The Lineage of Large Lithuanians

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What is it about Kaunas, Lithuania?

It’s the second-largest city in Lithuania with a population slightly smaller than Cleveland’s. It’s located in the center of the country, in-between the two largest rivers in Lithuania – the Nemunas and Neris. There are nine universities around the Kaunas city limits.

It’s also the home of current and former NBA players Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Martynas Andriuskevicius. Three of the four Lithuanian natives are centers – Cavaliers’ rookie Andriuskevicius stands 7-2. Big Z and Sabonis measure in at 7-3, each. Ilgauskas and Andriuskevicius attended the same high school.

When asked how one city could turn out that many seven-footers, Ilgauskas jokes: “The town is built next to a nuclear power plant.”

Actually, it’s located on the off the Baltic Sea, but it is somewhat unusual that a foreign city of that size would produce so many NBA players. It shows just how far the international game has come since Sabonis was drafted back in 1985 by the Atlanta Hawks.

Sabonis was a groundbreaker, not only for the Lithuanian players mentioned above, but for international players in general. He joined the Lithuanian Junior Team at age 15 and, back when there was still a Soviet Union, Sabonis helped them win the gold medal in Seoul at the 1988 Olympics, topping David Robinson and Team USA.

Arvydas had a highly productive career with the Trail Blazers when he was finally re-selected by Portland in 1996 – eleven years after the NBA disallowed the Hawks’ selection of him for being too young to be eligible for the draft. That year, the league’s oldest rookie at 30-years-old was the runner-up for both the Sixth Man and Rookie of the Year awards.

In seven seasons with the Blazers, Sabonis averaged 12 points and seven boards, but his ailing knees cut short his belated NBA career and he announced his retirement following the 2002-03 season.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas wears number “11” in honor of Sabonis, his basketball idol.

The Cavaliers’ man in the middle and the last link to their playoff past has had his share of ailments over the course of his seven-year NBA career. And the two-time All-Star has bounced back with a vengeance, establishing himself as one of the best bigs in the Eastern Conference.

Still, Ilgauskas’ future with the Wine and Gold was a source of speculation towards the end of the 2004-05 season as he approached free agency. Z was drafted by Cleveland in 1996 – although he spent the first year rehabbing a foot injury –and Cavaliers are the only NBA team he’d ever known.

This past off-season, though, new Cavaliers’ GM – and Ilgauskas’ teammate for four seasons – Danny Ferry, re-signed the incumbent pivotman to a five-year deal that could effectively allow Z to retired as a Cavalier.

Ferry was hired as the ninth general manager in Cavaliers history the night before the NBA Draft and, although the Cavaliers had no selections in either round, the former Blue Devil was determined to acquire one. He shipped swingman Jiri Welsch to the Milwaukee Bucks for a future second rounder and made a deal with the Orlando Magic to acquire their second round selection – 19-year-old Martynas Andriuskevicius – the 44th overall choice.

Pundits had predicted the angular Andriuskevicius as a possible lottery pick, and the young European made the trip to New York for the festivities. But he slipped to the Magic midway through the second round and was acquired by the Cavaliers before sunrise.

“I didn’t expect to be in Cleveland,” Andriuskevicius said of his draft day experience. “A lot of people ask me if I’m upset about not being picked in the top ten. But I say that I’m more happy to be the 44th pick and to be here in Cleveland.”

(The Cavaliers had struck gold dealing with Orlando the year before. Cleveland packaged Tony Battie and a future pick for forward Drew Gooden and a then-unknown player at the top of 2004’s second round – Anderson Varejao. Gooden went on to start all 82 games for the Wine and Gold. Varejao, a rookie sensation and rebounding machine, enjoyed cult hero status as the “Wild Thing.”)

Though Martynas showed great promise and potential, at the tender age of 19, he was a training camp or two – and many cheeseburgers away – from becoming the force Varejao had become in his rookie season. And as most mortal basketball players, he was miles away from Cleveland’s teenage draft pick two years removed, LeBron James.

(When Martynas was introduced to the Cleveland media, he was asked if he had heard of LeBron James. The blonde bomber smiled and said, “We have newspapers in Kaunas.”)

With just over one-quarter of the season gone, fans in Cleveland have yet to see the young seven-footer play.

“It’s been difficult not playing,” said Martynas. “But I just do what the coach tells me to do. If he tells me to jump, I’ll do it. Coach wants me to focus more on practice. I’ll just have to wait my turn.”

As with many rookies, Andriuskevicius has been relegated to practice play, absorbing game action from the bench and, of course, picking up the Krispy Kremes for the veterans every morning.

Luckily, Martynas had a built-in mentor with the Cavaliers in Ilgauskas – the king of the second-generation of Lithuanian big men. He remembers watching Z play as a young man.

“Z was one of the best centers in Lithuania,” he recalls. “Maybe one of the best in all of Europe.”

Although they are countrymen and are only one-inch apart in height, Andriuskevicius insists that his game is quite different than Z’s.

“(Ilgauskas) is like a center; I’m more like a power forward,” said Martynas. “I like to drive. I like to face up. I like to play from outside the key. On defense, I like to guard faster, but not stronger guys.”

Ilgauskas’ game is as good as it’s ever been. Once again, Z is putting up strong numbers – averaging around 15 points and eight boards per game – as he has for his entire career. After years struggling with foot surgeries that could have easily ended his career, Ilgauskas has established himself as one of the best pure centers in the NBA.

What advice has Ilgauskas, the seven-year veteran, given the svelte seven-footer as Martynas adjusts to the States and the NBA game?

“Right now I’m trying not to burden him too much because it’s a new country and a new culture and he needs to settle in,” said Ilgauskas. “I know what I went through trying to find a place to live, trying to find a car and learning your way around. So when he asks, I give him advice, but I try not to burden him too much.

“He’s young – 19 years old – but he’s not five. So I’d rather be more a friend than a father.”

Martynas added: “I’m not a kid. I have a personal life and (Ilguaskas) has a wife. He helps me if I don’t understand something and that’s the biggest help. Sometimes there are a couple words on the court that they’re using. And you need to learn those real quick.”

Ilgauskas can relate to coming into an overwhelming situation. When Ilguaskas was drafted by the Cavaliers with the 20th pick of the first round in 1996, Cavalier fans had never even heard of the man. Drafting international players was not in vogue back then and Cavalier fans were still getting over fan favorite and long-time incumbent, Brad Daugherty.

“I had a lot of struggles at first,” Ilgauskas recalled. “It was the first time away from my family and friends. I didn’t know the language that well. Right from the start I got hurt, so I couldn’t even play basketball. It wasn’t easy but I had a lot of good people around me.”

Now Z is using that experience to help make the assimilation to Cleveland and the States that much easier for the young Andriuskevicius.