Cavs' Ilgauskas Deals With Painful Losses

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

CLEVELAND, April 24 -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas jogged to the huddle after a timeout during a Cleveland Cavaliers' game in March and cracked a joke to teammate Scot Pollard. Pollard was too shocked to laugh. He just looked toward the ceiling and let out a sigh of relief.

"I was like, 'We've got him back,' " Pollard said.

Prior to his quip, the 7-foot-3 center had been with the Cavaliers for about seven days in body alone. His mind was elsewhere. The usual quick wit was replaced by silence. His teammates, uneasy about how to communicate with him, simply said nothing -- and everyone understood. It was going to take time.

Ilgauskas has been celebrated in Cleveland this week for scoring 16 points in the Cavaliers' 97-82 win over the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of their first-round series, but perhaps more remarkable is that he is on the court contributing only a couple of months removed from the most painful experience of his life.

Moments after the Cavaliers hosted the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 11, Ilgauskas's wife, Jennifer, went into premature labor and was taken to an emergency room. Three days after being hospitalized, she delivered stillborn twins, a boy and a girl.

For the next two weeks, Ilgauskas mourned privately with his wife, whom he met during his rookie year in 1996 and married in the summer of 2004 in Hawaii. The couple mostly stayed home, ate dinner together, and tried to make sense of what had happened.

The Ilgauskas family had been eagerly anticipating the birth. Ilgauskas joked with reporters in training camp that he couldn't wait to have a daughter because he didn't want to be too old to intimidate her prom date.

"Me and my wife, we supported each other. We were there for each other," Ilgauskas, 31, said as he prepared for Game 2. "We knew our family and friends would be there for us, but we wanted privacy for the most part."

Ilgauskas's teammates sent supportive text messages and Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry told his friend and former teammate to take as much time as he needed.

This was the second time in as many years that the Cavaliers had dealt with players' grief. Last season, Larry Hughes's brother, Justin, died at age 20 from heart failure. Justin died during the Cavaliers' second-round series against the Detroit Pistons, and the entire team flew to St. Louis to attend the funeral before Game 5. Hughes returned for Game 7 with two tears tattooed below his left eye.

"One of the foundations of what we're trying to build is a family atmosphere," Ferry said. "Larry and Zydrunas went through two great challenging times for anyone's lives. This, basketball and everything else, pales in comparison. I don't think that either of them can truly get away, but this is a way to help focus on something different."

Ilgauskas forced himself to come back, to take his mind off of his heartache and return to his normal life. After missing four games, he eventually rejoined the team in Miami. "It was tough in the beginning part because I really didn't want to be here. I wanted to be at home with my family," Ilgauskas said. "I knew I was going to have to get back here. I took my time, as much as I could. I just figured the longer time I took, the harder it was going to be for me to get back."

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