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 mistake."
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 she's fine."