It’s a phrase that’s often uttered in reference to our favorite sports players.
To some, it’s more hyperbole than anything else.
To others, it’s a right of fan-dom. If there’s a player you love, you treat him above all else.
In Cleveland, nobody had epitomized the term hero-worship more than LeBron James.
If you’re reading this, there’s no reason to go into too much detail with regards to LeBron’s history. He grew up in Akron, less than an hour from Cleveland. He led his high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary’s to three state championships and one national championship. He declared for the NBA draft, and when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the right to the first pick that year, words such as Kismet and Destiny were uttered more than once.
His career in Cleveland was special, but certainly not perfect. Yet, Cleveland Cavaliers fans realized that for perhaps the first time in many, many years, the best player in the world in a major sport played for a team with Cleveland stitched on the front.He was the Rookie of the Year.
He was a two-time MVP.
He was twice named to the first-team, All-NBA Defensive Team.
He was twice the All-Star MVP.
He was the best player in the NBA, and he was a local boy.
It wasn’t always pretty. LeBron was critiqued often. He couldn’t win big games like Jordan. He walked off the court against Orlando without shaking hands. He passed off the ball too much. He took quarters off. He wore New York Yankees’ hats.
In many Mind’s Eye though, LeBron was a Cleveland Cavaliers’ player 4-Life.
Kids loved LeBron, and wanted to be him when they group up. Teenagers bought his shoes and jerseys and wore headbands to their high school tryouts. Grown men and women talked wistfully of LeBron and his brilliance, and how he owed Cleveland that elusive NBA title.
We all bore Witness to his greatness, and expected to bear Witness for much, much longer.
Cleveland did, only it wasn’t with LeBron wearing the wine and gold of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
First came the decision, then came the horrific Miami introduction, both televised by ESPN. Those bookended what can only be described as riotous behavior. Families and friends got together to burn his jersey and dub him, “He who shall not be named.”
An owner proclaimed his team would win an NBA title before LeBron’s team…in comic sans.
The Hero was vanquished…
…until he returned home, dropped 38 on his former team, and taunted the Cavs bench while doing it. After that December 2, 2010 loss, the Cavs won only one more game until February 11th. The Heat ran to the finals.
Cavs fans backed Mavs fans when LeBron’s Heat played Dirk’s Mavericks. The Mavs won, and the Cavs-fans chuckled.
LeBron didn’t stop there though.
LeBron won the MVP the following season, and the Heat won the NBA title. He repeated again last year, and so did the Heat. They look like sure-fire NBA title contenders again, and LeBron is once again playing unbelievable basketball.
The hate and derision for LeBron has subsided over the years, mainly in hopes that the vanquished hero would choose to return home and lead this ragtag team to glory. LeBron returned to Cleveland last night, by choice, to watch the Cavaliers retire Zydrunas Ilgauskas‘s number. The Cavs planned the night around LeBron’s schedule, or so the rumors say.
Either way, LeBron and Zydrunas crossed career paths last night, in much the same way it did back in 2003, when James was drafted onto Z’s Cavaliers.
As Dan Gilbert thanked big Z for his “loyalty,” and as Zydrunas himself thanked the city for giving him a place he calls “home,” LeBron watched from the Cavs bench, next to deposed former GM Chris Grant. The fans were quiet towards LeBron, in deference to Big Z, but James was the elephant in the room…the former hero honoring the current hero.
There was irony for sure, as fans watch Z’s jersey raised into the rafters, not only as one of the Cavaliers’ greats, but as one of it’s most steadfast players of all-time.
LeBron left when it was easy for him to do so. Zydrunas kept coming back: from injury…from trades…from Miami.
I’m not sure that many outwardly ever thought of Z as a hero on the court, although in the bigger picture though, he certainly fits the description.
The Cavs drafted big Z in 1996 with the 20th pick of the NBA draft. Z wasn’t even the first choice of Wayne Embry that year, as the Cavs selected Vitaly Potapenko with the 12th pick, eight slots before big Z.
Z missed his entire first season with a broken bone in his foot, but returned with a flourish in his second season, averaging a tick under 14 points and 9 rebounds a game. He was an all-rookie first teamer, and signed a six-year, $70 million contract. He played in five games the following season before breaking his foot again. He would miss the rest of that season, and the entire following season. He played in only 24 games the season after that.
Z never quit. He kept coming back, and for really bad basketball teams. He played in 62 games during the 2001-2002 season, and was back in full force in 2002-2003, averaging 17 points and 7 1/2 boards a game. He made his first of two all-star games.
In 2010, in an attempt to keep LeBron James, the Cavs traded Z to the Washington Wizards for Antawn Jamison. The Wizards bought out Z’s contract, and 30-days later, Z was back. It was quite a return. Z was welcomed back with more than open arms. He received a standing ovation that night.
At the end of the year, LeBron and Pat Riley brought Z to Miami. His good friend wanted to win him a title, and nearly did it, but Ilgauskas retired at the end of that season. Ilgauskas returned the following year as a Special Assistant to General Manager Chris Grant.
Of course, Chris Grant was fired, so it remains to be seen what will happen to Z’s role in the front office moving forward. What can’t be questioned now is Z’s importance to this franchise as a player and as a human being.
He was an afterthought five years into his career, as a player that could have been great, but who had a body that just wouldn’t allow him to reach that pinnacle. But he never quit on his career and on his teammates, and in many ways, on a city that had seen plenty of quit over the years.
Z was a bridge of sorts.
He connected the Cavaliers of the 90’s to the Cavaliers of LeBron James. Think about this: he was drafted by Wayne Embry to play for Mike Fratello. He played with Fratello, Randy Wittman, John Lucas, Paul Silas and Mike Brown, and let’s not forget stints with interim coaches. He outlasted GM Wayne Embry, GM Jim Paxson, GM Danny Ferry and GM Chris Grant. Who would have thought that the term longevity would be synonymous with Ilgauskas while he was playing in less than 30 games over a five-year stretch to start his career.
When you look at Z, you never ponder the “What Ifs,” only the tenacity that kept him in the city that he and his family now call home. Believe me though, there are what ifs. Seriously, what if the 7’3″ big man had played most of those games the first five seasons. How good would he have been? How good would the Cavs have been? Would the “greatest” have even been a Cavalier?
As it stands, Z will forever be entwined with the Cavaliers’ career of LeBron James. Their best years were as teammates, and they remain close friends. It was Ilgauskas that invited LeBron back home. Sure, the Cavaliers likely used that as an unofficial recruiting trip, and sure, perhaps Z was thinking in the back of his head how nice it would be to see his friend forgiven by the Cavs fans, but this was all about a celebration for the Big Man.
LeBron, to his credit, stayed in the background. It never felt as though his shadow crossed over Z’s moment, even though the media tried its best to do just that
One was constituted a Hero for being the best, and was a home-grown son of Ohio. The other is considered a Hero for what he has accomplished in spite of the barriers that were put in front of him, and chose to call Cleveland home. The two “Ohio boys” converged at the Q to welcome the working class hero into the pantheon of Cavaliers immortals.
One can now only wonder if they’ll meet again someday, to do the same for the one that took his talents to South Beach.
It’s funny how sports can color how we feel about these people that play them. LeBron grew up in front of our eyes, from a bright-eyed high school star, to an NBA legend. He chose to leave, and became a pariah for it. Zydrunas grew up thousands of miles away, then was an obscurity when he first joined the Cavs thanks to injuries. He chose to stay…
…and became a hero for it.