Lega-Z: 10 Questions with Zydrunas Ilgauskas
From injury-riddled rookie to Cleveland icon, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is honored by the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission this month.
During your first few seasons, you dealt with foot and ankle injuries that caused you to miss a lot of time and left your future in jeopardy. Back then, could you have ever imagined you’d have such a celebrated career?
No, not really. I came close to retiring when I was 25 years old. By then, I had missed five years of basketball, starting when I was 18. I had four or five surgeries. It takes people a long time to get back to normal living — even if they don’t do anything athletic. It was hard mentally, especially being young. You don’t have family to lean on. You’re by yourself a lot. You don’t feel part of team because you’re not playing or practicing. It was tough, but it also made me appreciate the good times that came later.
During those years, did you find any comfort in the local Lithuanian community in Cleveland?
There was Lithuanian community on E. 185th (Lithuanian American Citizens Club). I haven’t been in a while, but back then I used to go a lot more. There was a church where they cooked Lithuanian food. I took my parents there once. It was nice to be able to speak the language you were born speaking and eat the food you grew up eating.
Who was your basketball hero when you were young?
Arvydas Sabonis was my basketball hero. He played for my hometown team [Zalgiris Kaunas — a professional team based in Kaunas, Lithuania]. He dealt with a lot of injuries, but he played in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers. I looked up to him, but basketball is like a religion in Lithuania. I didn’t have a choice. I had to play.
Do you have a favorite Cleveland memory from your playing time?
I think 2007, when we beat Detroit and advanced to finals for the first time in franchise history. Right now, it’s kinda like, eh, because they’ve won a championship and been to three straight Finals, but it was a big deal at time because there was never a team out of Cleveland that made it to the Finals. We came close a couple times when the team played at the Richfield Coliseum but could never get over the Chicago Bulls hurdle. Detroit had won the championship in our division and we just couldn’t get over that hump. That year, LeBron played really great and we made it. I loved seeing the city so excited. We didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but it was just another step in right direction.
What does Cleveland mean to you?
It’s home to me and my family. I’ve been a part of this city for 20-plus years. When I first got here, I didn’t know anybody. I had no friends. But it was similar to where I come from — another blue-collar city, similar weather. It made it a natural fit for me here. I dealt with a lot of trials and tribulations and injuries, and this city stuck behind me until the good times with the good teams.
Why did you decide to start helping out with St. Ignatius High School’s basketball team?
I got fed up with basketball a little bit when I went from playing right into the front office. It was just too much basketball, and I wanted to be home more with family and during the holidays and on my kids’ birthdays. But I didn’t want to detach completely.
Has helping out been a rewarding experience?
Yeah, it has. They have some really good kids up there. Good young men — the kind that look you in the eye and shake your hand. They work hard. I told them before I started, "I’m not a big Jesus guy, but if you listen and work hard, I can teach you a thing or two about basketball."
How did it feel to get your number retired by the Cavs?
I felt nervous and excited and humble — all those words. During the dark times, I never imagined being in that position. I had family, friends and teammates come in for the game. It was great. It’s a cool thing. You don’t think about it, but now, a few years later, I realize the jersey will hang there forever. My kids go to the game and get to see their last name. It’s a cool accomplishment.
What does being honored with the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission’s Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?
I’m a little too young for it, but it’s just a humbling experience. I’m one of those people who didn’t do anything for recognition — I just loved doing it. But being apart of this city for so long, it means a lot.
If you could say one thing to Clevelanders, what would you say?
Thank you for accepting me with all my flaws. Thank you for realizing that I wasn’t perfect but that I wanted to be here. Thank you for treating me and my family so great over the years.
10:30 AM EST
December 26, 2017