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Zydrunas Ilgauskas: An Appreciation

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Lost in all the hooplah surrounding who the Cavaliers acquired yesterday was the actual weight of who the Cavaliers lost yesterday as well.  Zydrunas Ilgauskas is one of the Top-10 Cavaliers of all time, and one of the best athletes the city of Cleveland has ever seen.  

There will be plenty of people who will wax poetic about Big Z much better than I can.  I'm not the sappy type - no poems here - but I do fully understand what the Cavaliers gave up by including Z in the trade to acquire Antawn Jamison.

Ilgauskas has spent his entire career with the Cavs, becoming the franchise’s career leader in rebounds (5,841), blocked shots (1,259) and games played (760). He has been a fan favorite, overcoming serious foot injuries that threatened his career after being the 20th pick in the 1996 draft. Foot injuries cost him two full seasons and nearly two others within his first five years.

Ilgauskas had undergone foot surgery twice, but the Cavs thought he was worth the pick. But they had to wonder after he had to sit out the 1996-97 season because of another surgery on his foot. He also missed the 1998-99 season with a foot injury. 

Ilgauskas was healthy during the 1997-98 season and provided the league with a glimpse of why he had been so highly regarded, averaging 13.9 points and earning a spot on the All-Rookie first team. He also was MVP of the 1998 Rookie Challenge on the strength of an 18-point, seven-rebound performance. That impressed the Cavaliers enough to sign Ilgauskas to a six-year, $70.9 million contract extension.

But he only played 29 games the next two seasons, and his career appeared to be over before it really got started.  It would have been easy for Z to walk away - to stop the painful rehab and take the money.  NBA contract are guaranteed, Z was going to get paid regardless.  Ilgauskas didn't walk away, didn't take the money and run.  He got better and became an All-Star.

Ilgauskas was the bright light during the dark ages for the Cavaliers, when the team was winning 17 games in 2002-03.  In a lot of ways he was the only reason to go down to The Q at all, before LeBron James took over.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas lost nearly 4 full seasons to injury, yet still is an All-Time Great Cavalier.  Yesterday, in a quest to win a Championship, the Cavaliers traded Ilgauskas away.  Sure, the perception is that Washington will buy-out the remaining portion of Z's contract allowing for Z to return, but as we know nothing is a sure thing.  No, it is possible that we have seen the last of Big Z in a Cavaliers uniform.  Before we move full steam ahead in our quest for a Ring, let's take a moment to thank Z for what he has meant to the Cavaliers and the city.  He may never get the recognition he deserves, though I feel that someday his #11 will join other Cavaliers' greats in the rafters.

Thanks, Zydrunas, for everything!