It's Wednesday and that means it's time for another SBNation themed day around the NBA blogs. Today we've got Comeback Day. I figured it'd be a nice opportunity to talk about Big Z's return to the Cavaliers (on two separate occasions).
After a disappointing loss to the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Cavaliers knew that they needed to make a move. The big shooters of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis on the Magic were just too much for the Cavs to handle. Rolling out Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao against Dwight Howard wasn't working. Neither had the ability to really stretch the floor and the Cavaliers were facing a dreadful matchup. Anticipating that they would meet the Magic again in the 2010 playoffs, they targeted a player who could provide more scoring in the front-court. That player was Antawn Jamison. I could go into the pros and cons of this move on a basketball level, but that's not the point of this post.
In order to get a big man who could also stretch the floor, the Cavaliers really didn't have to give up much. The Washington Wizards really just wanted salary relief to start a necessary rebuild. The Cavaliers could provide that and throw in a first round draft pick in order to bring Jamison to Cleveland. It really was a no-brainer and a move that most experts praised and many thought would push Cleveland over the top. Ultimately, the Cavs ended up sending a 1st round pick and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to Washington and got Jamison in return on February 17, 2010.
While this was an obvious move to make for pure basketball reasons, I'm sure it wasn't easy. They had to come to terms with the fact that they were trading away a fan favorite and incredibly loyal Cavalier in Big Z. Big Z had played through a bunch of really crappy years with the Cavs and now that they were finally on the brink of possibly winning a championship, he was traded to the Wizards? That's cold. But that's basketball. And Big Z understood.
On February 26, 2010 -- just 9 days after Big Z arrived in Washington, the Wizards bought out the last year of his contract and allowed him to become a free agent. According to the current CBA at that time, a waived player could not return to his previous team for 30 days. But would Big Z want to come back? Would you want to go back to a team that only a month earlier had deemed you expendable despite your long history with the franchise and city? I wouldn't have blamed Zydrunas if he had told the front office to buzz off. But he didn't. Because Big Z is awesome.
On March 28, 2010 -- just over a month after the Cavaliers traded him to Washington, Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned to Quicken Loans Arena in a Cleveland uniform. And the Wine and Gold faithful welcomed him back like only Cleveland fans can.
I get goosebumps watching that video now. The loyalty that Zydrunas showed to the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland -- even after they broke that loyalty towards him -- is phenomenal. The love affair between the team and Big Z is incredible.
But that's not the whole story. After the Cavaliers failed to win a championship in 2010 and LeBron James darted for South Beach, Zydrunas had a decision to make. He was a free agent and could retire, stay a bit longer in Cleveland on what would be a terrible team, or take his career into his own hands and try to win a ring. He took the last option and I don't blame him. He signed with the Miami Heat and followed James for the shot at an NBA title to cap off an amazing NBA career. But he didn't go on national television and throw it in our faces. He took out a full-paged ad in The Plain Dealer.
When I came to this country 14 years ago, I was a young man who barely spoke the language and had no idea what to expect of this great country.
As I look back on those early days, I realize how lucky I was to have grown up in a place like Cleveland. All of you have taught me the importance of family and friends; of pulling together to get things done; of loving your country.
I’ve never felt as proud as when I’ve pulled on the wine and gold and stepped onto the court.
I’ve tried my best to return that support by playing as hard as I could each and every game.
The decision to play for Miami was not an easy one to make for either myself or my family.
But as I enter the last few years of my career, I felt I owed it to myself and my family to chase my dream of winning an NBA championship.
I hope you understand.
I also hope you realize that Cleveland will always be home to me.
With love and appreciation,
Zydrunas "Z" Ilgauskas
In the Heat's first game in Cleveland the next season, LeBron got booed like hell. It was an incredibly angry, venomous crowd. Despite the anger that everybody felt for LeBron and the Heat that night, they took the time and effort to recognize Big Z. The deafening boos for James and Chris Bosh quickly switched to welcoming cheers for Ilgauskas.
That's pretty special. As you know, Z didn't win a championship with the Heat that year and chose to retire in the following summer. This past season, for a third time, Ilgauskas was welcomed back to the city of Cleveland. He joined Chris Grant in the front office as an assistant general manager. Someday his #11 jersey will join Mark Price, Austin Carr, and the rest of the Cavaliers legends in the rafters of The Q. Then, Big Z will never be able to return again -- he'll be in Cleveland for good.