While LeBron James certainly looms as the most prominent member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in recent memory, he is far from the most beloved. That honor likely goes to Lithuanian-born center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who spent 12 seasons (and 13 years) with the Cavs from 1997 to 2010. Over that time, Ilgauskas proved himself to be a consistent producer, excellent teammate, and all-around enjoyable public figure. He was liked so much, in fact, that joining LeBron in Miami for a season and claiming he felt no sympathy for the downtrodden Cavs did little to affect his reputation.
Two years after his retirement, Ilgaukas remains a fan favorite and a member of the extended Cavaliers family. It should come as little surprise, then, that the franchise plans to retire his No. 11 at a home game in March. From Mary Schmitt Boyer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer (via SLAM):
The Cavaliers heaped praise on long-time center Zydrunas Ilgauskas after announcing that the team would retire his No. 11 jersey on March 8 at The Q.
Most of the details have yet to be worked out, and tickets won't go on sale for games in the second half of the season, including that one, until Dec. 7, but the Cavs were thrilled to talk about the big Lithuanian on Monday.
"You couldn’t ask for a better person for that to happen to,'' coach Mike Brown said before the exhibition game against Philadelphia at Value City Arena. "Talk about being a great person and great player, what he meant to the Cavs’ organization, Northeast Ohio, the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio, what he meant to myself and my career." [...]
Said owner Dan Gilbert, “Zydrunas Ilgauskas is not only one of the best basketball players to ever wear a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, he is also one of the finest human beings that has ever been associated with the franchise.
"Z’s numbers and productivity are clear evidence of his basketball success. What is more impressive about this gentle giant is the authentic concern and interest he displayed for not only his teammates, but for everybody who worked at the Cavaliers and for the loyal fans who supported him throughout and after his playing days. Z carried himself in a manner that positively impacted the fans and community that serves as the gold standard for all professional athletes. I am proud that the big fella’s jersey is being retired and will hang forever in the rafters of The Q.''
Ilgauskas accomplished quite a bit as a Cav and currently finds himself all over the team's all-time statistical leaders: first in games played (771), first in rebounds (5,904), first in blocked shots (1,269), and second in points scored (10,616). On the strength of these numbers alone, Ilgauskas deserves this honor. (It's also perhaps a bit late — All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving was denied No. 11 as a rookie in 2011 because the Cavaliers said they were going to retire it.)
Yet it's perhaps most impressive how he managed to fight back from injuries that would have ended the careers of most big men. From the 1999-2000 through 2001-02 seasons, Ilgauskas played in only 29 total games while dealing with various foot injuries. Constant foot issues typically doom any 7-3 center, and yet Ilgauskas managed to adjust his game accordingly and continued to be a productive player for many years. He was never especially mobile or athletic, but he figured out a way to make two All-Star teams and play a major role on some of the best teams in franchise history.
Ilgauskas is such a positive figure, in fact, that it may be tempting to throw him into comparisons with James, the Cavs' departed savior and resident villain. But such a binary opposition actually does a disservice to Big Z, who deserves to be celebrated for his own contributions to the franchise. He should be much more than the star of a morality play.
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