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Issue Date: May 2009


Z

He knows struggle.  He knows hard work.  He wants to win as badly as we do.  Here’s why a 7-foot-3 Lithuanian is as true a Clevelander as any of us will ever be.
Jeannie Roberts
Sometimes it looks like Zydrunas Ilgauskas is just standing there, waiting for something to happen, as if perhaps a stray basketball will come sailing his way.

And sometimes one does — but not because he’s just standing there or because, like LeBron James, he has been granted the gift of flight or because he’s wound tight with energy like Anderson Varejao and his springy Brazilian hair. With Ilgauskas, it’s something else entirely.

The Cavaliers are leading Toronto 53-47 with a little more than two minutes left in the first half, when Ilgauskas squares up Raptors forward Jermaine O’Neal a few steps below the foul line. Toronto has the Cleveland defense spread at the edges — leaving the two big men alone in the lane.

Near the Cavs’ bench, Raptors guard Jason Kapono rises up for a 3-point jumper over a lunging Delonte West. The shot is going to be long.
 
One ...

Ilgauskas reaches out his elbow-padded right arm to measure O’Neal, to gauge his reaction. In a move like a magnet pulling a paperclip, Z spins to the hoop, extends his left hand and delivers the slightest nudge to the No. 6 in the center of O’Neal’s jersey. Z’s got this one.

Two ...

But Chris Bosh, the Raptors all-star center, bounds down the lane, hoping to time up the carom. No dice.
He glides past Z, past LeBron.

Three ...

Ilgauskas’ jump — an awkward little hop, really — jostles James, knocking the ball loose from his talented right hand. Both are a little off-kilter as the ball teases toward the out-of-bounds line.

With the gangly stumble of a baby giraffe, Z snares the wayward rebound, takes one dribble and gathers himself at the opposite side of the paint. He pivots back toward LeBron and snaps off a pass.

Four ... Four seconds from start to finish.

It’s Ilgauskas’ fourth rebound of the night. No. 5,228 in his 10-year career, the most in team history. More than Brad Daugherty, more than Jim Chones, more than LeBron.

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even as simple as it might have looked on TV. Even the ones that do just seem to bounce Z’s way shouldn’t be taken for granted.

It’s easy to forget in this season of accomplishment — of 60-plus wins, of an unrivaled home record, of a 13-game winning streak, of the best record in the Eastern Conference — what it took for Ilgauskas to become only the fourth player in team history to score 10,000 points, what it took for him to block more shots than anyone to ever don a Cavaliers uniform, what it took for him to get rebounds No. 500 and 1,450 and 3,457.

It might be easy to forget, but don’t. In a season that holds the greatest opportunity for an NBA championship in our city’s history, it’s also the best chance for a 7-foot-3-inch center from Lithuania with bad feet to earn a ring. And if he accomplishes that goal, we do, too. If we are all witnesses, we are also, in some way, all Z.

LET’S PLAY
word association.

LeBron James. Sleek. Animal-raw strength. Highlight reel. In your mind’s eye, you see the sculpted, tattooed body floating toward the rim, the infectious smile gracing the handsome young face, clever Nike ads. You think L-Train. You think Lamborghini.

Now, Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Lumbering. Teddy bear. Injuries. You see his shaved head, his relentless tap-tap-tapping the ball off the backboard, off the rim, off the backboard and through the hoop. He barely leaves the floor.

You see a nice guy whose nickname makes it easy to shout and whose attitude makes him easier to cheer for. There are no tattoos, no effortless gliding, no snazzy appearances at all the hip events. If not for his size, you might imagine the guy you just traded elbows with at the Y pickup game last night.

An Eastern European immigrant, Ilgauskas is from Kaunas, Lithuania. The city, located at the confluence of the country’s two largest rivers, is a lot like Cleveland. A transportation hub, it emerged as an economic power after World War II, producing about a quarter of Lithuania’s industrial output.

So Ilgauskasgets hard work, the value of things and the appreciation that comes from learning everything he’s needed to know — new language, new team, new life — one day, one practice, one word at a time.

ILGAUSKAS ARRIVED IN CLEVELAND
as a 21-year-old, the 20th pick in the 1996 NBA draft. What he brought with him were poor English skills and a matchstick body that couldn’t hold up to the basketball ability it possessed. By the time the Cavs acquired him, he’d already had one foot surgery, and then he missed his entire rookie season when he broke his right foot again.

A reporter who has followed Ilgauskas’ entire NBA career remembers his first press conference here — a shy person in an attention-grabbing body surrounded by cameras and recorders and notepads, hearing words flung at him in a language he barely understood and spoke even less. He wonders, “What would I do in that situation in another country? I don’t know if I could do it.”

Cavaliers general manager Wayne Embry drafted Ilgauskas without ever having seen him play in person, and many wondered publicly if his choice had been a huge mistake. At the time, Embry shrugged off the criticism: “If you’re going to make a mistake, I always say make it a 7-foot-3 mistake.”

A grainy YouTube video from 1997 acts as a reminder of what Embry saw in Z: Ilgauskas is wearing that ugly Mike Fratello-era uniform with orange trim and the blue lightning stripe in the center. He slides over to defend the opposing guard and rips the ball free at the foul line — and he’s gone. Dribbling. Yeah, Z. Once, twice, down the floor, through that odd black-basket logo at midcourt — oops, a little misdribble — and then a flash. A pesky opponent streaks in front of Ilgauskas for a steal, but the ball’s around his back and wham!-with-twohands. Cue the chest-bump.

Like his Lithuanian hero Arvydas Sabonis, Ilgauskas is a passer and a shooter with range. He has softer hands than many smaller, nimbler players, and he’s good on the low post. And best of all, he played every game of that 1997 season.

