It is no small task, when you are 7'3", to find a person to
measure yourself against. Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas
(ZHEE-drew-nus ill-GAUS-kus) encountered that special someone in
his NBA debut on Oct. 31 in Houston. The Lithuanian native, who
had played nothing more than an exhibition game in two years,
found himself matched against the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon.
Facing the league's best foreign-born center ever, Ilgauskas
scored 16 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to Olajuwon's 10 points
and eight boards. "To believe that I can play in the NBA," says
the 22-year-old Ilgauskas, who was averaging 11.4 points and 8.8
rebounds in 25.8 minutes at week's end, "made me happy."
"Relieved" is the word Cleveland president Wayne Embry uses.
Even though no member of the team's coaching staff had ever seen
him play in person and Ilgauskas had sat out the previous year
with a broken bone in his right foot, Embry selected him with
the 20th pick in the June 1996 draft. A few months later
Ilgauskas suffered another season-ending foot injury. "A lot of
people wondered if we'd made a mistake," says Embry. "If you are
going to make a mistake, I always say make it a seven-foot-three
Before this year Z, as he is known to his teammates, had last
played in 1994-95 for Atletas, the club team in his hometown of
Kaunas, where his father drove a truck and his mother worked as
an engineer. The postponement of his NBA debut last year allowed
Ilgauskas time to get adjusted to a new way of life; his daily
regimen included three hours with an English tutor and
strength-training sessions that helped him bulk up from 235 to
260 pounds. Come suppertime he would leave his 23rd-floor
apartment in downtown Cleveland and lope across the hall to
teammate Bob Sura's pad. "Z's like Kramer," says Jennifer
Schafer, Sura's girlfriend. "He does all of his grocery shopping
in our refrigerator."
Like fellow 7'3" Lithuanian Arvydas Sabonis, his boyhood idol, Z
blends size with a gentle touch. "He has great hands, soft
hands," says coach Mike Fratello. "And he can shoot the
10-footer but has also mastered the drop step." On Jan. 20,
Ilgauskas faced Sabonis and the Trail Blazers for the first
time. The final line: Ilgauskas, 14 points, eight rebounds;
Sabonis, six points and five boards. Says Sabonis, "He is the
future of Lithuania basketball."
In Z, Cleveland has its first true center since 1994, when Brad
Daugherty last saw action. His comfort with English is expanding
almost as rapidly as his game. Cavaliers guard Scottie Brooks
recently found himself bemoaning his homesickness to Ilgauskas.
"My wife's in California," said Brooks, "and I haven't seen her
for four weeks."
"Don't worry," said Ilgauskas. "I talked to her last night, and
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Zydrunas Ilgauskas]