Monday, December 8, 2008

Chairman of the Boards

Friends, teammates root on Ilgauskas as he nears Cavs' rebound mark

by Mary Schmitt Boyer/Plain Dealer Reporter
Thursday December 04, 2008, 11:37 PM

Sometime in the next few games, an errant shot will clang off the rim and Zydrunas Ilgauskas will stretch out his long arms to retrieve a milestone, one that many -- including Ilgauskas -- never thought would come.

The Cavaliers much-loved, much-injured veteran center needs 23 rebounds to surpass Brad Daugherty's franchise record of 5,227. Whether it comes at home or on the road, whether the game is stopped or goes on uninterrupted, it will be a nearly miraculous achievement, considering all the pain Ilgauskas has been through -- physical and emotional, professional and personal, public and private.

"It was really worth it," Ilgauskas said with a small smile.

Those who know him best and who have been with him through all the ups and downs since the Cavs made him the 20th pick in the 1996 draft will celebrate the accomplishment not because they think Ilgauskas is such a great player, but because they think he's such a great person.

"No one will be cheering louder," said Cavaliers minority owner Gordon Gund.

"It makes my heart swell," said his agent, Herb Rudoy.

"You know he's my man," said former General Manager Wayne Embry, who drafted him.

"It's indescribable what type of person he is," coach Mike Brown said. "I don't have the words for it. That's how good a guy he is."

Said former roommate Scott Brooks, "He's a great man. Cleveland's lucky to have had him for all the years he has played. He's a good player and he has a great heart."

Mike Brown: "(Ilgauskas) just makes my life and my job easier because of what type of guy he is. We're very lucky as an organization to have him as part of this thing, not only are we lucky, but the city of Cleveland, the state of Ohio is lucky because he's a class act for us. I feel like I've coached some very good professionals. He's got to be in the top three."
A gentle giant with a wicked dry sense of humor off the court, the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas never shies from mixing it up on the court, whether it's tangling with opponents like Detroit's Rasheed Wallace or ordering around lax teammates like Shawn Kemp. Such actions belie a soft touch who has been known to not only autograph a ball for a sick child but deliver it in person.

Yet when describing him, friends and teammates most often use the word tough. There is no other way to explain the challenges he went through to get to this point.

"Knowing the great difficulties he's had, I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined he could reach this pinnacle in his career," Rudoy said. "I am so emotional about this because 1) he's an absolutely fine person; 2) he's an absolutely fine person and 3) he's an absolutely fine person."

Rudoy first met Ilgauskas when he was about 16.

"My partners in Europe signed him," said Rudoy, one of the first agents to court European players. "He came into my office in Chicago, a big, tall skinny kid who was almost shy."

A former soccer and volleyball player, Ilgauskas had gone through a recent growth spurt and decided to concentrate on basketball, his country's national sport.

"It still is like a religion back home," said Ilgauskas, who had started out as a point guard. "We say all the boys have to play basketball in Lithuania, and if they're not good enough they go on to do smaller things -- like [be] doctors and lawyers."

At that point, he never envisioned playing in the NBA.

"It was one thing playing in Lithuania and being a good player," he said. "But the NBA would show one game a week back home and you'd see highlights of guys taking off from halfcourt and doing all this crazy stuff and you're sitting in your living room going, 'There's no way.'"

His plan was to finish his senior year in high school at a prep school on Long Island, N.Y., and then enroll in an American college like Georgia Tech or Alabama.

"I flunked my senior year in high school in Lithuania on purpose so I could come back to the states and finish my senior year in high school," he said. "My English wasn't good enough to go straight to college."

But after a downturn in the economy in Lithuania, his mom, an engineer who suffered from diabetes, and his dad, a bus driver, lost their jobs. So Ilgauskas signed a contract to stay home in Kaunas and play professionally for the Atletas Basketball club in order to take care of them and his sister, Zivile, seven years his junior.

Instead of attending a U.S. college, Ilgauskas had to be content playing for his national team in exhibition games against schools like Kentucky. Of course, when he put up 26 points, 19 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 2 steals against the Wildcats in a 114-81 loss on Nov. 22, 1994, people started to take notice. Well, some people anyway. Former Cavs coach Mike Fratello remembers calling his friend Rick Pitino, the Kentucky coach at the time, who said his team had won by 33 points and none of the opponents had stood out.

Former Cavs coach Mike Fratello: "It's a tremendous accomplishment when you realize the frustrations he went through as a very young player. This wasn't late in his career. This was early on. He hadn't even had a chance of tasting success. The best years hadn't come yet. ... Any time you become the leader of any franchise in a key statistical area that helps winning, it sets you apart. ... I'm not sure he has gotten as much notoriety or respect as he perhaps deserves, although I think there are reasons for that. He has a guy on his team who's not a bad player named James. But he's not a guy who's looking for that. He's just happy being an important part and doing what his job is."
But when Ilgauskas applied for early entry into the 1995 NBA draft, Minnesota Timberwolves assistant general manager Kevin McHale was all over him. Ilgauskas had a couple of impressive workouts in Minnesota but, in what would become an all-too-common occurrence, his right foot started to hurt. In fact, it was broken and he wound up withdrawing from the draft and having two surgeries, which caused him to miss the 1995-96 season.

He came back strong the next spring, and reapplied for early entry into the 1996 draft, which included Allen Iverson (No. 1), Kobe Bryant (No. 13) and Steve Nash (No. 15.) Minnesota had the No. 5 pick, which it used on Ray Allen. Cleveland had the No. 12 pick, which Embry used on Wright State's Vitaly Potapenko because he was confident he could still get Ilgauskas at No. 20. It was the only time Embry used a first-round pick on a player he had not seen play a game in person.

