Video: Cavaliers honor Zydrunas Ilgauskas with jersey retirement ceremony
"I want to thank you guys, the fans," Ilgauskas said during a brief speech. "You guys have been the main reason why I kept getting back up after all the injuries, and kept trying again. I loved coming here to work every day, no matter what our record was that year and I missed that feeling running out of that tunnel on this court every single day of my life. I love being part of this community. I love being part of this city. I just hope you feel the same way about me. Thank you again for this incredible honor and thank you for giving me a place I can call proudly home."
Joined by his wife, his parents, his sister and his two sons at the ceremony, Ilgauskas was introduced by former Cavaliers executive Wayne Embry and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
"I think that the No. 11 jersey will stand for the kind of values that Cleveland itself and the great people of this city and the surrounding areas stand for," Gilbert said. "When [fans in the future] look at that jersey it's going to represent integrity and character, number one. It's going to represent hard work, lunchpail, get the job done, kind of effort. And it's going to represent the concept of never, ever, ever, ever giving up. Ever."
Ilgauskas in turn thanked Gilbert for the best years of career while also taking a moment to express his gratitude to former Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund.
"Thank you Mr. Gund, for believing and never giving up on a skinny Lithuanian kid who spent his first few years in Cleveland walking more on crutches than he did on his own two feet," he said.
Ilgauskas was presented with a framed, blue No. 11 jersey before a white banner bearing his name, No. 11 and the Cavaliers logo was raised to the rafters.
Cleveland's players honored Ilgauskas by wearing a "Z 11" patch on their jerseys while also donning warm-up shirts bearing Ilgauskas's last name across their backs.
The Quicken Loans Arena crowd sported shirts with his "Z" nickname and waved giant cutouts of his face.
LeBron James, who played with Ilgauskas for seven years in Cleveland and one season in Miami, was able to attend the ceremony, as the Heat were off in advance of a game against the Bulls in Chicago on Sunday. Former teammates Delonte West and Daniel Gibson were also in attendance.
"I am happy and humbled by this great honor," Ilgauskas said in a statement, when the Cavaliers announced the jersey retirement plans back in October. "Cleveland and the Cavaliers have been such a huge part of my life and it will be a very special and proud day for me and my family. I want to thank the Cavaliers and fans alike because I have been very fortunate to play here, work here and call Cleveland home."
Ilgauskas, 38, earned two All-Star selections during his 13-year career. The 1996 first-round pick played in Cleveland from 1997 until 2010, starting at center for the 2007 Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers. The Lithuanian native, dubbed "Big Z," holds career averages of 13 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. After 12 seasons with the Cavaliers, he closed out his career by spending the 2010-11 season playing alongside James for the Heat, who fell in the Finals to the Mavericks.
“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," Gilbert said in a statement. "‘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."
Listed at 7-foot-3, Ilgauskas was voted by his peers in 2010 as the league's slowest player going baseline to baseline. What he lacked in pure speed, he made up for in size, strength, rebounding instincts, post moves, mid-range game and overall skill level. He grew up idolizing countryman Arvydas Sabonis, and he was regarded during his prime years as one of the league's most versatile big men, much like his hero.
Perhaps his defining trait, though, was his perseverance. Ilgauskas played just five games in the 1998-99 season and missed the entire 1999-2000 season with foot injuries, and a 2002 Sports Illustrated story by Ian Thomsen noted that he had suffered five foot fractures in the previous seven years.
"If I'm done tomorrow, I'm going to be just fine," he told Sports Illustrated at the time. "There are a lot better things in life than basketball."
Of course, Ilgauskas was just getting started. When he retired, nearly a decade after making those comments, he stood as the Cavaliers' all-time franchise leader in games played, rebounds and blocks, and he was one of the most popular players in franchise history.
Upon his retirement, the Cavaliers hired Ilgauskas as a special assistant to now-former GM Chris Grant.
“Zydrunas represents the very best of how any sports franchise would hope to be represented,” Grant said in a statement. “He was a hard working competitor who persevered, was dedicated, inspiring, and was a great teammate. As good as he was on the court, he was just as good off the court and in our community. Everyone that knows Z also knows that he is a kind-hearted, fun-loving and honorable person.”
That personality came across in a 1998 Sports Illustrated piece by John Walters, which included this zinger about Ilgauskas getting comfortable in the United States.
His comfort with English is expanding almost as rapidly as his game. Cavaliers guard Scottie Brooks recently found himself bemoaning his homesickness to Ilgauskas. "My wife's in California," said Brooks, "and I haven't seen her for four weeks."
"Don't worry," said Ilgauskas. "I talked to her last night, and she's fine."