October 24, 2014

Medina
Mostly sunny
52°F

‘Big Z’ is extra special

 

In my 28 years covering the Cavaliers, I’ve interviewed players from Andriuskevicius to Zeller, from Amaechi and Anderson to Williams, Woodson and Wright.

Almost all have been cooperative, some have been funny and a few have even been enlightening, but a handful will always stand out as being extra special.

One of those, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, will have his No. 11 jersey hoisted to the rafters tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.

Another, Anderson Varejao, will be on hand as a current member of the Cavs to watch his friend, who is still a special assistant to general manager David Griffin, be honored.

“I’m very excited for him,” Varejao said after a practice earlier this week at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “‘Z’ is like a big brother to me. He helped me a lot in this league with everything — basketball, on the road.

“When I got here (in 2004), I didn’t speak any English. He put me under his wing and took care of me. It’s going to be very interesting for me, that night, how emotional I’m going to be, because he’s a big part of my life.”

Because Varejao is so friendly, cooperative and down to earth, he’s my personal favorite among current Cavs from a non-basketball standpoint.

Ilgauskas is among my all-time favorites, right up there with Mark Price, Steve Kerr, Craig Ehlo, Terrell Brandon, Drew Gooden and a few others. The coach of that team would be Mike Brown, while the general manager would be Wayne Embry and the owner would be Gordon Gund.

Before we go on, let’s get the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas’ lofty basketball accomplishments out of the way. A two-time All-Star, he holds Cavs franchise records for games played (771), rebounds (5,904), offensive rebounds (2,336) and blocks (1,269) while ranking second in points (10,616).

That’s why the man taken with the No. 20 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft will be the subject of an 18-minute, 3-D halftime video that will be projected onto the court, then have his jersey hung alongside those of Austin Carr, Nate Thurmond, Bobby “Bingo” Smith, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty, Price and the longtime “Voice of the Cavs,” Joe Tait.

What makes Ilgauskas extra special, however, is that, as a human being, he’s as good as they come.

The Lithuania-born 38-year-old is intelligent, witty, humble, well-read, multifaceted and, above all else, just plain likable.

Ilgauskas also worked extremely hard to overcome numerous foot surgeries that threatened to end his career, as well as dealt with the incredibly tough ordeal of having wife Jennifer suffer a miscarriage while carrying twins.

Through it all, Ilgauskas has remained a great husband and father — he and Jennifer later adopted two boys — and is diverse enough to discuss just about any subject.

Beyond all that, he’s simply fun to be around.

“I have a lot of good memories, a lot of great stories,” Varejao said with a laugh, “but I can’t tell you any.”

As a basketball player, Ilgauskas was an extremely talented and underrated big man in his prime, but not all his moves were, to use his five-syllable word, “aesthetically” pleasing.

He also wasn’t the greatest leaper in the world, but his long arms and legs allowed him to tip, tip, tip offensive rebounds until the ball finally went in the basket.

In the locker room and after practice, “Big Z” was almost always the best interview on the team. The only problem was because of all his foot injuries, he was often in the trainer’s room receiving treatment before and after games.

When he did speak, though, his intelligence and humor were always present, as were his humility and sincerity, which made him a favorite among all his teammates, including LeBron James, whom Ilgauskas has invited to attend the ceremony tonight.

“LeBron was a part of Z’s career for (seven) years,” Varejao said. “That’s very nice of (James) to come here and support ‘Z’ on a very special night for him. I’m happy to see him come back for ‘Z.’

“‘Z’ went through a lot in his life. I don’t know if he’s going to cry or not, but I believe he will. I think that will be the first time I see ‘Z’ cry.”

Because Ilgauskas touched so many people during his playing career, and because he continues to touch so many people in the community and is so well-liked by so many, he probably won’t be the only person who gets a little misty-eyed tonight.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.