The five foot surgeries in seven years gave rise to doubts, comments about the demise of a promising career. Ilgauskas, 33, heard that same song dozens of times, but eventually, he learned to ignore the chatter around him.

He admits to moments of weakness — “the lows were just so low,” he says — and he once seriously considered retiring at 25. But he kept putting one foot in front of the other, even when he needed crutches to do it.

Stan Kellers, the Cavaliers’ strength and conditioning coach and one of Z’s closest friends, has witnessed nearly every step Ilgauskas has taken in the last 11 years. He’s the one who got Ilgauskas a tutor, and he helped him learn about things like grocery shopping and pumping gas, teaching him the lay of the land. He was beside him through every struggle.

“Sometimes in practice I could tell by looking at his face,” Kellers says.Damn, that son of a bitch is hurting again, he remembers thinking. “It was painful to watch.”

Ilgauskas tried repeatedly to correct his foot problems without surgery. Sometimes that meant wearing an immobilizing boot for months followed by extensive rehab. When the pain came back, he needed surgery anyway.Wow, we just wasted six months,he would think,and I’m not any better.

“We’d do a bone scan, and the doctors would say it hadn’t healed,” Kellers remembers. “That was really, really tough.”
Ilgauskas could have retired, walked away from the game and taken his money, but he opted for one last shot to salvage his career and hopes for a championship. There was every chance in the world that it might not work, but just before that fifth surgery, Z made eye contact with Baltimore surgeon Mark Myerson and said, “Go ahead. Rebuild my foot.”

Myerson’s radical procedure realigned Z’s left heel, holding it in place with three screws, and flattened his arch a little more to relieve subsequent pressure. When Ilgauskas eventually made it back onto the court, every game was a personal point of pride.

“After every game, I left the court a winner, even if the team lost,” Ilgauskas remembers. “After this surgery, I thought I had a chance.”

ALL THIS IS WHY
it’s so important to LeBron James to win now.

Of course he wants to win for himself, but before he was a Cavalier, when he was still an Akron high-schooler, he watched the Cavaliers’ ups and downs. He watched Ilgauskas limp on and off the court, and he gained a great measure of respect for the big man.

“He’s been through so much,” James says. “And it’s nice to see him when he’s happy. He loves the game of basketball, and it would mean so much to help him win a championship. He means a lot to me as a person.”

Cavaliers coach Mike Brown has seen the relationship between James and Ilgauskas develop through the years. “Le-Bron knows that Z has been here all along,” Brown observes. “He knows about the difficult times that Z has been through, that Z has stuck with it and has done so with grace. Knowing some of the more recent struggles that Z has been through as well, he appreciates that too. LeBron knows that Z paved the way for him to have this team.”

The “more recent struggles” that Brown references have little to do with the minor injury — a left ankle sprain —that has caused Ilgauskas to miss games this season.

He’s referring to two seasons ago when Ilgauskas’s wife, Jennifer, went into premature labor and delivered stillborn twins. The babies would have been their first. Just after the miscarriage, Ilgauskas’ time away from the team, four games, was deemed for “personal family health matters,” and it’s a measure of great respect for him that every reporter assigned to covering the Cavaliers also covered for Z.

No one was tempted to break the big story, even though they knew the truth. No one broached the subject with him. Until he addressed the situation during a nationally televised game with courtside reporter Michele Tafoya, no one said a word. They waited for Ilgauskas to approach them to talk, the ultimate measure of a reporter’s respect.

Ilgauskas, who understandably doesn’t like to speak about the event, toldThe Washington Post in April 2007 that he was forcing himself to return in part to take his mind off the most painful thing he’d ever endured.

“It was tough in the beginning part, because I really didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be at home with my family,” Ilgauskas told thePost. “I knew I was going to have to get back here. I took my time, as much as I could. I just figured the longer time I took, the harder it was going to be for me to get back.”

When he did come back, reporters and teammates alike showed their respect —for the basketball player, yes, but more for the man whose giddiness at the prospect of being a dad had been palpable just a few months before.

His excitement had been infectious, but his pain was now. They tried as much as possible to endure it together, albeit quietly. Even though they didn’t speak of it much, it brought them together as a team.

When the Cavaliers won the 2007 Eastern Conference title to reach the NBA Finals, the very first thing James did after the final buzzer was find Ilgauskas.

The emotional hug they shared —James’ arms wrapped around Ilaguskas’ neck, Z’s big right hand cradling James’ head — has become a telling image of this team and of the two men on opposite ends of its success: the man who’s been here longest and, on the other end, the newest and brightest bulb the Cavs’ universe has ever seen.

“Zydrunas knows he’s been blessed,” says Brown. “The one thing that is really noticeable about him is that he’s a very grateful person. He’s been through a lot, certainly, more than most people could handle, and he knows he’s blessed and lucky and fortunate.”

Brown is silent for a few moments and, returning to his thoughts, seems slightly overwhelmed at what he’s about to say. “Z knows that he’s been given a great opportunity, and he doesn’t want to show anyone anything except being happy about that,” he says. “He wants to make the most of it.”

James may have only one, maybe two more chances, to help Ilgauskas earn an NBA championship (Z’s current contract has a player option for next season), and hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy has become Job One.

Kellers, who was the best man in Z’s wedding, has shed tears for him before, and he would again — freely — on the occasion of an NBA championship.

“In the past, I had to keep the stiff upper lip and be positive, because the last thing he needed was for me to jump on the sorrow wagon,” Kellers says. “When you’re faced with a possible career-threatening injury, you need people around you who can be strong for you. But now, winning that thing? That would be something.”

Yeah, something for all of us.

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