Editor’s Note: Yes, we realize that Anderson Varejao, the ninth-ranked Cavalier of all time (per #CavsRank) was unveiled on Thursday. Today, however, we flip the script and give one man his just due on the eve of his monumental night. Join WFNY, along with the rest of the #CavsRank participants, as we pay homage to the man in the middle, Big Z. Please take some time to check out the entries at Fear The Sword, Real Cavs Fans, Cavs: The Blog, and Stepien Rules.
On Saturday night night, along with 20,561 other ticket-purchasing fans, I will be in attendance as my all-time favorite Cleveland Cavalier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, has his No. 11 jersey raised to the Quicken Loans Arena rafters. It’s been a long road for the Lithuanian center, full of crushing defeats, obstacles overcome, and moments of glory. For reasons of longevity, skillset, leadership, and his sentimental place in the hearts of this city, retiring his number and in such short order should come as a shock to nobody that’s a Cavaliers fan.
When Ilgauskas was drafted in 1996, I remember being at his friend’s house to watch the NBA Draft with my dad. It was an exciting time for the Cavs in having two first-round picks in what was a deep draft. They beefed up their frontcourt, adding a pair of centers in Vitaly Potapenko (aka “The Ukraine Train”) and Ilgauskas with the 12th and 20th picks, respectively1. It’s strange to look back on those frozen snapshots in time and see the lanky 21-year-old Ilgauskas in the electric blue and orange Cavs hat. I remember watching Z in those early years and thinking that I had never seen anyone with his particular skillset as a 7-footer. Some of the younger Cavs fans may not remember that Z, prior to the extensive operations on his feet, was a more mobile rim-runner that still popped shots on the perimeter with frequency.
In the worst of times, the best of people is often unveiled. Ilgauskas, by all accounts, could have given his rehabilitation following foot injuries and surgeries the old college try, announced his retirement, and cashed his $71 million worth of game checks from the organization for six years and live in luxury. Instead, he put in the countless hours of therapy, rehab, and floor time to build himself back into a very good starting center. The fact that Zydrunas made All-Star squads in 2003 and 2005 at age 28 and 30 is nothing short of miraculous. After playing just 29 games in the three years following his rookie campaign, the man in the middle played in no less than 73 games in a six-year span from 2003-2008. At age 31, after an eight-year drought and just a four-game visit in his rookie year, Ilgauskas tasted the playoffs again and suited up for 67 wine and gold playoff games in five different deep runs in the postseason in what is undeniably the best stretch in Cavalier franchise history. For a franchise that had lost another franchise center to crippling back injuries at the age of 28 within the decade in Brad Daugherty, Ilgauskas was able to come out on the other side, beating the odds and making a full career out of what his body had left.
It was somewhere early in that new era where I began to focus on what Z still COULD provide in a meaningful amount rather than the things he could not with his slower lateral speed and imperceptible vertical. (It’s advice I should remind myself of when critiquing the games of the current young Cavalier core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson.)
Those playoff runs don’t happen without LeBron James, of course. Ilgauskas had played with All-Star talent in Shawn Kemp and a young phenom in Andre Miller as well as a rookie that would turn into an All-Star in Carlos Boozer. However, when those ping pong balls fell the Cavaliers’ way and James joined the Cavs, it started a beautiful partnership between a quiet, steady pivot and a flashy, star-studded, do-everything perimeter player. It doesn’t get much more heart-wrenching in the sports world than the ending to their story in Cleveland. However, the stops along the way to that cold kick out the door were awe-inspiring, joyously euphoric, and impossible to forget. The photo of LeBron and Z embracing at halfcourt after the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Pistons remains one of my favorite Cleveland sports images. We often get so caught up in the destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.
Ilgauskas wasn’t necessarily an outward and vocal leader. He led by example more than anything. When he did speak, he often gave some thoughtful and brutally honest answers. I’m guilty of referencing this quote many times in my past blogging and tweeting endeavours, but for those who haven’t yet heard it or forgot about it, Ilgauskas had this to say as the team crumbled apart in the summer of 2010 and Mike Brown was fired.
