Trading Treasures For Turnovers

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?”

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