Editor's Note: The idea of team love is something that gets a lot of support throughout sportswriting. There's ESPN Philly and Boston and Chicago and all that shit. But there is seldom a writer that gets to expose their bias as completely as they want to (mostly because fans of other teams have no interest in hearing from us for too long). This got us to thinking. And thinking hard. So, throughout the NBA season, Pretzeltown is going to be an experiment: four contending teams (Boston, Denver, LAL and Cleveland)will be represented by four different writers sharing their thoughts on the process and progress. First up is Ryan Dee-- a man amongst Gods and an all-things Cleveland fanatic.
The Great North Coast Volume1:
With the 20th pick in the 1996 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected a center from Lithuania named Zydrunas Ilgauskus. A practical and talented scorer, with a wealth of size (7’3”) who had already played professionally in Europe but was a virtual unknown in America, he was part of a growing philosophy amongst General Managers and coaches. Experienced players in the European style could contribute to the American game. The selection was met with little fanfare, and when drafted in tandem with Vitaly Potapenko, Cavs fans were discouraged to consider that Michael Jordan’s ghost had exhausted the organization and the time had come to rebuild.
The rebuilding did not go well. The roster that Z joined boasted the likes of (teenager) Bobby Sura, (slightly more follicled pre-GM) Danny Ferry, (fat) Shawn Kemp, (not the novelist) Henry James and (not the quarterback) Derek Anderson. Ilgauskus spent the better part of three years disabled and going through painful foot surgeries that have basically replaced his once human Lituanian feet with some kind of early James Cameron-science-fiction-scrap metal set of feet certain to withstand the perils of nuclear holocaust but less likely to extend a career in professional American basketball.
Still, Z worked his ass off on awful teams where he was often the best offensive weapon. He became an All-Star and earned his 71-million-dollar contract by establishing a smooth 17 foot jumper that is difficult for Big Men to defend and also saves his body and METAL FEET from banging around under the basket.
In 2003, the Cavaliers were smart enough to be bad enough to draft something from Akron called a LEBRON JAMES (not a car made by Chrysler). And God was in Heaven and all was right with the World.
You would think that basking in the BENEVOLENT EVERLASTING LIGHT of BRON for the past five years would have shone a light on the big man-- who has consistently averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds (and again named an All Star)-- but he is still included in the “when is LeBron gonna get some help” and “the cavs have LeBron and a bunch of stiffs” categories.
This year, the Cavs will not have that excuse.
Again, Z will concede to a Great Charismatic Athletic Monolith in Shaquille O’Neal, (I think he was the guy who broke backboards in the 90’s) the last great artifact of the attitude of Basketball in the last generation. Pre-tweet and Pro-Kazaam. And, it may just extend his career again. With Shaq taking a lot of the blows from the first teamers, Z is going to get favorable match ups against bench players which will allow him to easily spread the floor and bring slower centers closer to the perimeter allowing Cleveland’s back court and swing men James, Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to slash and score, which me likey very much.
It has been rumored that if they win it this year, Z will retire. It is also rumored that if the Cavs need to make a move (specifically concerning the Delonte West situation) that it may again, be Z (and his tempting, firm, luscious expiring contract) who is asked to make room for yet another star to improve Cleveland’s chances of licking David Stern’s GREAT BRASS RING, and having an excuse to make a parade in Cleveland.
This season, there will be an uncomfortable amount of references to the greatness of and possible departure of LeBron James and his relationship to the City of Cleveland, the City of Akron and the City of New York. Every Cavs fan will have to confront this possibility again and again via national broadcasts (I’m looking at you, Reggie Miller). This will be the storyline.
But there is another storyline coming to a conclusion: Zydrunas. The European experiment has been a success and we will get the opportunity to see Z reinvent himself again this year as a sixth man, complimenting and improving the dynamic of Cleveland’s second team, even if it is only until the trade deadline. And while there will be much written about the Native Prodigal, let’s take this year to enjoy watching the big, strange Lithuanian who has chosen to make Cleveland his home and who has enriched our basketball experience as Cavs fans with his loyalty and consistency over the last decade.
The locker room has changed a lot since 1996 and for four years now the Cavaliers have been, and their fans have been able to enjoy, a legitimate contender. So, if this is the last year of their dominance and if this is the last year of LeBron allowing his GOLDEN GOD DUST TO SPRINKLE DELICATELY OVER THE ROOFTOPS OF CLEVELAND’S ECONOMY AND SPORTS HOPES AND FUTURES then so be it. I’m just glad I’m not rooting for Fat Shawn Kemp and fuckin’ Bobby Sura this year.