"We watched tape of him playing at Kentucky," Embry said. "He was the best big man in the game. You could see his assets. He was playing more low post than he is now. But down low he had great footwork with a nice shooting touch. He was way ahead of the game there. You can correct deficiencies and help players overcome their weaknesses, but one thing you can't teach is 7-3. He was a big gangly kid who knew how to play basketball.

"Once you got to know him, you fell in love with him."

Unfortunately, he broke his right foot again and missed what should have been his rookie season. He did, however, begin to endear himself to players, coaches and staff members with practical jokes and hilarious escapades.

Brooks remembered a fender-bender when Ilgauskas was learning to drive. Gund remembered a bawdy song Ilgauskas and Potapenko sang at the team Christmas party. And no one can forget his first Thanksgiving when, having overheard so much slang in the locker room that he asked someone to "pass the #$%& mashed potatoes."

The laughs were short-lived, though. After an outstanding rookie year in his second season with the team, in which he averaged 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds and was named MVP of the Rookie Challenge and a member of the all-rookie team, he played just five games in the strike-shortened 1998-1999 season before breaking a bone in his left foot. The injury cost him the 1999-2000 season as well.

He looked to be back on track at the start of the 2000-01 season and was averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds as the team got off to a 15-8 record. Then came a game at Miami on Dec. 22, 2000.

"That was the lowest of the low," Cavs assistant coach/strength and conditioning coordinator Stan Kellers said, his voice cracking even now, eight years later.

"That whole year my foot wasn't hurting but it was achy," Ilgauskas recalled. "Looking back, I just had a bad feeling in my mind that something bad was going to happen. Against Miami, I made a shot and landed on my foot and felt really a sharp pain. My foot went numb for a couple seconds. I never felt like that before. That scared me. Right then I knew, that was it. I took myself out of the game. I didn't need any MRIs or anything. I just knew."

Danny Ferry was a player at the time, and one of Ilgauskas' good friends.

The left foot was broken again. A devastated Ilgauskas contemplated retirement.

"I didn't know if I had it in me to keep going," he said. "The lows were just too low. I put in so much work, and everything was just going down the drain. I spent more time on crutches in those years than walking on my own two feet. For me, just walking without crutches was a luxury. I had these permanent marks on my sides from the crutches. The hardest part was watching the games, just sitting there, sitting there, sitting there, watching, watching, watching."

After about six weeks, Ilgauskas decided to have one more surgery -- his fifth in six years -- a radical reconstruction by Dr. Mark Myerson in Baltimore.

"I was 25 at the time," he said. "If I was 35, the decision would have been made for me. But I just didn't want to look back at my life and feel like I missed something or quit too early. I wanted to be forced out.

"My biggest thing was, 'If I go down now, I'll be one of the biggest busts in Cleveland sports history.' Or at least Cleveland Cavs history. I wouldn't be there with [Art] Modell or anybody else, but seeing this promising career going down the drain ..."

So he had the surgery and then went through months of grueling rehab, working out with Kellers and a host of trainers, doctors and physical therapists. He was the perfect patient, following every instruction to the T. When he wasn't working out, he was wrapped in ice. He carried a bottle of Advil in his pocket, popping the pills constantly. Then one day during training camp in 2001, he woke up and the pain was gone.

"It was weird," he said.

He played 62 games that year, 81 in each of the next two years and 78 in each of the three years after that. He was named an All Star by the Eastern Conference coaches in 2003 and 2005. He played 73 games last year. Friday night against Indiana he will tie Hot Rod Williams for third place in games played with the franchise at 661, just 62 behind all-time leader Ferry.

It's no coincidence that with Ilgauskas healthy, the Cavs have reached unprecedented heights. Of course, the fact that he's playing with LeBron James also has something to do with that.

"I have enjoyed the basketball games so much more," Ilgauskas admitted.

Still, there was more tragedy. With the Cavs in the middle of their most successful season ever, resulting in a trip to the 2007 NBA Finals, Ilgauskas and his wife Jennifer lost the twins she was carrying. They would have been their first children.

The entire team mourned for their friends and it was no accident when James sought out Ilgauskas and wrapped him in a bear hug after the team won the Eastern Conference championship.

"He means a lot to me, honestly," James said. "When you go through adversity like he went through, you can always look to a guy like that to help you get through certain things. To have him go through the last few seasons winning, I think has added a little happiness to his life."

More than a little. With one year left on his contract, Ilgauskas, 33, doesn't know how much longer he'll play. He does know that he'll always have a home in Cleveland with friends who love him.

One of those friends is Kellers, who will be looking on emotionally when that rebounding record falls one of these days.

"It'll be amazing," Kellers said. "It's a quantifier of what he's been through. All of us who have lived through this with him realize what a great accomplishment it is. This is a statistical validation of what we known he's done.

"I'm sure everybody in the organization will be thrilled. I'm sure my feelings will be a little unique because of my length of time with him. We'll all have our own certain memories and emotions."

Kellers did not rule out the possibility that a tear or two would be shed.

"But I can't say that," he said with a grin. "I'm the strength coach. I'm supposed to be strong."


Z is likely the classiest Cavalier of all-time, and maybe will end up being the greatest. Despite only 2 All-Star Appearances (should be at least 4 due to ridiculous fan voting for an aging Shaq and Rasheed Wallace), he is likely going to end up being the franchise leader in games played, 2nd in scoring and free throws attempted and made, (behind Lebron), blocked shots and all three rebounding categories.

Stay strong, Z. Here's hoping we win you a championship!

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