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Zydrunas Ilgauskas has put his injuries out of mind to carry the Cavs

Two seasons ago the Cavaliers had one of the best centers in the NBA-and hope. Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland to a surprising 15-9 start. Then he suffered his fifth foot fracture in seven years, which forced doctors to reconstruct his left foot. Without him, the Cavs went 15-43.

Upon returning last December, the 7'3" Ilgauskas was limited to an average of 21.4 minutes in 62 games, with a 40-minute cap for back-to-backs. "I just tried to survive last year," Ilgauskas, 27, says. "Every game that I finished was a little victory for me."

During this off-season Ilgauskas did more than let his bones mend. He decided that if his career was to end, it was going to be on his terms, which meant less stringent limits on playing time. To reduce the stress on his feet, he worked out five days a week, shedding 15 pounds to reach 255. "Every time I broke my foot, it wasn't because I landed badly," he says. "It was a stress fracture, due to wear and tear. There are so many things you can't control, so you put them in the back of your mind."

The results this year have been encouraging. Instead of forcing him to play cautiously, the knowledge that he is one more fracture away from retirement has liberated Ilgauskas, who at week's end was averaging 17.3 points and 10.5 rebounds--both career highs--in 33.2 minutes. For now management has imposed a 35 minute limit per game, which has been harder on coach John Lucas than Ilgauskas. After Lucas got carried away and played his center 41 minutes in a Nov. 1 loss at Phoenix, he was called upstairs to a meeting with owner Gordon Gund, who firmly reminded Lucas of the game plan. "Z is our Shaq," Lucas says, "and there are nights when he can be the second-best center in the league."

Except for O'Neal and Tim Duncan--when he takes over the pivot for David Robinson--there is no more versatile center at the offensive end than Ilgauskas, who can pick teams apart with his scoring and passing from either the low or high post. His injuries, however, have forced G.M. Jim Paxson to rebuild with a young core group, including Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, that isn't expected to gel until the end of Ilgauskas's six-year, $70.9 million contract, which expires in 2004--05. Lucas hopes that Ilgauskas can stay healthy and keep the Cavaliers competitive during that three-year window.

Ilgauskas, who seems to be at peace with the fact that his career could end with his next game, or even his next step, is comfortable with whatever breaks he catches. "If I'm done tomorrow, I'm going to be just fine," he says. "There are a lot better things in life than basketball."

COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES When his feet are healthy, Ilgauskas is one of the league's top offensive centers.

around the Rim

Contrary to some of his recent remarks, Shaquille O'Neal is in no hurry to retire. "More so than in any other year, I sense a renewed enthusiasm for the game from him," says Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak. O'Neal admits that he needs more championships not only to rank among the best centers ever but also to surpass the achievements of his franchise's big men. "[George] Mikan has five, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] has five," says O'Neal before adding sotto voce, "Shaq has three. See, I don't want it to go like that. I want it to be Mikan has five, Kareem has five, Shaq has six--or whatever." ... Outgoing owner Paul Gaston is limiting the Celtics to a 12-man roster, the smallest in the league, and he's been equally tightfisted with the team's front office, which has no scouts--not even a part-timer. Most teams have at least two.... If, as one G.M. estimates, the luxury tax kicks in at $52.4 million, 18 teams would have to pay it. In that case the 11 teams with payrolls under that amount could receive refunds of at least $14 million.