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Zydrunas Ilgauskas wondered if he’d ever make it through a season without an injury. Yet he tells Mark Woods that the dreams of another setback still haunt him daily.
Amid all the hubris which has surrounded the last, heady days of LeBron James’ high school career, the momentous achievement of Ohio’s other Mr. Basketball has almost past unnoticed.
82 games and done of the Cleveland Cavaliers horrible season and Zydrunas Ilgauskas has taken only one night off, just a single missed game after three years when it was easier to count up those times when his brittle foot allowed him to stride onto the floor and place that 7’3” frame at the Cavs’ disposal.
“It’s been a long time since I felt this good,” he admits, failing to suppress a smile of satisfaction. “It’s been two years since the last surgery. I’m just hopeful it will stay that way.”
Amid incessant embarrassment, the big Lithuanian’s podiatric health has been the one positive footnote to a campaign which Cleveland’s long-suffering fans will want to blank from even the deepest recesses of their memory. An All Star for the first time, Ilgauskas has shone when those around him have occasionally flattered but normally deceived.
A career-best of 17.2 points per contest, plus 7.5 boards, is impressive. More so, when you think of the dark moments when it was feared that he would never play again. From the time the Big Z sat out his entire rookie season, we knew he was fragile. And then after coming through the next year unscathed, the jinx struck again. Just 91 games of action over three campaigns, the advice came through loud and clear from all sides: ‘Take the money and run,’ they clamoured.
He could barely walk yet he opted not to accept the insurer’s shilling. Re-built with more pins than a vindictive voodoo doll, Ilgauskas has returned uglier and stronger than before. Nevertheless, the fear that his foot will once again snap beneath him is never far away from his waking thoughts.
“I think about it almost every day. It’s out there, no question,” he confirms. “Once you start playing, and you’re in the game, you forget about it. You have to act and react without thinking about it. Afterwards, when I’m icing my feet, it comes back. Or if I feel something, even a minor pain, it can prey on my mind. But I just have to take the approach that if it happens, it happens. I can’t do anything about it.”
Quitting would have been the easy way out but few would have blamed him for cashing in. “I thought about it the last time I broke my foot. It was the third time it had happened so you do begin to wonder if it’s all worth it. I took my time, thought about and decided to give it one last shot. I figured I was too young at the time, at 25 years old. I knew one day I would regret it if I don’t give it another go. I had nothing else to do. I didn’t want to sit around all day and watch TV.”
Having come so far, the frustration of guiding an inexperienced and sometimes reckless Cavs’ line-up through loss after loss must surely hurt. Was there a deliberate strategy to maximise the ping-pong balls? Who knows. By design or by woeful luck, Cleveland has sunk into a pitiful mire, yet Ilgauskas, defiantly, is prepared to take a defensive stance.
“We have a lot of young guys,” he offers. “We’re the youngest team in the league and it’s going to be hard next year. It’s going to take two, three years and then you have to re-sign your own guys who are coming up then on the last years of their contracts. But the talent is there.”
He is an admirer of Dajuan Wagner. “He’s pretty good. He can score in bunches. He’s got talent. But he’s also been struggling lately. Once rookies get past the 60 games mark, that’s when they usually hit the wall but when he’s been on, there have not been many people who can stop him.”
And of Darius Miles, so often painted as the under-achieving villain. “He’s only 21 and it’s still only his third year in the league. He’s struggled with knee problems and he hasn’t had the explosiveness which he had last year. That’s a big part of his game. But he knows what he needs to do to become a better basketball player.”
He adds: “I think we’ve been playing a little better lately. At least we’re not getting blown out and going into fourth quarters sometimes with a chance to win a game. There was a spell when we were down 20 or 30 heading into the fourth so at least we’re keeping it closer.”
Time, however, has run out for this season. There is a potential saviour just 60 miles away, Ohio’s favourite son James, who will enter the NBA amid deafening hype which will make last year’s induction of Yao Ming seem like a whispered infomercial. “(The Cavs) might be hoping for it,” Z hints, with all the subtlety of his rarely seen three-point hurl. “They’re probably praying for it.”
Edging closer to the truth now, one senses. He cautions though: “If you don’t get him, you still have to compete and play. There’s a lot of young talent here and if we do get him, he’s obviously a great player. We can’t rely on that but if we get the chance, we’ll take him.”
Lest we forget however, Cleveland already has a bona fide All Star. It just took a little longer for him to get there than we expected. Too many nights off, days too. Playing in Atlanta, taking part in the MJ Farewell Tribute, provided a tangible compensation for all those hours on the operating table and in the gym. “The All Star Game was the last thing on my mind when I started the long road back but it’s just one of the nice rewards, to see that your work is appreciated and that it wasn’t for nothing.
“Two years ago, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play basketball ever again so it doesn’t matter who we’re playing or if we’re down 20 points. I go out and enjoy myself because I never thought I would be here in the first place.”
If the only pain Mr. Basketball feels is that of defeat, then at least hope remains of ample busy nights ahead in the years to come.
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