11 DayZ of Z: The Big Man Arrives

Feburary 26, 2014
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Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ long, proud journey with the Cavaliers dates back to June 26, 1996, when he was selected with the 20th overall pick in the NBA Draft.

The then-unknown Ilgauskas was tabbed eight picks after Cleveland’s first first-rounder – Wright State center Vitaly Potapenko – who was taken at No. 12.

In 1996, the Dallas Cowboys had just won their third Super Bowl in four seasons, Braveheart was the year’s top film and the Unabomber was arrested at his Montana Cabin. In the basketball world, Michael Jordan’s Bulls set an NBA record, winning 72 games en route to their fourth NBA Championship, topping a team that no longer exists, the Seattle SuperSonics.

Back in 1996, before the rise of Youtube or, for that matter, the Internet, Cavalier fans had barely heard about Potapenko, let alone Big Z, who had yet to play ball in America.

In the previous season, the Cavaliers made their fifth straight trip to the Playoffs, but were swept by New York in three games. The remaining nucleus from the Lenny Wilkens’ Era was all but gone. Mike Fratello was the head coach, Terrell Brandon had supplanted Mark Price, Hot Rod Williams was traded to Phoenix and about a month after Potapenko and Z were drafted, Brad Daugherty officially announced his retirement.

Aside from the fact that he was 7-3, not much was known about Ilgauskas when he was taken with the 20th pick. He hailed from Kaunas, Lithuania – the birthplace of his idol, Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis. Before being drafted in 1996, Big Z had averaged 20.3 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game for the Atletas Basketball Club in Kaunas.

Big Z was on-hand in New York City when his name was called by Commissioner David Stern in what would go down as one of the greatest NBA Drafts of all-time. Allen Iverson was taken with the top pick and Ray Allen went 5th overall. Kobe Bryant was selected one spot after Potapenko and Steve Nash was tabbed two picks later.


11 DayZ of Z: The Big Man Arrives

Some players from that epic Draft are still playing today, although their days of having their jersey numbers retired are soon approaching.

As for Ilgauskas and the Cavaliers, the Lithuanian never saw action after being taken at No. 20. He underwent surgery on his right foot on October 16 and watched that season from the sidelines. The Cavaliers would host the All-Star Game later that year, with Potapenko playing in the Schick Rookie Challenge and Terrell Brandon starring in the midseason classic at Gund Arena.

The Cavs missed the Playoffs for the first time in half-a-decade after that season wrapped up. But they’d be back in the postseason the following April – with their young center from Lithuania leading the charge.


Listen: Ilgauskas Drafted by the Cavs

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