Z’s take on ranking the teams he played on may not be universally agreed upon among Cavalier fans who will point to the 66 regular season wins in 2009 and the deeper roster of veteran All-Star talent in 2010. But, as a front office member now, Ilgauskas’s quote alludes to how team fit and chemistry can be just as important as overall talent. The wine and gold got the absolute most out of that 2006-07 squad, while the 2009 and 2010 playoff runs left fans with an empty feeling about what could have been had the teams met expectations.“I was asked all the time this year, ‘Is this the best team you’ve been on?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, if we win a championship.’ But so far the best team I’ve been on is the team that went to The Finals. You can knock those guys who were on the team but we defended. We were the No. 1 team in defense in field-goal percentage and points throughtout the playoffs. Yeah, we had LeBron, who was amazing. But everybody else was blue collar guys who did their job. They just went to work. They didn’t look for any recognition or anything like that. You have to do the little things, especially in the playoffs. You have to box out. You have to go for loose balls and things like that. [The Celtics] outhustled us, which is inexcusable in the playoffs.”
If you want to go to the stats for validation, Ilgauskas is the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, blocked shots, rebounds, and offensive rebounds. He trails only James in scoring with 10,616 points (plus 784 more in the playoffs). In 12 seasons in Cleveland, he averaged 13.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. He ranks in the top 25 in both NBA career offensive rebound percentage (15th at 12.4%) and block percentage (25th at 4.3%). He finished the 2006-07 and 2008-09 seasons with a top ten defensive rating league-wide as a key piece to the back end of some elite Mike Brown defenses.
The big fella made his free throws, was a smart and willing passer when he had the ball in his hands, and he was a source of early game offense to get the team going. In the twilight of his career, he even stretched his range out behind the three-point line and hit 26 three pointers on just 62 attempts (good for 42%) in his last two years as a Cav. Z was never truly a planned against from a defensive standpoint, but he made teams pay on the offensive glass, in the mid-range gaps, and on post feeds when a doubleteam did not come quick enough. He was a selective enforcer, one who, after he was clubbed by Rasheed Wallace with nobody coming to his aid in 2005, didn’t take any crap from Greg Ostertag, Charlie Villanueva, Kendrick Perkins, or anyone in those incredibly physical series with the Wizards, Pistons, and Celtics where the entire frontcourt made it a goal to keep James upright and unharmed.
There have been some great Cavaliers that have called the Richfield Coliseum and The Gund/Q home over the years. When people are asked who their favorite Cav is/was: the names Price, Daugherty, Carr, Nance, James, Chones, Russell, Brandon, Harper, and Free are just a few that warrant that type of accolade. Big Z is a Cava-lifer though, much like Austin Carr. Both finished the tail end of their career elsewhere, but Ilgauskas has many of those same lovable traits from a soul ravaged by injuries that make him a Mr. Cavalier 2.0 if you will in my estimation.
When the Cavalier nickname was selected, the Cavaliers were described by contest winner Jerry Tomko as representing “a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.” Zydrunas Ilgauskas never did surrender. He didn’t take the easy way out, the shortcut home. With the odds set firmly against him, Zydrunas beat them and became an unforgettable franchise pillar. No better example could have been set and there’s no more appropriate legend to aspire to for current and future Cavaliers. After Saturday, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and that wine and gold No. 11 will hang high forever as a testament to what a hard-working man that always did and said the right thing, adopted a foreign city as his own, and gave everything he has to an organizational mission can be loved for all-time. Those of us who fondly watched Z’s Cavalier days will tell the next generation about who he was and how profound his years out on that court in downtown Cleveland were for so many up and coming youngsters and grizzled basketball veterans alike.
(Photos: NBAE/Getty Images and John Kuntz/The Plain Dealer)
- This draft also included Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Derek Fisher, Stephon Marbury, Peja Stojakovic, and Jermaine O’Neal to name a few. [↩]