June 26, 2016

Partly sunny

Big ‘Z’ deserved a small gesture

Zydrunas Ilgauskas probably wanted to savor the moment, but not like this.


The Cavaliers center should have broken the franchise record for games played Saturday night, but coach Mike Brown, citing matchup problems, elected not to play him against the Dallas Mavericks.


That means Ilgauskas will have to wait until Wednesday, when the Cavaliers host the Phoenix Suns at Quicken Loans Arena, to break the record of 723 games played he shares with current general manager Danny Ferry.


In making what was probably his biggest gaffe in five years in Cleveland, Brown, normally as honorable and good a man as you’ll find in professional sports, upset not only the extremely professional Ilgauskas, but also superstar LeBron James.


“I definitely thought he should have played,” an angry James said Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “I’m not trying to stir up anything with Coach or the organization. I don’t know who made the call, but sometimes one game is a small thing. What was on the line (Saturday) was something way bigger than us playing the Mavericks, and that was ‘Z’ breaking the record to become the franchise leader in games played.


“I stand behind ‘Z’ or whatever ‘Z’ feels at this point in time. If I was in control of it, I definitely would have put him in. I probably would have started him. You could have easily started him and then subbed him right out and had the standing ovation from the fans.”


Everything the 24-year-old James said makes perfect sense. Brown’s actions, no matter how he attempts to explain them, simply do not.


The only way for the normally intelligent, reasonable and professional coach to get out of this one is to apologize directly to Ilgauskas, to admit he screwed up, big-time, and to ask for forgiveness.


Sadly, Brown had yet to do that when he met with the media Monday afternoon following practice. More troubling still, the coach was unsure if he would even discuss the matter with Ilgauskas, who turned down an interview request from the media for one of the few times in his career and was, according to James, “very upset.”


Asked how mad Ilgauskas was Saturday night, James responded, “I’ll let you answer that. Have you ever seen ‘Z’ be the first person out of the locker room?”


The answer, of course, is no. Because of numerous foot injuries and surgeries that once threatened to end his career, Ilgauskas spends the postgame icing his size 23 feet in the training room and is almost always the last player to leave The Q.


The 34-year-old missed all of what would have been his rookie season in 1996-97, played in only five games in 1998-99, missed all of 1999-2000 and played in just 24 games in 2000-01, yet has rebounded to become one of the more durable big men in the league.


Say what you will about his slowness afoot, his lack of a post game and his fading skills. Ilgauskas, who has missed 328 regular-season games over the course of his career, deserved way, way better than he got from Brown on Saturday.


Not only that, he deserved much, much more than he got from Brown, through the media, on Monday.


“Do I wish I had played him? Yeah,” Brown said. “It didn’t work out that way. Now you’ve got to move on.


“It wasn’t planned,” the coach added. “Even as the course of the game went on, I did not expect to not play him. It just happened.”


Brown offered a few lame excuses for why Ilgauskas didn’t play, saying the Mavs’ small, quick lineup forced him to also go small. He added that he struggled with whether to insert Ilgauskas late in the blowout, deciding against it because it might have been viewed as disrespectful.


Never mind that it never should have come to that.


Never mind that 7-foot-1, 325-pound Shaquille O’Neal —he was playing in just his second game after missing six straight contests and is not much more mobile than the 7-3, 260-pound Ilgauskas —started the game and the second half.


Never mind that power forward J.J. Hickson was totally awful for most of the night.


Never mind that the Cavaliers led by nine after the first period, which would have been an ideal time to insert Ilgauskas, who normally plays much earlier than that.


And, apparently, never mind that Brown’s huge brain fart turned what should have been a memorable night for Ilgauskas into an evening the proud and likable Lithuanian would probably like to forget.


“You can call it a mistake. You can call it a coaching decision,” Brown said. “I get paid good money from (owner) Dan (Gilbert). I feel like I’ve done a decent job of treating guys right.”


That last statement is absolutely correct, which is what makes not playing Ilgauskas so completely shocking, so out of character. Brown preaches family and togetherness, often having cakes delivered to practice to celebrate his players’ birthdays, but on this night he did not practice it.


“There were a lot of ways for that accomplishment to be accomplished,” James said. “It’s a sensitive subject. I’m not one to raise havoc or raise fire into the locker room or our team, but for me, I speak the truth. I stand behind ‘Z.’ I feel ‘Z’ not playing was not the right thing. As a friend of Z’s, I was very upset, and I know he was also.


“It could have been done,” the small forward reiterated.. “The game against the Mavericks, if it was personnel-wise or whatever it was, that’s a small thing. You’ve got to look at the big picture.”


Once again, James was right on the money, but then he really hit the nail on the head.


“Ever since I’ve been here, Z’s played,” the seventh-year pro said. “To not have him out there at one point in the game the other night, it was surprising to me. It was unchartered territory for me.


“When Z’s healthy, he’s been out there on the court with me. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve been out on the court with him. To see him in a uniform and not get in the game, it happens, but to a guy like that, it doesn’t happen.”


A healthy Ilgauskas not playing – under any circumstances, but especially given this situation – was so shocking that reporters who have covered the team for decades asked the team’s public relations department to research whether it had ever happened before. The Cavaliers unearthed at least one “did not play-coach’s decision,” but it could not be determined if Ilgauskas was healthy or even in uniform.


Regardless, he was definitely healthy and in uniform Saturday.


“He’s been everything to this franchise and has given everything in the 14 years he’s been here,” James said. “For him to have an accomplishment like that —I’m not saying it’s taken away, because it still can happen – but for it to be that day, a special day it’s going to happen, I don’t know how I would react, but I can understand if he doesn’t want to talk right now or if he’s upset. Like I said, I’m behind ‘Z’ in everything that goes on.”


James had not spoken directly to Ilgauskas —the only teammate left from the Akron native’s rookie year —and didn’t expect his teammates to feel as strongly as he did, largely because most of them haven’t been in Cleveland very long and don’t know Ilgauskas’ history.


“I stand behind whatever Zydrunas Ilgauskas does because he’s a teammate, he’s a friend of mine and he’s a big part of why this franchise has turned around,” James said.


Brown, who has been effusive in his praise of Ilgauskas over the years, knows the center’s history as well as anyone, but he erred, big-time, Saturday night.


Again, though, more troubling than that was the coach’s unwillingness —or inability —to see the magnitude of his gaffe two days later.


“People are human. People have feelings,” Brown said. “‘Z’ and the team, that’s no different than any other situation. This isn’t the last time anybody is going to get upset with me or the situation that’s here.


“It’s just like life. You deal with the problems that are in front of you.”


This would seem like an ideal time for Brown to take his own advice. He should tell Ilgauskas he got caught up in the heat of the game, admit he made a terrible mistake, apologize profusely for it and, above all else, mean it.


Ilgauskas is a reasonable man. While it would have been much more effective —and much more believable —for Brown to have already offered public and private apologies that were totally unsolicited, this relationship can still be patched up.


Heck, it’s like Brown said Monday when asked if Ilgauskas might start Wednesday against Phoenix: “Anything’s possible.”


We certainly know that’s true, because Saturday the seemingly impossible occurred: The man who was about to break the franchise record for games played, the man who no one could remember ever not playing when he was in uniform, somehow that man ended up not playing at all.


Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rickn@ohio.net.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.