CLEVELAND — Former Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas managed to get through his No. 11 jersey retirement ceremony without shedding a tear.
“I didn’t cry because I was on a time limit,” Ilgauskas quipped Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs hosted the New York Knicks. “It’s a really humbling experience to know how the city and people feel about you.
“In my mind, I didn’t do anything special. I went to work and tried my best.”
Drafted with the No. 20 pick in 1996, the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas finished his career as the Cavs’ all-time leader in games played, rebounds, offensive rebounds and blocks while ranking second in points.
“I miss the games and I miss my teammates,” he said. “I’m happy with how my life is now, but it also brings back a lot of good memories.”
Joining the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas on the floor were his parents, sister, wife Jennifer, their two sons, Dan Gilbert and the Cavs ownership group, former owner Gordon Gund, former general manager Wayne Embry and five of the seven people who were previously honored in a similar fashion: Austin Carr, Nate Thurmond, Larry Nance, Bobby “Bingo” Smith and “The Voice of the Cavs,” Joe Tait.
LeBron James, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Ira Newble, Daniel Gibson, Mike Fratello, Jim Paxson, Danny Ferry, Chris Grant and several other former teammates and assistant coaches were also on hand.
“I feel like those people touched my life more than I touched theirs,” the 38-year-old Ilgauskas said. “It was special for them to take time out of their schedule and come here.”
Embry and Gilbert spoke to the crowd during the halftime ceremony before Ilgauskas stepped to the microphone after a standing ovation.
“It won’t completely set in till days or weeks or months or years later when I take my kids or grandkids to games,” Ilgauskas said in an interview session immediately after the ceremony.
Prior to the game, an “Ilgauskas 11” nameplate adorned the locker next to Anderson Varejao’s. Varejao is the only current Cavs player who played with Ilgauskas, whose career in Cleveland ended in 2010.
“He’s just a phenomenal guy,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown, who coached Ilgauskas for his final five seasons in Cleveland. “There’s a lot of basketball stuff that stands out with him because he helped us win a lot of games and get to the NBA Finals (in 2007), but just being around him on a daily basis was very refreshing.”
Ilgauskas played seven seasons with James, whose Miami Heat team plays in Chicago this afternoon. James sat in a suite behind the New York bench.
“Him being here is an added bonus,” Ilgauskas said.
Ilgauskas went through numerous foot surgeries early in his career, the first coming after Embry and Gund signed him to a six-year, $70 million contract extension.
“Thank you, Mr. Gund, for never giving up on a skinny Lithuanian kid who spent more time on crutches than on the basketball court for a few years,” Ilgauskas said.
The two-time All-Star, who recently became a United States citizen, referenced his injury woes again in his media interview, saying, “I could have easily been just a statistic. I consider myself very lucky.”
The most important part of the evening for Ilgauskas, however, was sharing it with his family and the Cleveland community.
“I love being a part of this city and I love being a part of this community,” he said. “I just hope you feel the same away about me.”
That brought another rousing ovation from the crowd, as did the extremely popular Ilgauskas’ comment about his family.
“I’ve always strived to be a better husband and father than I was a basketball player,” he said. “Hopefully, I can succeed in doing that.”