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In Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ first few years in Cleveland – fluctuating between fantastic play and career-threatening injuries – fans might have thought he’d still make his mark on the record books one day.
Ilgauskas was a big man who could score, rebound and defend – so it’s not shocking that he’d be one of the leaders on those lists. But it would have been hard to imagine that one of the records Big Z would eventually eclipse was for all-time games played by a Cavalier.
On December 2, 2009, the man who missed the majority of three seasons while battling back from foot injuries, played in his 724th career game, eclipsing Danny Ferry as the organization’s all-time leader.
After missing his first season –undergoing right foot surgery just a few months after being drafted – Big Z played in all 82 games during his “rookie” season. But between that season (1997-98) and the 2001-02 campaign, Ilgauskas was limited to just 29 total games, with another pair of surgeries – this time on his right foot – in between.
In 2001-02, Z made his return to the lineup, but of his 62 appearances, he started only 23, mostly coming off the bench in relief of Chris Mihm. But the next season, and every season he spent in Cleveland after, Ilgauskas never played less than 64 games. In fact, he started 81 games in back-to-back seasons in 2002-03 and 2003-04.
From the 2004-05 campaign through the ’06-07 season, the Large Lithuanian started 78 contests per season. He started 73 and 65 contests in the next two seasons and came off the bench in 2009-10, as Shaquille O’Neal took over the starting center spot.
On that early December day, in a 17-point win over the Phoenix Suns at The Q, Big Z finally did break the record – suiting up for the 724th time as a Cavalier. As he had throughout most of that season, Z came off the bench – going 6-for-10 from the floor to lead Cleveland with 14 points to go with six boards and a steal.
“That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced in my life and also the closest I’ve come to tears on the basketball floor,” said Z following the sold-out standing ovation he received when he entered the game in the second quarter.
That season would be Ilgauskas’ last with the Wine and Gold, but not before he would extend his games-played mark to 771 – 48 more than Danny Ferry and 51 more than Bingo Smith. The Cavaliers closest active player is, again, Z’s close friend Anderson Varejao, with 517 games.
Big Z broke many records in his 12 years as a Cavalier – but for all the boards grabbed and points scored – maybe none is as impressive as the games-played mark, a testament to his commitment, professionalism and perseverance.