One man, one letter, one hell of a human being
Everyone has a story. If you are a fan of Cleveland Sports, be it in passion or in passing, odds are that you have a story with Zydrunas Ilgauskas serving as the central character. If you frequented Cleveland’s warehouse district during the early aughts, chances are you saw a late-20s Ilgauskas alone at a nightclub, leaning against a varnished wooden bar that barely hit him at the waste. More often than not, he would be wearing a cap of some sort; Kangols were huge back in the day. On the rare occasion, he would be puffing on a cigar the size of a human arm, losing himself in the fog. Many have had the fortune of crossing paths with Zydrunas or his family over the last several years as they lived out the second phase of the big man’s career. There are some individuals who shared the same day care or schooling system with the Ilgauskas family. There are others who have shared a flight with Big Z as he and his never-ending legs were crammed in a standard seat on a Southwest Airlines-branded Boeing 737.
For many years, my Ilgauskian fables came in the way of witnessing the 7-foot-3-inch Lithuanian kid gallivant about the city. No amount of big-and-tall camouflage could mask Ilgauskas, which made his penchant for the dark corners of bass-thumping clubs an understood desire. But my Ilgauskas-based story would forever be changed in February of 2010 during what was simply supposed to be a pre-game shootaround. It would be my first foray into covering the Cavaliers as a member of the credentialed media. It also happened to be the day that the Cavs traded Ilgauskas, a mainstay in Cleveland for a decade-plus, to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Antawn Jamison, the “stretch” power forward who was thought to be the missing piece in the Cavaliers’ quest for an NBA title. Danny Ferry, the team’s general manager at the time, was going to address those of us who made it down to The Q for the afternoon’s events—there may have been a dozen or so of us toting around notepads and recording devices. Ferry began addressing the team’s recent transaction and in a matter of minutes, his eyes welled up. Nearly seven-feet tall himself, the bald and seasoned exec discussed the care and layers of decision making which went into their willingness to make such a deal, such a sacrifice, and it brought him to tears.
The stories of Zydrunas Ilgauskas the Basketball Player are writ large. Multiple surgeries. A $70 million contract. A general manager who not only had not seen much of Ilgauskas prior to selecting him 20th-overall in 1996, but one who couldn’t (and still can’t) pronounce his name. Ilgauskas was only an All-Star twice in his career; he was the MVP of the 1998 Rookie Game, a feat also accomplished by such talents as Damon Stoudemire and Isaiah Rider. Ilagauskas’ per-game averages of 13 points and seven rebounds are roughly comparable to those of David West and Spencer Hawes, but it was never about the game-to-game work with Big Z. The picture was always bigger. Former Cavaliers assistant general manager Lance Blanks once told me that Ilgauskas was one of the two best people he ever met1. It was almost as if what he did on the basketball court and what he meant to the Cavaliers as a number-producing big man were secondary. Over the course of his 12 seasons as a member of the Cavs, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was certainly one hell of a story himself, but he was an even better human being, impacting anyone who had the fortune to work with him. On Saturday night, as 20,000-plus fans joined in to pay homage to the man known throughout the city (and entire NBA) as the last letter in the English alphabet, the Cavaliers were not just retiring the number of the Basketball Player. They were retiring the legend left behind by the Person.
As Esquire Magazine’s Scott Raab once wrote, “You can’t like sports and not love Z.” In 2000, Ilgauskas was one of the game’s best centers, leading a team of misfits to a 15-9 record prior to suffering what would be his fifth foot fracture in seven seasons. Without him, the Cavs went 15-43. In 2002, he told Sports Illustrated that every game he finished was a minor victory and that he had long been thinking about what life would be like without the game he had played for the majority of his life. We as humans are not meant to be seven feet tall. The average body can only take so much in the way of wear and tear—try adding on an additional foot of human frame, every inch succumbing to gravity and the laws of physics that once led to Ilgauskas being dubbed as having the slowest footwork on the baseline, as if one outfitted the Lord of the Dance with a pair of stilts. Yet Ilgauskas fought. He fought and fought and came out the victor, prevailing over doubters and cynics and all odds regarding oversized athletes and broken bones. And his reward: rejoining the team that had a core of Darius Miles and Ricky Davis.
You would be hard-pressed to find any one individual in modern day sports that would allow for the complete ignorance of the wicked business side of the game. Ilgauskas himself was pawned off as an asset with the hopes that Washington would buy him out, allowing his return to Cleveland for the team’s impending playoff run—the buyout, and subsequent veteran minimum contract represented a pay cut to join a team that had moved him into a reserve role alongside Shaquille O’Neal. But on the night, his night, all business was cast aside. The list of individuals who traveled to Cleveland was riveting. Former teammates, coaches and colleagues at various levels, some currently employed by other franchises, all skirting typical bureaucracy for at one night. Ira Newble and Anthony Parker were back. Delonte West and Daniel Gibson were in town for the festivities. The man who led them to countless playoff appearances in LeBron James was as well, posing for photos with some of his former running mates, two of which have recent histories of varying degrees with the three-time MVP2. James, a member of the Miami Heat, sat on the Cavaliers’ bench while Ilgauskas dolled out his heartfelt thank yous—”I loved coming here to work every day, no matter what our record was that year and I missed that feeling running out of that tunnel on this court every single day of my life.” Chris Grant, the man who was fired just a month ago as general manager of this very team, sat alongside him. Behind the scenes were Ferry and the general manager who let Carlos Boozer out of his restricted free agency, Jim Paxson. Fired coaches and executives littered The Q; their roles and current employers mattered very little, if at all. A night like Saturday night would not be bound by such fleeting trivialities. The night belonged to Z.
When Ilgauskas was announced on to the floor, he provided the fans with his trademark index finger in the sky. Not long after, as the roar of the crowd reverberated of the very floor which had just finished displaying a three-dimensional homage to the career of the Man in the Middle, Ilgauskas placed his right hand on his heart as he stared into the dark chaos.
In his Thank You letter to Cleveland in the summer of 2010, Ilgauskas wrote that he “never felt as proud” as he did when he put on the Wine and Gold. A Lithuanian who barely spoke a lick of English 14 years earlier credits this very city with teaching him the importance of camaraderie, of family and friends, and undying support. If any night carried this entire theme throughout, it was Saturday night. And if any one man in the history of Cleveland Sports has personified such, it’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
For those who weren’t fortunate (or old) enough to be a fan when Ilgauskas was perusing West Sixth street, or who may be a west side resident of Cleveland and rarely had the chance to cross his post-playing path, Saturday night provided each and every one of us with our own, brand new, Zydrunas Ilgauskas story. You didn’t have to be inside of Quicken Loans Arena to feel the passion and appreciation for the man of the hour just as you didn’t have to be a fan of the NBA to appreciate The Man. Just as Ferry’s eyes welled up on the day he had to send his good friend to another franchise, the eyes of thousands witnessing one of the more feel-good moments in recent Cleveland Sports history3 did the same. As Ilgauskas’ No. 11 was rising to the rafters, the spotlights shined on the banner, the residual smoke that clung to the Quicken Loans Arena ceiling adding dramatic flair. While those numerals will forever be his, and no one else’s, the name that is stitched above it will forever be ours.
Image via NBATV