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A 21-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas spent the season he was drafted watching his new team from the sidelines – rehabbing from right foot surgery less than four months after being drafted by the Cavaliers.
That year, the Cavaliers missed the Playoffs for the first time in five seasons despite a 42-40 mark. Terrell Brandon was named an All-Star for the second time and Big Z’s draft classmate, Vitaly Potapenko, was named to the Schick Rookie Challenge.
When Z finally took the floor, the Cavs had undergone a major facelift from the season before – acquiring Shawn Kemp from Seattle in a three-way deal that sent Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill to Milwaukee. Along with Kemp, a five-time All-Star, the Cavs had restocked with young talent – selecting Derek Anderson (No. 13), Brevin Knight (No. 16) and Cedric Henderson (No. 45) in the 1997 Draft. Ilgauskas, who hadn’t played an NBA game to this point, was considered part of Cleveland’s rookie class.
After looking strong through Training Camp, Ilgauskas was ready for his first career start as the Cavaliers opened the 1997-98 season on Halloween night in Houston. All Ilgauskas would have to do for a successful start to his NBA career was take on two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 12-time All-Star and former MVP, Hakeeem Olajuwon.
Houston had won a pair of NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995 and had added All-Star forward Charles Barkley to the mix. And they jumped all over the young Cavaliers in their home opener – taking a ten-point lead after one quarter and leading by 16 after three. The Cavaliers outscored the Rockets, 31-24, in the final period, but Houston held on for the win.
But the loss was secondary to Cavalier fans, who saw the birth of a big man that night in Texas. Big Z finished the game 5-of-13 from the floor and 6-of-10 from the stripe, netting 16 points and grabbing 16 boards – twice as many as any Rocket that night. Eight of Z’s rebounds were off the offensive glass.
As for Olajuwon, he was 5-of-10 from the floor for 10 points, adding eight boards and accumulating five personal fouls attempting to guard Cleveland’s surprisingly-mobile 7-3 youngster.
The following night, Shawn Kemp made his Cavaliers debut in San Antonio – the only game Ilgauskas did not start that season.
But as an official rookie in 1997-98, Big Z played in all 82 contests – including a successful stop at All-Star Weekend in New York City and a riveting four-game postseason series against Rik Smits and the Pacers.
Big Z would still have many obstacles to overcome throughout his career, but after one night – and one season – in the pivot, anyone could see that big things were ahead for Cleveland’s young big man.
Watch Video: First Game on 10/31/97