lucky I was to have grown up in a place like Cleveland. All of you have taught me the importance of family and friends; of pulling together to get things done; of loving your country.” How many players would say those things about Cleveland? Z just “gets us.”
It seems as if, despite the lack of a championship, Z is getting a fairy tale ending to his career both professionally, and personally. I sincerely wish him all the best as he rides off into the sunset. Because there’s nothing desperate about retiring the jersey of someone you love. A “championship” is a marketing ploy. Conducting yourself the way Z has for the last 16 years is not. I would not trade 12 seasons rooting for Ilgauskas for a championship. Just because Z never won one, and just because he was “only” a two time all-star, doesn’t make Ilgauskas any less deserving of honor. Celebrating longevity, perseverance, decency, commitment, humility, and loyalty is the foundation of greatness, not a substitute for it.