He is 34 years old now, in his 14th season in the NBA and his 12th season actually playing in the NBA, in a new role in Cleveland that could be seen coming and a new role in the league that no one could have envisioned.
What an unlikely record holder.
What an unexpected inspiration.
“I think if I can do it, if I can come back, then anybody can,” Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “I’m not special.”
Except that he is.
That Ilgauskas is playing, period, in 2009-10, is meaningful. That he is playing an important role anywhere, let alone for the 27-9 Cavaliers, is the stuff of Vegas long shots. His is a comeback story for all-time in the NBA and especially in this time, in the season when the careers of Greg Oden and Yao Ming pretty much ended.
Just like the career of Ilgauskas pretty much ended a couple dozen times.
Oden has the coincidental and unfortunate linkage to Sam Bowie and Bill Walton in the tradition of centers picked very high in the draft who gimped their way through frustrating Trail Blazers careers. Yao has the burden of an entire country (China) and a city (Houston) aching at every gloomy medical bulletin, but they also have Ilgauskas as the reminder that a happy ending is possible. “Big Z” is the walking, talking Get Well card, proof that there is a future after all.
Ilgauskas and Yao talked a few times in the summer and met when the Cavaliers were in Houston last month. He’d be glad to speak with Oden, if Oden would like, with the same message that patience and sticking with the rehab even as the hours of long, tedious work pile high.
“Nobody but me knows what it takes to come back from all those injuries,” he said. “You obviously take that [people wanting to talk to him] as a compliment. But you don’t take that for granted, what it took you to get here.”
Ilgauskas the inspiration. Incredible.
Remember when he was Ilgauskas the incapacitated?
The rookie campaign, 1996-97, as the No. 20 pick in the draft, was zero appearances thanks to a broken right foot and subsequent surgery, the same injury that caused Big Z to miss the season before in his native Lithuania. The NBA debut was playing all 82 games in 1997-98. The tease. Next, five games, due to a fractured left foot, followed by missing all 1999-2000 while continuing to rehab the left foot, including another surgery. Cleveland signed him to a six-year extension on Jan. 29, 2000. Suckers. The payback was 24 games in 2000-01, before more pain in the left foot, more surgery, more end-of-career talk.
Some of that was in conversation with himself, some in conversation with those close to him. He was realistic enough to realize that retirement could be very near.
And then the strangest thing happened. Z got healthy. Then kept getting healthy.
He returned Dec. 4, 2001, the first game in about 50 weeks, and played 62 of the final 65 contests, losing one on a coach’s decision and two because of back spasms. He missed one game each of the next two seasons, three in each of the next three and nine in 2007-08 before sitting out 17 games last season, mostly because of a sprained ankle.
From the brittle life of missing two full campaigns and playing less than one-third in two others to seven seasons of good health plus 2009-10 that has started in the same positive direction. From one stretch of 29 appearances over three seasons to a pair of All-Star games. From having no future to setting the team record for the most games played, making his 724th appearance with the Cavaliers on Dec. 2.
“When you have somebody that’s that good of a person have a chance to accomplish something like this, especially with the hardships that he’s been through, it’s special,” coach Mike Brown said. “You’re happy for him and for him getting that mark. But it’s the type of person and it’s his makeup that helped him get to that bar or that goal.”
That was the night anything officially became possible for Oden and Yao. It was the special game in Cleveland when the team that gave a wobbly player a long-term contract lived to see it become a good investment … and the popular big man who couldn’t make it through a season stepped into the record books for longevity. It didn’t matter that it was part of his new assignment as a backup, established once the Cavs traded for Shaquille O’Neal. Ilgauskas was historically linked with durability.
Inspirational, if a couple other centers noticed.
“Just be patient,” he said of the message to Yao and Oden. “Listen to your doctors. And the biggest thing is just patience. A lot of guys tend to get overzealous. They feel good and they want to make the next step. Just be patient. Don’t rush anything. Listen to your body, more than anything.”
Because things can get better.
“Yes,” the special center said. “Of course.”