The day the rafters almost got ‘Big Z’

VIDEO: Big Z’s No. 11 is raised to the rafters

That warm, embracing jersey-number retirement ceremony in Cleveland Saturday night for Zydrunas Ilgauskas? The one that even LeBron James, in a true show of respect to a admired teammate, felt was mandatory to attend?

It never happens if Ilgauskas had been sitting 18 inches to the right…

I’ve told this story before but the timing is right again, what with Ilgauskas’ No. 11 hoisted into the Q’s rafters: Before Big Z was drafted in 1996, maybe a year before, he came to Minnesota with the Timberwolves’ Euro scout Boris Karebin for some medical procedure on one of his feet (a sign of uncomfortable things to come). He visited the Timberwolves’ practice one afternoon, a gawky 7-foot-3 unknown, and sat on a bench up against one wall.

The practice was being videotaped by the team from a balcony/running track above (this was at the practice court in the health club beneath Target Center, where club members could peer down and watch Christian Laettner, Isaiah (J.R.) Rider & Co. through entire sessions). As the video guy was packing up, he dropped his tripod over the railing and the heavy metal gadget crashed down onto the bench below — right next to Ilgauskas. Scared the heck out of everyone, with a few sheepish, awkward sideway glances to follow, as the realization of what almost happened hit home.

Eighteen inches over, Big Z gets craniumed and maybe isn’t around for the jersey-number retirement. So Ilgauskas got the rafters Saturday but about 19 years ago, the rafters nearly got him. And now you know the rest of the story…


  1. Mo says:

    come on guys, don’t be so hard on him. a jersey retirement is more about the connection between club and player in particular than it is about historic numbers and achievements in general. he spent almost his entire career in cleveland and left the club being the all-time great in a couple of categories. and from what I heard and read, he was a fan favorite. to me, that’s jersey-retirement-worthy.

  2. captainCap says:

    i laughed when i saw the “highlights” of the carreer, it was like 1995- drafted 1996-sophomore team 1999- took 16 rebonds
    2004-altercation with john wall 2006-shaves his head,4 blocks 2011-shaves his wrist, 1 double double

  3. A.J. says:

    Austin Carr: retiring his number is a joke. Bobby Smith: retiring his number is a joke. Nate Thurmond: retiring his number is a joke. Brad Daugherty: I can live with it. Mark Price: I can live with it. Larry Nance: Umm…I can live with it, but with some reservations. Zydrunas Ilgauskas: retiring his number is a joke.

  4. A.J. says:

    Surprised that bastion of mediocrity didn’t try to tip the tripod to himself four times before he finally got a handle on it.

  5. Aaron says:

    Was just wondering if the Cavaliers are ever gonna retire Lebron’s jersey lol

  6. Ben says:

    How is the NBA going to have any numbers left if we retire every 3-star players’ jersey number?