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.