If you read my stuff a lot, you might know that I have a lot of natural tendencies that gear me towards being a Detroit sports fan. I like the Tigers. I first really got into the NBA when Richard Hamilton started playing for the Pistons. My best friend was a die-hard NBA fan, and the Sacramento Kings were still solid. We spent a lot of nights watching the Pistons at 7:30 and then Chris Webber and Peja Stoyakovic in his basement in the late game on national television. He loved Bobby Jackson, I loved Mike Bibby.
The Pistons were really good for a couple years and I watched, but I watched from arms length. Finally, they fired Rick Carlisle, hired Larry Brown, then traded for Rasheed Wallace. The bad boy Detroit Pistons were back. It was really fun. They played defense, they had a few different players who could score 20 points any night, they played with a chip on their shoulder. I completely bought in, not only on Detroit, but also on the NBA.
Well, they won the 2003-4 title. I hadn't expected that. I couldn't just jump on the bandwagon. But I had something. I was a Cleveland Browns fan. The Cavaliers had just finished a 35-47 season. They had a kid named LeBron James I had seen play in high school a couple times. Alright, I'll just do that.
The first thing that happened in my new fandom: Carlos Boozer bailed. A set-back. So who did the team have left? One of the few guys I held in any type of esteem on the roster was Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who at the time I considered a sort of ticking time bomb due to the injury problems that plagued him early in his career. My first couple years of being a Cavs fan involved Z playing well ... and me wondering when the shoe would drop.
And my best friend let me hear about it too. The upstart Cavs were trying to get to the Pistons level. Anytime I would bring up how good Ilgauskas was, a quick "yeah, he's great, until he's in a wheelchair" retort would quickly follow.
A funny thing happened, though. Ilgauskas stayed remarkably healthy, a great testament to his character and perseverance. It was incredible. He was incredible. He could score, he protected the rim some. He was a clear positive influence on the team around him. My roommate was left to stew in the corner of our freshman year dorm room at Ohio State while Ilgauskas celebrated around his Detroit Pistons and secured a spot in the NBA Finals. It was a crazy moment I never thought could happen.
There are all kinds of stories about Ilgauskas becoming a part of the Cleveland community. Ethnic neighborhoods that still dominate towns like Cleveland, and Toledo, and Detroit know how to welcome their own. Tonight is a night to celebrate Cleveland. It's to celebrate the fans who never felt a title was owed to them by the Ilgauskas era Cavs. And it's for Big Z, who owns so many Cavaliers records, and still works for the organization today.
I can't wait.