On February 17, 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded center Zydrunas Ilgauskas (known affectionately to the Cleveland fans as “Z”) to the Washington Wizards for forward Antawn Jamison. The fans and the media were told it was “just business,” and that the Cavs would work hard through the machinations of the NBA to re-sign “Z” as soon as possible. The media reported that the outside shooting that Jamison would provide to the Cavs would be invaluable as the team headed towards the playoffs. Certainly, Z would understand that. He did. Further, in an unprecedented show of loyalty, Z worked to become available after the trade at a personal cost to secure his buyout from the Wizards. Since he was paid up front by the Cavs, he allegedly had to write a check for $1.5 million to the Wizards for the right to be waived and become again available to the Cavs.
Making A Name
Ilgauskas was a first-round draft choice of the Cavaliers in 1996, and after playing just 111 games in his first five seasons because of foot surgeries, he went on to become the team’s all-time leader in games played, rebounds and blocked shots, and second in total points. He hung in there long before King LeBron James arrived. Z kept the team respectably within reach of winning seasons before it became so guaranteed. He made LeBron’s “internship” as seamless as possible, backing away from the leadership position he had aspired to and handed the reins to the younger player. In short, Z always gave from the heart. He played for Cleveland like players of yesteryear who cared more for the team than the contract. That’s why, even when Coach Mike Brown absent-mindedly left him benched on the night when he would have become the all-time leader in games played for the Cavs, Z said nothing to the media behind his wet eyes, and simply slapped the backs of those who had won the game–a class act. He deserved better from the people who were supposed to care, who were supposed to know better. How quickly management forgets.
A Specimen Of Sportsmanship
At the beginning of this season, general manager Danny Ferry maneuvered to bring Shaquille O’Neal to the Cavs. Z politely stepped aside and made way for the big man to bring a whole new element to the team. He slid quietly into the backup role, and never acknowledged one bit of disappointment to the media, the team or the fans. He was among the first to stand and high-five Shaq as he came off the court each game. This sportsmanship is an awesome example of what we try to teach our kids about sports. All of this gentlemanly behavior took place in a city where the term “world championship” is as rare as a forecast that includes sunny skies. Yet the people of Cleveland focused on acquiring an outside shooting forward as the answer to everything they needed. They had everything they needed. It was called heart, it was called team, and it was something that was built–not bought–like the New York Yankees that buy baseball championships on a regular basis. But, as the fans had the chance to fine-tune, they couldn’t resist, knowing all the while that someone was going to get hurt. But like an older brother who gives the bigger piece of cake to his whiny little brother, fans expected Z “to understand.”
Irony And Injury
Well, I guess the basketball gods must have been watching because on February 25, 2010, on the hallowed parquet floors of the Boston Garden, where much NBA history has been made, Shaq O’Neal jumped in the air, and an arm came down heavily on his hand and thumb, putting him out of action for six to eight weeks. I wonder if Z was home watching the game and smiling, not a happy smile of vindication but for a moment, just a moment, of knowing that many people had the same thought he did. “Can we get Z back?”
But Z should never have been gone. He should have been available in the backup role that he had freely accepted. Yes, the Jamison acquisition was great; yes, Ferry’s manipulation of the system was awesome; yes, I’ll be first in line to pound my chest if these moves put rings on the fingers of the Cavs this season, but the Cavs record is (at the time of this writing) the best in the league, and there’s something to be said for staying with what got the team to that point. The Z trade looked all that in the face and said, “Ahhh, so what? Winning, as we all know, is everything!”
Would the Cavs have pursued re-signing Z this hard if Shaq had not been hurt? According to Cavs management, the answer was yes. They planned to find a way to get Z back, no matter what. That’s easy to say now, right?
Reportedly, many Cavs players reached out to Z in the days that followed Shaq’s injury. They had dinner in his other home in New York, where they reassured him of their feelings for him and their sincere desire for him to return. I believe this was from the heart because the players know, firsthand, the need for synergy and interdependence.
Yet, conspicuously missing from these personal visits evidently was LeBron James. King James is known for his uncanny ability to see ahead both on and off the court, but as an observer I wonder if his reluctance to seek out Z was because so much is riding on LeBron’s decision as to where he will play next year. This may be the strongest indication yet of how undecided Lebron truly is about spending his entire career with the loyal fans and concrete skies of Cleveland, Ohio. And that very concern is where the dog catches its tail.
LeBron may be laying out a more deliberate plan for himself than the Cavs or the Knicks or anyone else who may be interested in him right now. He’s looking out for himself. And all I have been writing about in the preceding paragraphs was a guy who put the team first. Z has been with the Cavs his entire career. He loves Cleveland. My guess is he would like to retire here and remain a local legend–a lifetime Cavalier who will still be acknowledged years later, like Jim Brown, Bernie Kosar and Bob Feller. LeBron will ensure his recognition wherever he goes. Z does not have that type of star power, so he has to look for the ”best big fish in a familiar small pond” opportunity he can find, while showing the type of character that makes him such a winner.
There are those who will immediately point to Z’s $11-million contract and say, “Oh, yeah–my heart is bleeding for the poor guy.” But this isn’t about money. Whether you are an underpaid stock boy at the local mini-mart or a high-profile ball player with money to spare, it is critical to feel appreciated and valuable to those you serve.
A Chair To Stand On
So what does this mean for all of you? Friends, please. Try to stay sensitive to the important things that the world has been teaching us. Don’t swear or bad-mouth your spouse in front of the kids. Don’t miss your kids’ games and concerts because you seemingly have more important things to do. Don’t tell half-truths that teach children it is OK to lie. And above all, don’t favor one of them over the other. Every player on the team, every kid in the family, every employee in the office has a function and a role to play. You don’t have to care for or love every person you encounter equally, but it is critical that you love each individually–for all each person is worth.
Coach Mike Brown and General Manager Danny Ferry may be lauded at the end of this season for their cagey trades, foxy strategies and winning ways. Personally, if the Cavs win the NBA championship, I know where I’ll be. As the fans rush over to LeBron James to have him sign their T-shirts, programs and other memorabilia, I’ll walk past that circus, carrying a chair to stand on so I can shake hands and meet the eyes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at email@example.com