Ilgauskas May Retire After This Season
Through the 2000-01 season, Cleveland's big center missed 268 of his first 378 possible career NBA games. He'd had five surgeries on both of his feet in a half decade.
His final surgery was in February 2001, and it was pretty much all or nothing. If the complicated procedure to insert three screws and reconfigure his left foot wasn't successful, many believed Ilgauskas would retire.
Remarkably, it did work. Ilgauskas' career was saved, and he went on to play in All-Star Games in 2003 and 2005.
But Ilgauskas, 34, is getting close to the end of the line. His contract expires at the end of this season, and he told FanHouse he might retire next summer.
"This [season] could be it,'' Ilgauskas said. "I don't know. ... Injuries. Everything else. I'm not a spring chicken any more. So we'll see how I feel [after the season].''
Ilgauskas' foot problems are a constant concern. He must ice after every workout and game for about a half hour.
Those close to him see the possibility of Ilgauskas, who was drafted by the Cavaliers in 1996 and is tied with the Lakers' Kobe Bryant for the longest tenure of any NBA player with the same team, retiring after a season in which he will make $11.54 million.
"If he wins a championship [this season], that is what is going to happen,'' said Austin Carr, a former Cleveland star and the team's television analyst throughout Ilgauskas' tenure. "I think he will [retire].''
Carr, though, believes Ilgauskas could be convinced to stay if the Cavaliers come up short.
Cavaliers Mike Brown also wouldn't be surprised if Ilgauskas hangs up his high tops after this season.
"He's had an excellent career,'' Brown said. "He's obviously missing one thing in his career: a championship. I'm sure he would like be part of that. But he's got a beautiful wife at home in Jennifer, and they adopted a couple of great kids.
"He still has a full life ahead of him off the floor. He is a guy that could, at any time, say, 'This is my last year' or 'I might play one or two or three more years.' He has a life in general in greatest perspective. I think, when the time comes, he'll make a decision.''
Ilgauskas' life changed dramatically over the summer. He became a father for the first time as he and Jennifer adopted two orphan boys, ages four and five, from Ilgauskas' native Lithuania.
"The kids just complete our family,'' Ilgauskas said earlier in training camp about the boys, who don't speak English. "We already had great lives. Now, they're better. It's obviously challenging. ... It's hard ... to overnight be a father. I'm learning how to do the best job that I can.''
Ilgauskas, who turns 35 next June when he hopes the Cavaliers still will be playing, said this week the decision on whether to retire definitely won't come until next summer.
"I'll decide how long I'm going to play after this year,'' Ilgauskas said. "For me right now, the most important thing is winning.''
The Cavaliers went an NBA-best 66-16 last season. But the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas was dominated in the Eastern Conference finals by Orlando counterpart Dwight Howard, and Cleveland lost in six games.
Less than a month later, the Cavaliers acquired legendary center Shaquille O'Neal from Phoenix. That resulted in Ilgauskas, who missed his rookie season of 1996-97 due to injury before moving into the starting lineup in 1997-98, being relegated to a reserve role for the only time other than in 2001-02, when the Cavaliers wanted wear and tear off his feet.
"When we made the deal for Shaq, being a former MVP, All-Star player, the credentials he brings to the table, it does, quote, unquote, make sense for him to start,'' Brown said. "So I called Z right away when the deal was made [June 25]. We talked, and I asked him, 'Big fellow, how would you feel about coming off the bench?' He didn't hesitate at all. But he's human. I assume there are emotions that were going through his body even if he didn't hesitate [about accepting his new role].''
Ilgauskas doesn't consider the move a big deal if it gives the Cavaliers "the best chance to win.''
"I'm fine,'' said Ilgauskas, who averaged 12.9 points last season and has a career mark of 14.3. "I'll adjust. ... We're going to have a chance [to win the title this season]. That's all you can ask for.''
The Cavaliers look well prepared to battle the few NBA teams that have dominant pivot men. It's hard enough for teams to find one upper-echelon center these days, and the Cavaliers have two guys who have combined to be named to 17 All-Star Games.
"It's a luxury for us and a luxury for [Ilgauskas],'' said Cavaliers guard Mo Williams. "We're not asking him to guard these starting young centers. We're asking him to come in come of the bench, and do what he does. It's no secret what he's going to do. He's going to shoot the basketball really well. ... It's a big bonus for him (coming off the bench).''
Perhaps Ilgauskas will be a strong candidate for the NBA Sixth Man Award. When Walton, a Hall of Fame center whose career was riddled with foot injuries, moved into a reserve role with Boston in 1985-86, he won that award.
And the Celtics won the NBA title.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com.