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Before this season, Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ career had been cruising along – steady, drama-free. Knowing Z – (and most Clevelanders feel like they do, to some extent) – this was probably just how he liked it.
Six months later, Big Z and his wife, Jennifer, have adopted two boys – five-year-old Deividas and four-year-old Povilas – from his hometown. In that time, he was supplanted in the starting lineup by Shaquille O’Neal, set the franchise record for games played, was traded to Washington ten weeks later and returned to Cleveland one month after that.
The final stage of Ilgauskas’ odyssey became official, when Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry announced the return of the Wine and Gold’s notorious big – inking the 12-year veteran on Tuesday afternoon.
The 56-win season Cavaliers didn’t need a momentum boost heading into the homestretch, but they will most definitely get one when Big Z rejoins the squad this afternoon at the Cleveland Clinic Courts.
It was just over a month ago – February 17 – when an emotional Danny Ferry faced the media to make the bittersweet announcement that the Cavaliers had acquired Antawn Jamison from the Wizards – but at the cost of his close friend.
In his brief stretch with Cleveland, Jamison has been exactly as-advertised. He’s fit in flawlessly.
Immediately after the deal, the Cavaliers dropped three straight. And immediately after that, they won 13 of their next 14 – despite losing Shaq for the rest of the regular season just one week after the trade.
The three-team deal (that also netted Sebastian Telfair) cost Cleveland next year’s first-rounder and the rights to this year’s second round pick, Emir Preldzic. But the deal did not include the Cavs’ prized prospect, J.J. Hickson, who is 10-1 as their starting center.
In 15 games, Jamison has averaged exactly 15 points per game for Cleveland, while Big Z played exactly zero minutes for the rebuilding Wizards.
The Cavaliers are a veteran-laden team, but none of those vets have seen what Big Z has in Cleveland.
Selected 20th overall in a 1996 Draft class that ranks with 1984 and 2003’s, Ilgauskas went under the knife before he ever played a game for Cleveland. When he finally did suit up, Z made an immediate impact.
Ilgauskas was the MVP of the Rookie Challenge at the 1997 All-Star Weekend in New York and was stellar against the Pacers in the Playoffs later that year – averaging 17.3 ppg against Indiana.
The very next season, another foot injury sidelined Z for the season just five games into the campaign. The following year, he was limited to just 24 games. For many Cavalier fans – and Ilgauskas himself – it looked like injures might consume his career.
But in 2001-02, Ilgauskas began to bounce back – playing in 62 games. He played in 81 games the following year and secured his first All-Star bid, despite the Cavaliers’ woeful 17-win season. In 2003-04, however, that painful season – and all the ones preceding it – paid off in the person of LeBron James.
“I’ve seen some of the struggles (the Cavs) went through, especially the year before I got here,” said LeBron. “You look at Z, at 7-3 having to get out of bed every day and go through a losing season like that. It’s not fun. It makes you almost not want to love the game of basketball anymore. And for me to come here and him to go through what we did in my rookie year and my second year and finally have … that success that we’ve had together – the bond that we’ve created has been great.”
After the Cavaliers crushed Detroit on Sunday night for their seventh straight win, LeBron echoed his thoughts on the Large Lithuanian’s return.
“He’s a good friend of mine, one of the best friends I have. So I’m looking forward to it. I know he’s had a lot of rest and I know he’s excited.”
In recent years, Z has broken the franchise’s records in rebounds (5,841) and blocked shots (1,259). And in early December, Ilgauskas set the mark for games played as a Cavalier, passing Danny Ferry with his 724th career appearance.
When he was traded, Big Z had played 760 games with the only franchise he’d ever know. He’ll play 761 sometime this week.
It’s tough to be the happiest guy in New Orleans. But Anderson Varejao might just take that honor as the Cavaliers head to the Big Easy with his long-time road dog on board.
“Z is one of the best, if not the best teammate I’ve had in my entire career,” said Varejao. “He’s the guy who took care of me when I first got to Cleveland. I remember my first preseason when I got there. In Columbus, he took me out every night to dinner and helped me order my food and everything.”
The inseparable international bigs will be back in business, with only the Diesel remaining to fill out a full frontline.
"The reason why I came back is those guys in the locker room," said Z, following Tuesday's practice. "I have a special bond with them and I didn’t want to leave them out there. I want to be out there with them. If I would have left and the team would have won a Championship without me, I don’t think I could ever forgive myself."
In an era where players jump from one franchise to another, Z has been the Cavaliers’ rock. Only Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce have more seniority with a single squad.
He returns to a team that hasn’t missed a beat without him, but is thrilled to have him back. It might take the two-time All-Star a contest or two to get back into game shape, but when he does, it gives Cleveland the most formidable frontcourt in the NBA.
Ilgauskas could play as early as Wednesday night, but will definitely be in the rotation when the Wine and Gold return to The Q for a Sunday afternoon contest against the Kings. It will be an emotional moment for everyone in the arena.
"The (fans’) support has been unbelievable," added Ilgauskas. "They really have been one of the main reasons why I chose to come back here. The way people have treated me – not just after the trade, but throughout the years that I’ve been here – they've made me feel part of this community. I’m from Lithuania and I’ll always be proud of that, but this has become a home to me. And it’s really been a humbling experience in a good way to see how people reacted."
"(Z) is rooted in this community," said Ferry. "The reaction that our fans and our community, not having Z here, there was clearly a sense of disappointment. They clearly have a great deal of love and respect for the guy."
Big Z has the battle scars, the numbers and the service time with Cleveland. The only thing his career is missing is a Championship Ring.
He’ll get back to work on that during Tuesday’s practice.