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On Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland's Favorite Son

The Cleveland Cavaliers added a jersey to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night, retiring the No. 11 worn by Zydrunas Ilgauskas for over a decade.

This was a can’t-miss event for me, as Ilgauskas is my all-time favorite NBA player. That’s a status he shares with many Cavs fans, which speaks to both how loved and respected he was by Cleveland and how little premium talent the franchise has had in its 40+ year existence.

Ilgauskas started inauspiciously. When Cleveland made him the 20th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, most Cavs fans had never heard of the Lithuanian center with the strange name. He missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, and many Cleveland faithful expected this to be yet another wasted draft pick for a franchise that was mired in NBA no-man’s land.

Big Z endeared himself to the fans by working hard to get his feet right. He endured painful surgeries that essentially rebuilt his foot. It would have been easy, and fairly expected, for a foreign big man to just say enough was enough, but that was not Z.

He flashed his ability right away, earning all-rookie honors in 1997-98. Z also won MVP of the rookie All-Star game, the first foreign-born player to accomplish that feat.

His smooth shot, deft touch, strong rebounding, and ball handling skills were all something to behold from a 7’3” plodder. Unfortunately, he would play just five games over the next two seasons as his problematic feet required reconstructive surgery.

Once again, it would have been easy--and expected--for him to say enough was enough and call it a career. And once again, Z showed his heart and love of the game by fighting back.

I was fortunate enough to attend his first game back in Cleveland in the 2000-01 season, a home date against the high-flying Sacramento Kings. Z was slow up and down the court, but he proved lethal in the half-court sets, scoring 10 points while also blocking two Chris Webber shots in a single possession. He received a loud ovation from a nearly full (a rarity for that time) Gund Arena crowd.

Ilgauskas earned respect from the fans for playing hard, and with attitude. He was not a gentle giant, often flashing an elbow-y temper and not afraid to stand up for himself or his teammates. He was also eminently approachable in the community. Z embraced Cleveland as his home, a very visible and proud citizen of his adoptive city.

He only made two All-Star teams in Cleveland, but he was remarkably steady as one of the better big men in the league. Five times in six seasons he averaged between 14 and 18 points and from 7.5 to 9.3 rebounds. He finished in the top 5 in offensive rebounds and top-8 in blocks in all those seasons as well.

His ability to run the high post offense, a nod to his own hoops hero in countryman Arvydas Sabonis, opened open the lane for lots of drives. His pick-and-pop game was outstanding.

Z ranks first in franchise history in both blocks and rebounds. He is second on the career scoring list, trailing only LeBron James.

Ah yes, LeBron…

Cleveland’s king, in self-imposed exile, returned to honor his friend and longtime teammate. After much consternation leading up to the event, it barely registered a ripple; LeBron watched the game out of sight in a private suite, and he stood with other former Z teammates in a receiving line in the player entrance tunnel. Many folks in my section (215) didn’t even notice King James.

Z’s best seasons coincided with LeBron’s arrival in Cleveland, and arguably the greatest image in Cavaliers history was LeBron leaping into Z’s arms after the Cavs won the team’s first and only Eastern Conference title. It was a heartwarming moment between two great friends and excellent teammates, the two men who knew better than any what that unprecedented success meant to their “home” city.

The home in Cleveland is why Z’s 11 hangs from the rafters. He’s perhaps the most apt icon for the city the Chamber of Commerce could create. Owner Dan Gilbert mentioned this in his well-received halftime speech. Z still lives here. He recently became an American citizen, and he’s chosen to stay in Cleveland instead of Miami, where he spent a year with LeBron.

It’s that juxtaposition, choosing to stay in Cleveland over Miami, that epitomizes why nobody in Cleveland questioned retiring his jersey even if the rest of the nation raised a cocked eyebrow for honoring a historically mid-level talent. He’s the most beloved Cleveland athlete of the last 25 years, with only Indians great Jim Thome in the argument. For this city, my home even though I haven’t lived here in 15 years, that’s eminently worth celebrating.

I was proud to take my 8-year-old budding hoopster son with me. He never knew Z’s game, and he’s a loyal Rockets fan from living in Houston for three years. Yet it was important for him to see a truly beloved player get honored by a team that has seldom tasted even moderate success. It’s a lesson in respecting the game, the passion, and the success that can come even without winning a title.

Thanks for the memories Z!

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