Farewell, for now, Z

February 25th, 2010

Let’s take a quick jog down memory lane, back to June of 1996. 

My hometown Cleveland Cavaliers have two picks in the first round of the NBA Draft this year, having acquired the Washington Bullets’ first round selection in exchange for Mark Price. The Cavs are in rebuilding mode, but they own both the 12th and the 20th overall selections. It’s a great opportunity to get two building blocks to shape the franchise’s future.

I’m just an eight-year-old at this time, so all I know about the Draft is that NBA teams get to take college players and add them to their roster. Price was everyone’s favorite player, so as a young kid I’m sitting there hoping the Cavs get someone like Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury or Ray Allen. I needed a new guy to follow.

Well, those guys all went in the top five picks, and when it came time for my team to pick, they stayed in-state and took center Vitaly Potapenko from Wright State University.

Sidenote: With the next pick, the Charlotte Hornets selected a high school kid from Philadelphia named Kobe Bryant. The rest, as they say, is history.

After Bryant, Peja Stojakovic and Steve Nash, among others, came off the board, the Cavs were on the clock again for the 20th selection. Already having drafted a foreign-born center, they decided, much to the chagrin of Cleveland fans, to take another one: 21-year-old big man Zydrunas Ilgauskas from Lithuania.

Potapenko and Ilgauskas weren’t going to be able to replace Price as my favorite player, and my little eight-year-old heart was crushed.

It’s hard to root for someone when you have trouble pronouncing their name, and it’s even harder to root for someone when they’re always on the sidelines because of injury. That was the case with Ilgauskas who played in just 111 of a possible 378 games in his first five years with the Cavs.

Finally in 2001, Ilgauskas, after numerous foot surgeries, started to play injury-free. And whenever he played, he produced. He was the best player on a bad team, which obviously all changed when LeBron James came to town.

In the summer of 2005, fresh off a season in which he averaged 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, Ilgauskas could have left via free agency, but elected to stay and try to win a championship with a team that stuck by him early in his career.

It looks like the team that stuck by Ilgauskas has a chance to end the title drought this season … only that team may do it without Ilgauskas after dealing him last week in a trade that brought Antawn Jamison to Cleveland.

There’s still a chance that the Washington Wizards can waive Ilgauskas, thus making him free to sign with any team he so chooses. NBA rules would not allow the Cavaliers to re-sign Ilgauskas until March 21, but I hope and pray that he’s here.

Many have said that a championship for the Cavaliers wouldn’t mean as much without “Z” around, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Aside from James, it could be argued that no other player has meant as much to the franchise as Ilgauskas did. He holds the team record for blocks and rebounds with the Cavaliers, and most shockingly, games played. 

Father Time is catching up with Ilgauskas, but even if it is just for pomp and circumstance, he deserves to be on this team. Ilgauskas demonstrated tremendous loyalty to the Cavaliers by working to overcome the injuries, and then re-singing in 2005. 

The NBA is a business, and the bottom line is wins and losses, so the Cavs have to trade Ilgauskas for Jamison every day of the week, and twice on Sunday, to improve the team. 

Part of running a good business, though, is treating people right. If Ilgauskas does become a free agent, the Cavs should throw all $2 million they have left at Ilgauskas and bring him home – and this literally is his home now.

Win or lose come playoff time, and whether or not Ilgauskas is on the team, he’ll always have a special place in the heart of many Clevelanders. 

Many of whom now, shockingly, hold Z in higher regards than even Mark Price.


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