11-year veteran, once plagued by injuries, says his history makes him want this victory even more than if he were a rookie.
LeBron James heaved the basketball in the air, turned and gave
a big bear hug to Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
It was time to celebrate the Cavaliers’ victory over Detroit in the Eastern
And it was fitting to see the player who led the Cavs to the NBA Finals for
the first time embrace the player who has been with the team the longest.
After 11 seasons full of uncertainty at the start and many losses along the
way, Ilgauskas finally has a chance to play for a championship.
“This is a big stage now,” Ilgauskas said.
Several years ago, playing in the NBA Finals seemed unthinkable for the
The Cavs chose Ilgauskas in the first round of the 1996 draft. He suffered
an immediate setback when he broke the same bone in his right foot that
forced him to miss the 1995-96 season in his native Lithuania.
Ilgauskas played the entire 1997-98 season with the Cavs and helped lead
them to the playoffs. But setbacks started to pile up.
Ilgauskas broke a bone in his left foot and played just 29 games during the
next three seasons.
The injury required two more surgeries.
At one point, Ilgauskas thought about retiring. But he chose to give his
career one more shot.
“If it happened now, it would be different,” Ilgauskas said. “But back then
I was still young. I was afraid if I never tried again, the rest of my life
I would look back and be disappointed.”
Ilgauskas has been injury-free the past six seasons. But the Cavs were far
from being title contenders early. They won just 17 games in 2002-03.
The turning point came when the Cavs won the NBA lottery and drafted James
the following summer. Four years later, Ilgauskas finds himself playing for
an NBA title.
“Even during those bad years, I mostly have good memories of good people,
and it was fun playing basketball,” Ilgauskas said. “I guess guys who have
been here the longest appreciate it more.
“If this happened to me my rookie year or second year, I wouldn’t have
appreciated it as much. But now we know how hard it is to get to this point
and have a shot at winning it all.”
Ilgauskas wants more than a shot at it starting Thursday when the Cavs open
the NBA Finals in San Antonio. He turned 32 on Tuesday. There are no
guarantees he will be this close to a championship again before he retires.
“Everything I had to go through to come here, I won’t take this for
granted,” Ilgauskas said.