CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Zydrunas Ilgauskas held back tears as he stood and watched the banner carrying his No. 11 slowly rise to the rafters as familiar chants of “Zeeeeeeeee” filled Quicken Loans Arena.
The moment was surreal.
It was also a moment that in the early stages of his career, as he battled foot injuries and rehabbed night and day from numerous surgeries, that he never dreamed would even come to fruition.
“You guys have stuck with me through a lot since I was drafted in 1996,” Ilgauskas said. “Never in my wildest dreams, I thought I would be standing here in front of all of you today for this special occasion.
“I feel truly humbled and honored, I really mean that.”
The Cavaliers selected Ilgauskas with the 20th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft but his brittle feet nearly derailed his career. However, his heart and determination refused to allow it – even after he had just signed a $70.9 million extension in 1998.
He could’ve easily quit, but he didn’t and even underwent a risky procedure in 2000 to reconstruct his left foot.
The pain and arduous rehab eventually paid off as Ilgauskas became a 2-time All-Star and went on to finish as the Cavaliers all-time leader in games played (771), offensive rebounds (2,336), total rebounds (5,904) and blocks (1,269), while ranking second in points scored (10,616).
Known affectionately as “Z,” within the organization and amongst the team’s fans, Ilgauskas thanked everyone he could think of from his wife, Jennifer, and their adopted sons, Deividas and Povilas, to his parents and even the doctors, who put his feet back together.
But he had special appreciation former owner Gordon Gund.
“Thank you Mr. Gund for believing, and never giving up on a skinny Lithuanian kid that spent his first years in Cleveland walking more on crutches than he did on his own 2 feet,” Ilgauskas said.
Z also thanked current owner Dan Gilbert, who kept him around with a $55 million contract during the most successful stretch in franchise history that saw the team advance in the playoffs for 5 straight years and even make the NBA Finals in 2007.
“I know deep in my heart that this team will be back competing for a championship, because this city and fans deserve nothing less,” Ilgauskas said.
The current group of Cavaliers, who were unable to pull out a victory for Z and lost their fourth straight to the Knicks 107-97, watched the ceremony from the baseline.
“He gave a lot to this organization and I know we’re all proud of him,” All-Star guard Kyrie Irving said. “Once it’s up, it’s up. It’s there to stay. Everybody is going to be looking at it for generations [to come] and seeing Zydrunas Ilgauskas and what he gave to not only the NBA but this organization.”
Center Anderson Varejao, who returned Saturday night after missing the last 12 games due to yet another injury, is the lone member of the team who had the privilege of playing alongside No. 11.
“Z’s like a big brother to me,” Varejao said. “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 put me under his wing and took care of me. He’s a big part of my life.”
Not even Wayne Embry, the general manager who drafted him, knew how to pronounce his name back in 1996, but Ilgauskas’ humility, hard work, dedication and self deprecating sense of humor made him a household name in Cleveland.
“He showed a great deal of persistence to overcome the injuries, and he overcame the injuries because he had great passion for the game,” Embry said.
In addition to the 20,562 that packed The Q to pay tribute to the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian, the guest list was long, yet distinguished as the Cavaliers honored one of the all-time greats in team history.
Aside from Gund, Embry, and Gilbert, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, former general managers Jim Paxson, Danny Ferry, and Chris Grant – fired as GM just a month ago, along with former coach Mike Fratello, and teammates Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, and Ira Newble to name a few were on hand.
“I felt like those people touched my life so much more than I have theirs,” Ilgauskas said.
But the guest that drew the most attention was LeBron James, who chartered a plane to see Ilgauskas’ big night before he played at Chicago Sunday. With the help of the Cavaliers, James kept a very low profile as to not overshadow the moment or steal the spotlight from Ilgauskas.
After spending 8 seasons together, inviting the 4 time MVP and 2-time NBA champion was only natural for Ilgauskas.
“It was special [to have him here],” Ilgauskas said. “There was some talk leading up to it, this and that, but the way I looked at it if he wasn’t able to make it, that’s OK. I wanted to extend the invitation.
“Him being here was an added bonus for me because of what we’ve been through together. I consider him a dear friend. For me, it would have been almost a distraction if he wasn’t here. That he was able to witness that made it even more special.”
James sat in a suite behind the Knicks bench and walked to the floor to watch the ceremony along with others from the Cavaliers bench.
Ilgauskas’ No. 11 joined Austin Carr’s No. 34, Nate Thurmond’s No. 42, Bobby “Bingo” Smith’s No. 7, Larry Nance’s No. 22, Mark Price’s No. 25 and Brad Daugherty’s No. 43 in the rafters.
Nance, Thurmond, Carr, and Smith were also on the floor to welcome him to the distinguished club.
From a special 3D player introduction and halftime tribute, to speeches from Embry and Gilbert, as well as live social media posts displayed on 2 large projection screens at each end of the arena, the Cavaliers pulled out all the stops to honor Ilgauskas with a first-class state-of-the-art production.
One could argue that it was one of the most special retirement ceremonies of all time.
“I loved being part of this city, I loved being part of this community,” Ilgauskas said. “I just hope you feel the same way about me.
“Thank you for giving me a place I can proudly call home.”
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