When I first heard the name Zydrunas Ilgauskas, I laughed. I was about nine years old at the time, and it didn’t really occur to me that people from different countries had names that didn’t sound like mine. But when I saw him play, I was impressed. He wasn’t just a big guy who ran around setting screens and missing opportunities at the rim. He could shoot, pass and above all else, wasn’t afraid to mix it up down low or stand up for his teammates.
I got a chance to see Big Z play in person a couple years ago at a Cavs-Bucks game in Milwaukee, and while LeBron James stole the show by dropping 55 points, my fondest memory was seeing Ilgauskus deliver a forearm to the chest of Charlie Villanueva after Villanueva leveled Z’s teammate Anderson Varejao.
I was sitting with three Cleveland natives at the time, and one commented, “That’s Z for ya. That’s why we love that guy.”
What I came to understand was that my friends didn’t admire Ilgauskus as much for the player he was as they did for what he represented. Z epitomized Cleveland’s blue-collar attitude. He wasn’t going to wow you with slashes to the basket or Olajuwon-like footwork, just like Cleveland won’t dazzle you with skyscrapers or A-list celebrity natives. But he was steady and represented the average player, much the way Cleveland represents the hard-working American who doesn’t get recognized for making the machine part that fuels your car.
Which is why Z leaving Cleveland for the sun-filled beaches and club-going Miami scene just a few days after LeBron did is the ultimate “F**k you” to a city that deserves far better.
I’ve often gotten annoyed with people who read too far into what a made clutch basket or brilliant pass means to a city, because, as cliche as it might be, it is just game.
But Z’s signing is about more than a basketball player changing locations. It signifies many of the negative qualities we see in our daily lives. It shows that loyalty means very little when more lucrative chances present themselves. It shows that as much you might mean to someone, if there’s a more appealing person out there, you will be let go of.
This lack of loyalty may have been expected from James – a guy who grew up rooting for the Chicago Bulls, New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys – but Z’s actions came out of left field. He was supposed to be the guy to say no to an offer like that. He was supposed to be the guy to deliver the hard foul on LeBron next year when he returned to Cleveland. He was supposed to be the guy who said, “These people here love me, and I wouldn’t do anything to betray them.”
But he didn’t.
So now Z will take his bad knees and rugged style to a modern arena that will surely attract the biggest names in film and music next year. But when Ilgauskas takes a charge in the second quarter of a December game against the Nets, the Miami fans won’t be on their feet cheering the way those in Cleveland would have.