CAVS: Ilgauskas savors the moment


LeBron James heaved the basketball in the air, turned and gave

a big bear hug to Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

It was time to celebrate the Cavaliers’ victory over Detroit in the Eastern

Conference finals.

And it was fitting to see the player who led the Cavs to the NBA Finals for

the first time embrace the player who has been with the team the longest.

After 11 seasons full of uncertainty at the start and many losses along the

way, Ilgauskas finally has a chance to play for a championship.

“This is a big stage now,” Ilgauskas said.

Several years ago, playing in the NBA Finals seemed unthinkable for the

7-foot-3 center.

The Cavs chose Ilgauskas in the first round of the 1996 draft. He suffered

an immediate setback when he broke the same bone in his right foot that

forced him to miss the 1995-96 season in his native Lithuania.

Ilgauskas played the entire 1997-98 season with the Cavs and helped lead

them to the playoffs. But setbacks started to pile up.

Ilgauskas broke a bone in his left foot and played just 29 games during the

next three seasons.

The injury required two more surgeries.

At one point, Ilgauskas thought about retiring. But he chose to give his

career one more shot.

“If it happened now, it would be different,” Ilgauskas said. “But back then

I was still young. I was afraid if I never tried again, the rest of my life

I would look back and be disappointed.”

Ilgauskas has been injury-free the past six seasons. But the Cavs were far

from being title contenders early. They won just 17 games in 2002-03.

The turning point came when the Cavs won the NBA lottery and drafted James

the following summer. Four years later, Ilgauskas finds himself playing for

an NBA title.

“Even during those bad years, I mostly have good memories of good people,

and it was fun playing basketball,” Ilgauskas said. “I guess guys who have

been here the longest appreciate it more.

“If this happened to me my rookie year or second year, I wouldn’t have

appreciated it as much. But now we know how hard it is to get to this point

and have a shot at winning it all.”

Ilgauskas wants more than a shot at it starting Thursday when the Cavs open

the NBA Finals in San Antonio. He turned 32 on Tuesday. There are no

guarantees he will be this close to a championship again before he retires.

“Everything I had to go through to come here, I won’t take this for

granted,” Ilgauskas said.