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On Saturday night, the Cavaliers organization and the city of Cleveland celebrated one of its cherished adopted sons – honoring the great Zydrunas Ilgauskas by retiring his uniform jersey No. 11, raising it to the rafters of The Q in a powerful and touching halftime ceremony.
The ceremony tipped off with the man who drafted Big Z almost two decades ago – Wayne Embry – who told the story of how he selected the skinny Lithuanian kid back in 1996. Flanked by his family, Ilgauskas humbly accepted the accolades, thanking his former teammates, coaches and general managers. Saturday night even saw both of the owners Z played for in attendance – Gordon Gund and Dan Gilbert, who introduced Ilgauskas to the sold-out crowd.
As he took the podium, Z thanked his wife Jennifer and his young sons, Deividas and Povilas, as well as his parents and sister and brother-in-law, who traveled from Lithuania to take in the ceremony. In one of the most touching moments of the night, after his son’s jersey was raised to the rafters, Ilgauaskas’ father got on his hands and knees, kissed the court, looked to the heavens and crossed himself twice.
For Z, who’s renowned for his reluctance for the spotlight, it was a surreal moment that he admits might not sink in for a while.
“It won’t completely set in until probably days or months or years from now when I take my kids to the game, or even my grandkids, and I see my jersey there and that number that will never be worn again,” said Z following the ceremony. “It’s been a really humbling experience for myself to know that this city and this organization feels that way about me.”
There was a question posed all week whether Ilgauskas might actually shed a tear on Saturday night, but Big Z joked he wasn’t able “because there was a time limit.”
Some of the dignitaries to appear for Saturday’s festivities were the aforementioned owners and Wayne Embry, along with legendary broadcaster Joe Tait and fellow legends like Nate Thurmond, Bingo Smith and Mr. Cavalier, Austin Carr. In a group near the Cavs bench was a plethora of Z’s former teammates – including Anthony Parker, Delonte West, Larry Hughes and LeBron James.
After Ilgauskas wrapped up his speech, he was greeted with a huge hug by Anderson Varejao, who had come out of the Cavaliers locker room to see his close friend’s big moment.
Ilgauskas spoke emotionally of the impromptu reunion.
“First they had me in a room by myself for ten minutes, and I was going crazy,” joked Big Z. “And then they brought in all the guys that were here – all the players and coaches, owners, general managers. And we had, like, ten minutes to hang out in the room. And Danny Ferry came to me and said, ‘You’re the only person who could bring this group together in one room.’
Z continued: “I feel like those people have touched my life so much more than I’ve touched theirs. It was special for them to take time out of their busy schedules and come here for this occasion.”
All week, cavs.com detailed Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ journey from the 1996 Draft, through devastating injuries and on to All-Star appearances and his rewriting of the Wine and Gold’s history books. He’s the franchise’s leader in blocked shots and rebounds. At one point it looked like he wouldn’t play past his rookie contract. Instead, he went on to play more games as a Cavalier than anyone else in team history.
And on Saturday night, he looked back on 12 years with a city and an organization that embraced him and pulled him though some tough times.
“I remember when I first broke my foot and I think it was ’97,” recalled Z. “I remember sitting in my apartment in Reserve Square almost with tears in my eyes because I didn’t think I was going to play again. Coming home, I had no college degree, I had no financial means, I had a mom and dad and sister to take care of. And you guys know as well as I do how quickly NBA guys get chewed up and spit out and never heard from them. I could have easily been just a statistic.
”So I consider myself really lucky – forget retiring your jersey, just to go through so many years and play so many games. So, as unlucky as I was at the front of my career, I think I caught some luck on the back end of it.”
Watch Interview: Zydrunas Ilgauskas