In 1996, the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted a virtually unknown Lithuanian by the name of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There was no hype, no pomp, just a 7 ft 3 in needle of a man who wanted to play ball in the NBA. And that’s exactly what he did.
Despite a potentially career-ending foot injury, Ilgauskas went on to become one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference – if not in the league – over his first five seasons. He earned both All-Rookie First Team honors as well as an All-Star appearance during that span. More importantly, he emerged as the lone bright spot in an otherwise drab organization, committed to seeing the team through the rough times until fortune finally found the Cavaliers.
Fortune, as it were, had a name: LeBron James. And with that name came all the hype and headlines, all the pomp and pageantry, all the glitz and glamour . . . all the things Ilgauskas was not. Like a true professional (on a bottom-dwelling team), Ilgauskas welcomed the LeBron show and graciously stepped into the already swollen shadow of the young phenom. He would never again emerge.
Fast-forward seven years. To appease LeBron, Ilgauskas was relegated to the bench for the first time in 13 years to make way for Shaquille O’Neal. A role in which, as always, he took in stride. Again to appease LeBron, three months later Ilgauskas was traded to Washington for Antawn Jamison. Z waited the mandatory 30 days, shook off the stigma of being treated as live bait and signed back with the Cavaliers. Again, Ilgauskas took it in stride knowing that these were moves leading up to the championship he’d sought after for so many years.
Needless to say that championship never came. His sacrifice, at the hands of LeBron James, netted nothing, save for less playing time and a trip to our nation’s capitol. And how does LeBron repay Z? He bolts for Miami, deserting the very team that was built around him and, more succinctly, the very player that anchored his rise to superstardom. So Zydrunas watched – like the rest of us – as LeBron and his ego collectively slapped Cleveland in the face, forcing him to fathom a future without the shadow of LeBron James lingering above at all times.
The truth is that shadow will never move, not for Z, not for Cleveland, not even for LeBron no matter how much he would like it to disappear. His presence has left a lasting imprint on Cleveland and on Ilgauskas, for good and for bad. There is no going back; there is no do-over, not for a city like Cleveland and certainly not for a 35-year-old center in his 14th year in the NBA. Z knew this and, as much as they don’t like to admit it, the city of Cleveland knew this. No one can blame Ilgauskas for signing with Miami, that decision was made seven years ago. So for now Z is headed to the Sunshine State, it’s just too bad he’s still in the shadows.