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By Tom Withers | Associated Press
CLEVELAND -- As the arena filled with the familiar drone of “Zeeeeeee,” Zydrunas Ilgauskas waved his right hand and used his left to gently pat his heart.
The big man, the one who started off as a “skinny kid from Lithuania” and overcame injuries that would have stopped others, grappled with his emotions as he said thanks to the fans who adopted him as their own.
“Thanks for giving me a place I can proudly call home,” he said.
Cleveland roared back.
At 7-foot-3, Ilgauskas towered over everyone yet stayed completely down to earth.
Soft-spoken and doggedly determined, Ilgauskas, who overcame injuries and personal tragedy to become one of Cleveland’s best and most beloved players, had his No. 11 jersey retired Saturday night during an elaborate and emotional halftime ceremony as the Cavs hosted the Knicks.
The seventh player in team history to receive the honor, Ilgauskas joins Austin Carr, Nate Thurmond, Bobby “Bingo” Smith, Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price in having his number raised to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena.
All of them have career credentials worthy of the tribute, but the celebration for Ilgauskas goes far beyond any statistics.
“Throw basketball stuff out the window,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “He’s a terrific human being.”
During the ceremony, Ilgauskas was joined on the court by his wife, Jennifer, and their adopted sons, Deividas and Povilas. His parents also attended along with friends, former Cavs owner Gordon Gund and dozens of ex-teammates, including superstar LeBron James, who was invited by Ilgauskas and wanted to support the player affectionately known as “Z.”
“Probably one of the most talented guys I ever played with,” said James, who chartered a jet and flew in to be with his close friend.
James kept a low profile during the ceremony, staying close to the Cavs bench. He took pictures with his phone but didn’t want his appearance to overshadow his former teammate.
This was Z’s night.
Ilgauskas thanked everyone he could during his speech.
“Thank you for not giving up on a skinny kid from Lithuania,” he said to Gund.
Later, Ilgauskas said he was thrilled to have James at the event.
“It was special,” said Ilgauskas, who recently became a U.S. citizen. “There was some talk leading up to it, this and that, but the way I looked at it if he wasn’t able to make it, that’s OK. I wanted to extend the invitation.
“Him being here was an added bonus for me because of what we’ve been through together. I consider him a dear friend. For me, it would have been almost a distraction if he wasn’t here. That he was able to witness that made it even more special.”
Ilgauskas conquered career-threatening foot injuries to become a two-time NBA All-Star as well as the Cavs’ career leader in rebounds (5,904), games played (771) and blocks (1,269). He’s second on the scoring list, behind only James.
A gentle giant off the floor, Ilgauskas accomplished it all through hard work, enduring endless hours of grueling rehab and treatment to fulfill a dream that began as a small boy playing soccer and volleyball in Lithuania.
Ilgauskas spent 12 seasons with the Cavs, and for a long stretch of his tenure he was the only good thing about the franchise. That all changed when James arrived in 2003, and along with Ilgauskas — an odd couple if there ever was one — they led the Cavs to their only NBA Finals appearance in 2007.
One of the enduring moments in Cleveland sports over the last 30 years was James and Ilgauskas wrapping their arms around each other to celebrate the Cavs’ win over Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals. After being traded, Ilgauskas followed James to Miami and played one season with the Heat.
Ilgauskas retired in 2011, but returned to the Cavs the following year and has been working as a special assistant to the general manager.
He’s always been special.
Ilgauskas connected with Cleveland fans like few pro athletes. Big Z endeared himself with his perseverance, resilience, loyalty and a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Shortly after undergoing his second major foot surgery, Ilgauskas quipped he “had as much hardware as Home Depot” in his feet.
The Cavs selected Ilgauskas with the 20th overall pick in 1996, and after a promising rookie season in 1997-98, he encountered the first of many medical obstacles.
After visiting foot specialists across the country, Ilgauskas underwent a risky operation in 2000 to have his left foot radically reconstructed. He tortured himself during workouts to get back, and spent countless hours getting treatment on his feet, which required extensive icing before and after he played.
It all paid off when Ilgauskas was named an All-Star reserve in 2003. There were other hardships, the most challenging in 2007 when he and Jennifer lost the twins she was carrying.
Through it all, Ilgauskas was the consummate teammate.
“Z’s like a big brother to me,” Cavs center Anderson Varejao said. “He helped me a lot in this league, with everything, basketball, on the road. When I got here I didn’t speak any English. He put me under his wing and took care of me. He’s a big part of my life.”
And in Cleveland, Ilgauskas has always been so much more than big.