CLEVELAND (AP) — Lithuanian center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the only NBA team he’s ever known.
Ilgauskas’ agent called Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry at 8:30 a.m. Monday, the first day Ilgauskas was eligible to re-sign with Cleveland.
On Tuesday, Ilgauskas signed to play for the rest of the NBA season in Cleveland and traveled with the Cavaliers to New Orleans on Tuesday. Coach Mike Brown said he will likely play against the Hornets on Wednesday.
“If I would’ve left and the team won a championship without me,” he said, “I don’t think I could’ve ever forgave myself.”
To make room on the roster, Cleveland waived second-year forward Darnell Jackson.
“Z has been a good friend of mine and others in the organization,” said Ferry, who played with Ilgauskas in Cleveland. “We’re excited to have the Ilgauskas family back in Cleveland. This is where they really wanted to be.”
It’s been a difficult season for the veteran center. He became a bench player for the first time in his career when the team acquired Shaquille O’Neal last summer, then he was upset when Brown didn’t play him the night he was expected to break the team’s record for most games played.
When Ferry traded his former teammate to Washington in a three-team deal, Ilgauskas had to take a few days to calm his emotions and collect his thoughts.
“It’s been a strange season,” he said.
Washington subsequently bought out his contract before he ever played a game, making him a free agent. While multiple teams around the league showed great interest, Ilgauskas ultimately chose to return to Cleveland. He had to wait 30 days under league rules, but passed the time by working out on his own and getting rare time off with his family.
He returns averaging 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds this season. Brown hasn’t decided whether he’ll continue to come off the bench or start while O’Neal is out for the remainder of the regular season after thumb surgery.
Cleveland used its biannual exception to sign him for the rest of the season. The 34-year-old has previously hinted at retirement but has since changed his mind. His agent, Herb Rudoy, said he plans to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“With a guy that is his size and with his skill level and ability to shoot the ball, he has a lot of years left in him,” Brown said. “We only bring positives to the organization and to our team with him in the mix.”
Ferry warned Ilgauskas before the season he could be traded because of his expiring contract. That didn’t make the emotion of the moment any easier. Ferry said his e-mail and voicemail filled up with messages from fans upset that he traded one of the most popular players in Cavaliers history.
It was those same people who brought Ilgauskas back. He said he was overwhelmed by the support of Cavaliers fans who begged him to return once he became available.
“The way people in Cleveland and the fans have reacted has really humbled me in a positive way,” Ilgauskas said. “Their support has been unbelievable. I’m from Lithuania and I’ll always be proud of it, but this has become a home to me.”