CLEVELAND: As the Cavaliers prepare to honor Zydrunas Ilgauskas by retiring his No. 11 jersey Saturday night, the Beacon Journal reached out to those who have been close to him at various points in life.
From former teammates to coaches and the man responsible for initially bringing him to Cleveland, here is the story of Z in their own words …
We had two picks in that draft, 12 and 20. We thought that with his foot issues, maybe we should run the risk and wait. But we very much wanted him in that draft. We had just lost Brad [Daugherty] so we needed size inside. So we took Vitaly [Potapenko] at 12 and we were very fortunate he was there for us at 20. He was a no-brainer for us at 20.
We were even more impressed with him as a person than as a basketball player. That’s where character comes into play. He’s very high in character. Along with character is perseverance. He had a passion for playing basketball, so we figured he’d persevere through whatever he had to do to get it right. And he proved that.
I’ve had several picks in my life I’m proud of and Z is certainly one of them. Alex English was a second-round pick [23rd overall]. There have been others, but Z is certainly one of them.
Vitaly played a big part in this. They were both European players and they bonded well. Vitaly played a big role in helping him adapt to U.S. culture.
We felt the risk/reward would be great if he could ever get healthy because of his talent. Look at everything he could do … he had a hell of a career.
Z is somebody I never would’ve thought I’d be close to, but it was fun having a friend of a totally different nationality. He saw the world totally different and that enabled us to call each other friends to this day.
I was from New Jersey and spoke my own broken slang, then you’ve got Zydrunas and Vitaly. Throw in Cedric Henderson from Memphis with his accent, there was no more odder couple than the four of us.
The biggest reason his jersey should be retired is because he is the epitome of Cleveland. He lived there, played there, and when you’re an extension of the community and you put up the stats he did, that’s why your number gets raised to the rafters.
You never see Z outside of himself. He never got upset. You could count on two hands all the years I’ve known him when he got upset. He likes to have a good time. We were a bunch of young kids. We didn’t know much. Shawn Kemp was the one guy who kept us out of trouble. It was a good time.
If Z needed a ride, no one would ever offer one of our cars. He was a terrible driver. Just terrible. There’s no other way around it. When you had as many dents and issues as he had, there’s only one conclusion you can come to.
Trading Z was extremely difficult. The values, character, the work, the example that he set for the team was invaluable. Along with that, having played with Z and knowing him for so long, he was a friend. That wasn’t an easy day.
I spoke to him a lot during that time [after retirement]. I thought it would be very healthy for him to transition right away and do something right away. It takes the sting out of not playing. You miss playing, you miss the competition. The front office job is not nearly as enjoyable and it doesn’t give you nearly the same type of energy that playing does, but it’s still enjoyable and a great challenge and a way for him to turn the page and transition into life.
We all have frustrations in life and there’s things a lot worse than a foot injury that we have to deal with. That being said, if you love to play like Zydrunas did, and he loved to compete, it’s a helpless, lonely feeling that he had. But I think he kept a great perspective. He wanted to continue to play, he wanted to earn his keep. And he felt an obligation to the organization that had drafted him and given him an opportunity and paid him well. He took all those things very much to heart. He cares so much, probably the biggest thing was he felt like he was letting everyone else down. That wasn’t the case. But a high character, competitive person like Zydrunas will take that burden very seriously.
I had to have double knee surgery one year, it was after the season and he didn’t want me to leave. This was 1996, ’97, he was young. He didn’t want me to go, so he broke both my crutches. He was a great teammate, a great friend.
Zydrunas is a terrible golfer. By the end of the round it’s best if he just throws it. Speeds up the round.
The first time I met Z was at the Chicago predraft camp. I’d never heard of him, never saw him play before we met. But just watching him play, he reminded me of Arvydas Sabonis. That’s who I watched growing up and him being Lithuanian, Z kind of reminded me of him because of his ability to shoot and pass the ball and his understanding of the game.
Obviously we both spoke Russian being from Europe, so there was a lot in common. The culture, jokes, food … we could connect. I was new in Cleveland so we were exploring Cleveland together. We lived in the same apartment complex, so we spent a lot of time together. We bonded and even after I left Cleveland we kept in touch.
I forget who we were playing, but it was overtime near the end of the game. I took a shot and missed, there was an offensive rebound and somebody hit the 3 and we won. But it was a mad scramble at the end. Me and Z were so excited, we were both jumping and we both fell in the middle of the court. That was a lot of length stretched out there. It was pretty funny.
Throw the basketball stuff out the window. He’s a great human being. He’s a terrific, terrific human being. I really enjoyed being around him on and off the floor.
He’s a professional. He helped a lot of our guys while he was here, not just on the floor, but off the floor. How to take care of your body, how to work on your game, all the little things that don’t show up in the box score. Andy will be the first to tell you, he learned a whole lot.
After the lockout was over he decided he was done playing. He was interested in working and obviously I was interested because we had a relationship from when he played. He started doing scouting stuff for us right when the lockout ended. We kept giving him more and more. He could handle a lot because he’s so bright and he has a ton of experience.
He’s a natural. We obviously loved having him around. He worked like crazy, just like when he was a player. He watched film, he wanted go to Europe and Starkville, Miss. He wanted to put time and effort into it.
Z has a wealth of experience and knowledge of the game and a genuine interest in people’s growth, which positively impacted many of the young players on the Cavs roster.
Z’s like a big brother for me. He helped me a lot in this league with everything, basketball, on the road. When I got here, I didn’t speak any English. He took care of me and took me under his wing. It’s going to be very interesting for me that night, how emotional it will be because he’s been a big part of my life.
I don’t know if he’s going to cry or not, but I believe he will. I believe it’ll be the first time I see Z cry.
He’s still a terrible driver. Just terrible.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.