For Cavaliers, Z will always remain more than just a letter

Sam Amico

Zydrunas Ilgauskas is what most of us can only hope to be: He can influence the masses without saying a word.

Yet in many ways, Ilgauskas is like you and me, except for the fact he stands 7-foot-3. He was the NBA’s version of Mr. Everyman, a regular guy who anyone would want as a friend, and best of all, someone who would probably give you a shot if you asked.

He's not perfect, and he has never tried to make himself out to be. The former Cleveland Cavaliers center was just as human as they came in professional sports -- and it took no effort, no marketing strategy, no manufactured spin from a highly-paid publicist.

All it took was Z being Z.

You probably don’t know Ilgauskas personally, but you love him just the same. And not just because he spent 13 years playing in your city for your favorite team, or how vital he was as a man in the middle for those very Cavaliers.

It has almost everything to do with the fact he's just a normal dude.

Remember that 17-63 season in 2003? Z played hard and conducted himself like a professional.

Remember that 66-16 season in 2009? Z played hard and conducted himself like a professional.

Remember the multiple foot surgeries, the time he was traded to Washington, the time he was expected to break the franchise record for career games played ... but Mike Brown failed to put him in the game? 

Yeah. Z played hard and conducted himself like a professional.

Ilgauskas isn’t shy, he isn’t aloof, he isn’t one of those folks who pretend they hate the limelight. He has plenty of personality and always understood the attention that came with the job. It just never made much of a difference to him.

Not that changing because of circumstances is such a bad thing. A lot of us would be different people if you gave us a million bucks and put us on television every night. Maybe not better, maybe not worse — just different.

Ilgauskas never really changed, but he never really went out of his way not to change, and there’s something admirable about both.

He's just continued to be the same laid-back person who was selected with the No. 20 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft.

Ilgauskas came from Lithuania. He became an icon in a place that’s so very far from home. Cleveland adopted him and he adopted Cleveland. If it wasn’t for his very Lithuanian name and very Lithuanian accent, you would no doubt peg him as someone who's been a Clevelander all along.

He just belongs here. He is one of us.

Back in 2014, before LeBron James returned and the Cavs won the championship, a grand ceremony was held to retire Ilguaskas' No. 11. On that night, everyone talked about how Z was a fantastic teammate, how he’s an extraordinary person, how he’s a devoted friend.

Everyone from players to coaches to media members shared memories of time spent with Z, how he made them feel more special than everyone else in at least some small way.

All of it was no doubt true. Z played hard and conducted himself like a professional.

He won on the court and in life, and he lost plenty, too. He was written off and became an All-Star. He left the Cavs and took out a full-page newspaper ad. He returned to briefly work in the front office not because he needed a job, but because he wanted to be part of the team, this team.

So that jersey you see hanging from the rafters at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse these days? Man, it’s just a number. The man who wore it remains our friend, and that will always mean so much more.

Sam Amico covers pro basketball for Sports Illustrated. Follow him @AmicoHoops.

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