The news that Zydrunas Ilgauskas will have his number 11 retired by the Cleveland Cavaliers coming up in March has been met mostly with praise for fans in our fair city. Outside of our bubble, others may look up and say “Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Really? Was he really that great of a player?”
Retired numbers have different meanings and a different view depending on the angle you choose to gaze at them from. The San Antonio Spurs have retired the number 12 of Bruce Bowen. Sure, Bowen was a big part of multiple championships, but he was a role player and defensive stalwart. Outside of Texas, I’m sure there are plenty of basketball fans who think that is a real stretch. The Dallas Mavericks have two retired numbers – one of which is the number 15 of Brad Davis, he of the 12 years and 8.2 points per game from the guard position. I look at that and say “are you kidding?” But old time Mavs fans will tell you how much Davis meant to the franchise.
I could go on and on.
To me, there is no question Big Z deserves to have his jersey hang from the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena. He spent 13 years in Cleveland (played in 12), leaving as the all-time team leader in games played, rebounds and blocked shots, second in points. That alone would be worth consideration, but the two-time All-Star has meant so much to the organization and the community itself. Z is also one of the finer gentlemen to ever put on the Wine and Gold (as well as the power blue, neon orange and black!).
The Cavaliers will soon have seven retired numbers – Bingo Smith (7), Austin Carr (34), and Nate Thurmond (42) from the early years, Mark Price (25), Larry Nance (22), and Brad Daugherty (43) from the Lenny Wilkens/Wayne Embry era. Now Z will join that distinguished club. Of that group, you could make an easy argument against Thurmond, who played in Cleveland for just two seasons and 93 total games. He was a big part of the “Miracle of Richfield,” which is the reason for his inclusion.
The Indians retire uniform numbers, the Browns have a Ring of Honor. With all of this back and forth over Ilgauskas’s credentials for inclusion, I started to think about the future and who else who be honored by our local professional teams. For conversation sake, I am only speaking of players who are no longer playing here. So throw out Kyrie Irving for example. The discussion for the following players will come up in the years to come.
Clay Matthews – The last Browns player who joined the Ring of Honor was Ozzie Newsome. Ozzie was a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest at his position to ever play the game. But what about his 1978 draft class-mate? Clay was the heart and soul of the Browns defense for 16 years where he was a beast and arguably the best Linebacker in team history. Like Z, his longevity, quality play, and gentlemanly demeanor all add up to his selection to the Browns Ring of Honor a no-brainer to me.
Bernie Kosar – I mean, the man is “The Lord” after all. To this day, Browns fans clamor for him to run out of that tunnel one last time, wearing old #19, and bring back the glory days. He was the QB of my youth and watching him play was a treat. The thinking man’s QB led the Browns to three AFC Title games in four years, the first of which came when he was 23. That just didn’t happen right away in the 1980’s with young QBs. Played eight years here and the team hasn’t been the same since his unceremonious release in 1993.
Omar Vizquel – Of all of the “Era of Champions” players that came and went, Omar was perhaps the most popular of them all. He will end up a Hall of Famer thanks to his golden glove and is viewed as one of the top two defensive shortstops in baseball history. His charisma went a long way with the fans here and he has always wanted to be a part of the organization. Played 11 seasons here, the first of which coincided with the opening of Jacobs Field, 1994. I think he is the next Cleveland athlete to receive the honor of having his number retired.
Jim Thome – This is a hot button issue for many here in Cleveland. I am a staunch defender of Gentleman Jim who grew up in the organization from a 20-year old skinny third baseman who became a power hitting legend. After 12 years in Cleveland, he was the all-time leader in Home Runs and a fan favorite. However, the circumstances in which he left for Philadelphia via free agency still don’t sit well with many fans. Not me. The guy had the choice of being the centerpiece of a team trying to buy its way into contention with a new stadium for $16 million more guaranteed and an extra year or take a back-loaded deal to stay in a rebuild, continue to lose and eventually be traded.
His return to Cleveland at the end of the 2011 season seemed to help heal some of those hard feelings. The Indians also announced there will be a statue of him in Heritage Park. I think once he gets into the Hall of Fame, his number will be retired.
Kenny Lofton – From 1992 to 1996 and again from 1998 to 2001, Lofton was the igniter to the best offenses we have ever seen in this town. Kenny hit for high average, played gold glove defense (three), and ran the base paths like a mad man (led the AL in steals five times). One of the most indelible images in Tribe history was Lofton scoring from second on a wild pitch in game six of the 1995 ALCS against Randy Johnson in Seattle’s Kingdome. He came back again in 2007 and gave the Indians a shot in the arm on their way to their first ALCS appearance since 1998. The last time he was ever on base in his illustrious career, he was being held at third by Joel Skinner in Game Seven in Boston. Kenny is a close call here, but probably stays as an Indians Hall of Famer and not someone who’s number gets retired.
Victor Martinez – A tough call, as Victor only played in parts of eight seasons in Cleveland, but he was a key core member of the group that saw the mid 2000’s Indians return to prominence. He made three All-Star games here and hit .297/.369/.463 and drove in over 100 runs three times. Victor was a born and raised member of the organization who shed tears when he was dealt to Boston at the trade deadline in 2009. One of the more popular players in Indians history. I think he is a long shot though.
LeBron James – Yeah. I said it. Love him or hate him, he is the greatest player to ever wear the Wine and Gold. We all hated how he left, but there is zero doubt he gave the fans of Cleveland the best moments the franchise has ever seen.Nobody can deny his greatness on the court, not to mention the impact he had on the organization and the city itself when he played here. Keeping him out of the rafters long term would be a petty move on Dan Gilbert’s part. And make no mistake, if anyone keeps LeBron out, it will be Gilbert and Gilbert alone. Time heals all wounds. Nobody will ever, or should ever, wear #23 again.
Am I missing anyone (other than Phil Dawson of course!)?