via NBA.com reporter Steve Aschburner
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James kept the chatter in perspective when he was asked, at the start of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ high-expectations training camp, how much advice he sought from fellow NBAers on life with Shaquille O’Neal.
“He’s a teammate,” James said. “I mean, I’m not adopting a kid.”
No, the Cavaliers player doing that would be Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
This offseason, in fact, Ilgauskas and his wife Jennifer adopted a pair of brothers from an orphanage in the 7-foot-3 center’s hometown of Kaunas, Lithuania. Upon arrival, Deividas, 5, and Povilas, 4, instantly transformed the Ilgauskas’ household into a burgeoning family, something the couple had planned for prior to the miscarriage of twins two years ago. The brothers are way shorter than their dad’s newest, biggest teammate and, combined,
probably weigh about as much as one Shaq thigh, yet they’re requiring some adjustments at home as profound as Ilgauskas is facing these days at work.
“I’m not sleeping as much obviously. I’m a lot more tired,” the 11-year veteran told reporters after a practice last week. “It’s been a blast. It’s been challenging at times. But all in all, it’s been a great experience. It’s an adjustment for everybody — obviously, a big family now. … All of a sudden, overnight, you become a father. I’m learning as I go and I try to do the best job I can, and sometimes it’s not easy. Everybody can relate to that.”
Not everybody can relate, however, to a future Hall of Famer and massive marquee name showing up at the office, ready to crowd you out of your cubicle. With that challenge — O’Neal taking over as Cleveland’s starting center, Ilgauskas adapting to a backup role — the affable guy known simply as “Z” is on his own. The key is, he’s still affable and figures to stay that way.
“Z’s a team guy,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “He will do whatever we ask him to do. That’s his makeup. I don’t think he knows any other way. Obviously, when we acquired Shaq, the first call I made was to Z. We talked about his role … and before I even got started, he was like, ‘Coach, whatever I need to do to help us win, that’s what I’m going to do.’ That goes back to the trust thing; he trusts us as coaches. That’s been built over the years.”
Said Ilgauskas: “It’s still basketball. Obviously, it’s a little bit of an adjustment. I’ll have to find what’s the right mindset for me, how do I prepare for the games? It’s just something I guess I have to learn, because I haven’t done it a lot, with starting for so long.”
Specifically, Ilgauskas has started for Cleveland in his past 534 games dating to the 2002-03 season. He’s been an All-Star twice in that time and ranks as the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocked shots. He hasn’t come off the bench since 2001-02, when coach John Lucas was being especially careful in the wake of Ilgauskas’ notorious foot surgeries and subbed him in 39 times in 62 appearances.
Now the Cavaliers crave more inside presence to cope with the likes of Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and maybe Andrew Bynum. Ilgauskas is best as a pick-and-pop center, and he clearly was lacking foot speed in the postseason last spring. Also, the team sought O’Neal’s star power to court James, the resident superstar. All of which means that Ilgauskas will gain the benefits of facing some second-string centers and logging fewer minutes, while coping with the costs of new game-night routines.
“It won’t be as much wear and tear on my body,” he said. “It’s going to be a little harder because obviously you’re going to come off cold — you aren’t warmed right up from warmups. But a couple minutes up and down the floor, I should be OK. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t really see much of a difference besides getting loose and getting into the flow of the game.”
Brown, asked if Ilgauskas easily accepted the new role because he could thrive against the league’s backup centers, said: “More important, what he expressed, it could help the team.”
It is refreshing, let’s be honest, to see such a smooth and rancor-free baton handoff in a league where so many players — out of self-preservation or ego — resent the arrival of a proven teammate who shares their position. No Big Prima Donna here, at least not from Ilgauskas’ side of the aisle.
“Once everything settled down, I knew it obviously made the team better. And it’s hard to make yourself better after you win 66 games,” he said. “At this point in my career, I really want to win. I’m 34 years old and I really want to win a championship. Whatever helps with that, I’m all for it. I’ve always been high on Shaq — he’s the best center I’ve ever played against — so if anyone’s going to replace me in the starting lineup, I don’t mind that at all.”
Remember, these days, it’s all about team for Z. At work and at home. Jennifer is the one who handles Deividas and Povilas while he’s practicing or attending to other Cavs obligations. He’s the one who navigates the Lithuanian, since the brothers’ English is, well, just coming off the bench these days too. But they’re making it work — and making it feel like play.
“I’m in a happy place in my life right now,” Ilgauskas said. “I’m really satisfied, and kind of content where I am as a player and a person. The kids obviously completed our family — we had great lives but now it’s even better. It’s more challenging and a little harder, but you get rewarded in different areas.”
There is, basically, just one area that is non-negotiable for the big guy: banging every day with the even bigger guy. Just so we know the parameters for the renewed daddy and Cavs elder statesman: He will do bedtime stories and board games. He won’t do Shaq in practice.
“I won’t,” Ilgauskas said. “Somebody else is going to have to guard him in practice. Otherwise, I won’t last till Christmas.”
And Christmas, after all, is going to be big this year. Both in Los Angeles — Cavaliers vs. Lakers — and in the Ilgauskas household.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years