The Cavaliers will retire Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ No. 11 jersey on March 8 in a game against the New York Knicks at The Q.
– Mary Schmitt Boyer, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer
Zydrunas Ilgauskas was drafted over 17 years ago by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1996 NBA Draft. If you had said then that today the Cavs would be retiring Big Z’s number you’d have probably gotten a shoulder shrug followed by a meek, Droopy-voiced, “maybe, I guess. It can happen.”
If you had made the same proposition just one year later in 1997 you would have been met with a quizzical glance followed by an angrily bewildered, Spike-voiced, “are you crazy?!” Even four years later in 2001, you would meet the same if not greater resistance to such a preposterous notion.
The tremendous doubt would have stemmed from some unimpressive statistics. Over his first five years, Ilgauskas played just one full season. He missed two seasons entirely and played 29 games in the two others. When he was on the court, Big Z averaged just 26 minutes a game. The good statistics – per 36 minute numbers of 17 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2 blocks – were washed away by the lost time set in motion by Ilgauskas’ bad feet. Broken bones required numerous surgeries and copious rehabilitation.
Finally in the 2002-03 season, Ilgauskas’ career began to resemble what it should have always been. He averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. The Cavalier center was selected to the Eastern Conference All-Stars. He’d add another All-Star selection to his resume in 2005 while also teaming with LeBron James to lead Cleveland to its most prolonged period of playoff success in team history.
The 7’3″ Big Z was one of the more unique players to ever man the pivot. His looooong arms made him a shot-blocking threat despite being a bit slow of foot. On offense Ilgauskas resembled an awkward giraffe galloping down the court. But once Z got himself set, he could nail a sweeping, no-trajectory hook shot.
When it came to pick-and-rolls few centers were better. Ilgauskas occupied a lot of space and defenders had a helluva time getting around him. Once the pick was delivered, Zydrunas would side-step his way back as the opposing center was sucked into the paint by the ball-handler. Back would fly a pass from the handler to Ilgauskas who’d nail these gorgeous…
absolutely splendid rainbow jumpers.
Watching Ilgauskas play was a pleasure. The man never did anybody wrong and he always played his butt off. He had a beguiling enthusiasm and zest for the game that was refreshing after the Cavaliers had to entertain the likes of Fat Shawn Kemp and Incorrigible Ricky Davis.
Looking back on his many years spent fighting foot injuries, it’s absolutely stunning he wound up playing more games than any player in Cavaliers history. Ilgauskas also currently ranks as Cleveland’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocks. He’s second in minutes and points, while also placing in the top five in field goals, free throws, and blocks per game.
So, forget about the propisitions and suppositions from 1996, ’97, ’01 or any other year. Looking back from 2013, there should be no doubt that Big Z has more than earned the honor having his #11 forever retired on the shores of Lake Erie.
(all stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com)