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Issue Date: May 2009


Editor's Column - Play Recalling


Steve Gleydura
gleydura@clevelandmagazine.com
This column was written almost entirely using YouTube as its source.

Why? Because everyone else has completely blocked out the dark period in Cleveland Cavaliers history after Mark Price and Brad Daugherty but before LeBron James and our current hoops renaissance.

Since the Cavs only made the playoffs once between 1997 and 2005, most of you weren’t paying attention anyway.

So here’s a refresher: The players sported a big jagged stripe across their jerseys, and the logo — a geometric net with a ball about to splash through it — looked like it’d break into sharp, deadly pieces if the shot actually went in.

Maybe that’s why those teams didn’t score enough to win.

Everything is blurry — even the skinny 7-foot-3 kid.

There’s NBA commissioner David Stern at the podium in a gray suit. “With the 20th pick in the 1996 NBA draft,” says Stern, slowly and deliberately, “the Cleveland Cavaliers select Zydrunas Ilgauskas from Lithuania.”

Hey, he got the pronunciation right. I didn’t expect that.

There’s Z, before we called him that, rising as his name is called. He looks to be wearing one of those funky Jerry Garcia ties as he’s congratulated with kisses on the cheek from the men at his side.

I’d forgotten Ilgauskas was the team’s second first-round pick that year. Vitaly Potapenko, a native of the Ukraine who played at Wright State University, was chosen ahead of him.

“With those two picks, the Cleveland Cavaliers definitely lead the league in first-round syllables,” quips TNT host Ernie Johnson as Ilgauskas navigates his way toward the stage.

Good one, Ernie.

Z wipes his eyes as he dons a Cavs hat and heads up the ramp to the commissioner. Seven long strides put him on-stage for the handshake.

It had already been a long journey for Ilgauskas, who’d missed two seasons in his homeland due to foot injuries.

And there was much more to come: A rookie season that wasn’t. The Shawn Kemp years. Three seasons with 30 wins or fewer. More foot surgeries.

Allen Iverson’s name scrolls across the bottom of the screen as the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft. The other names roll by in order: Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen. Today, those guys are either out of the league or playing on different teams. Potapenko was gone in the middle of his third year, traded to Boston.

But not Z. He’s ours.

If you have any doubts, read Jeannie Roberts’ profile of the Cavaliers center. Or go to the video.

There’s a nine-second snippet of Ilgauskas as a 17-year-old. He’s wearing a green and yellow warm-up jacket and black T-shirt, bobbing to the interviewer’s microphone to give his name, height, team and age in his native tongue. His deep voice is completely mismatched with his rail frame.

And then there are the highlights. Z taking a pass from Ron Mercer (who?) for a pretty reverse dunk. Z flipping a pass over his head to a cutting teammate for another dunk. Z sporting the start of his beard. Z blocking a shot at one end and running the floor for a slam at the other. Z shooting free throws with a stream of blood trickling down his head after a cheap elbow by Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace. Z nailing a 3-pointer against the Suns to cap a huge comeback and send a game into overtime. Z being choked by Milwaukee’s Charlie Villanueva while protecting Anderson Varejao.

But it’s what the highlights don’t show that make us root for Ilgauskas — his perseverance, his heart. Like Z, we’ve endured a lot of waiting for a title in this town. It’d be fitting if Z was the one who helped make that YouTube moment for all of us.

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