CLEVELAND -- The fans inside The Q welcomed
his return Sunday. It was, for all purposes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas Day at the downtown
arena, because everything was about Z: the crowd's cheers and the "Z" cupcakes
that were served in the media dining room.
All of it was an acknowledgement that Z had
"It was probably the second-most anticipated
comeback besides when (Michael) Jordan retired," LeBron James said after he,
Ilgauskas and the Cavaliers beat the Sacramento Kings, 97-90.
Unlike most of the popular sports figures in
this city, Z didn't leave town to chase more dollars elsewhere. He never wanted
to leave Cleveland. He left because of a complex three-team trade that the Cavs
needed to cobble together to bring in Antawn Jamison.
Yet a sidebar to that deal was Z's return.
Nobody thought the Wizards would keep Ilgauskas. Why would they? They were a
team going nowhere this season, and Z, 34, fit into their rotation - and their
future -- about as well as 50-something-year-old Austin Carr would.
The Wizards are going young. They are
building for tomorrow, and their tomorrow won't begin until after the NBA draft
and the start of next season. Oh, they could pick up a valuable piece or two in
free agency, but whatever that piece might be, it won't be somebody with Z's
So the Wizards bought out the contract. They sent Z packing with a couple of million in his suitcase. It freed him to sign elsewhere. But no one thought he'd sign anywhere but with the Cavaliers. They needed Z, and he needed them. Theirs was a marriage the basketball gods arranged. The two sides just had to wait ... wait until a contractual mandate allowed him to re-sign here.
And he did.
For he wanted to return here; Cavaliers were the only NBA team Z knew. They had signed him as a No. 1 pick 11 seasons ago, and he expected to play out what seasons he had in Wine and Gold.
But you don't last as long as Z has in the NBA without realizing it is a business - pure and simple. Talk all you want about loyalty and love of the game, but dollars can trump love and loyalty and league championships, at least it can in many players' minds.
So to hear an athlete talk about his love for a community, his love for its people and his love for its team is as refreshing as an icy Tsing Tao on a 95-degree day in August. You want more of it - as much as of it as you can.
Big Z has been that refresher, the unusual athlete who bends hard expectation curve to its breaking point. Z is Z, and he'd have been what he is now even if he had started his career as a Clipper and not as a Cavalier.
Having him back is a step toward what the city has longed for since 1964. It wants a championship; it has agonized over not having won one. It has come close, tantalizingly close with the Cavaliers and the Indians. But the city has always been the first loser, a win or two away from the grand prize.
Having 7-foot-3 Z back might be what will get the Cavaliers past that final hurdle. He returns to a team that is deeper, more athletic than the one he left in February. He returns to a team, however, that needs him in the middle as much as it has always needed him - depth or not.
Officially, he had returned last week, re-signing on Tuesday. But, unofficially, he wasn't truly back until he took the court at The Q, in front of the 20,562 fans who pack the joint to root for the best team in basketball, a team whose destiny has an NBA title dangling in front to it.
Without Shaq O'Neal, the team will win nothing with someone like Z. The team knows that; the fans here know that; and Z, more than anybody else, knows that as well
Yes, he could have walked away without remorse, have gone somewhere else and started afresh like Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez or Carlos Boozer. He had done plenty here, enriched himself and his family. He had nothing more to prove, nothing more that he needed to show people - not even to himself.
So as soon as he could, he returned. He came home - or to as close to a home as he can have outside his native Kaunas, Lithuania. But not even Lithuanians could have greeted Zydrunas Ilgauskas with as much warmth and love as the fans at The Q showed him Sunday.
Their affection touched his heart.
"I love you guys," Z told them afterward.
Minutes earlier, they had shown they loved Zydrunas Ilgauskas, too.