Zydrunas Ilgauskas Retires as the True Face of the NBA Lockout
A human foot has twenty-six bones in it, thirty-three joints, over a hundred ligaments, some muscles and tendons, all coming together so that a person can walk, stand, run, and, sometimes, on a good day, even jump. And, in the case of Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ eleven-year NBA career, we may have seen him accomplish fifty percent of those activities; after all, the man’s career got off to a series of foot injuries and a handful of surgeries that limited him to just 173 out of 328 games in his first four seasons. Five of the surgeries are on record, but I’m sure there’s a black market doctor somewhere with Big Z’s original foot floating in a glass jar, all fat and swollen, joints and cartilage puffed out like cauliflower.
But that’s what happens when men the size of mountains balance their girth on thimble-like feet–things break–while an individual, like myself, who is nothing but average in every sense of the word has only managed to break his expendable pinkie toe, having slammed in on a door jamb when doing baseball slides across a Pinesol-scented linoleum floor. Basketball is full of these oddities, especially when fans try to juxtapose their own lives against those of the famous, and not so famous, athletes that captivate their imaginations, trying to find some greater meaning in their heroes’ victories and defeats.
Zydrunas Ilagauskas has earned millions more dollars than I will ever come close to sniffing. I could look at his average averages (13 ppg and 7 rpg), lack of postseason success, and two All-Star appearances (achieved mostly by default) and say that the man was overpaid, or I could think that some price must be paid to a 7’3″ man weighing well over two hundred pounds for literally running the bones of his foot into chalk dust. That has to be worth something, right? How much would you take for your right foot? I’m not sure what I would answer, but I do know that someday (sooner than he might like to think) Ilgauskas is going to move like a cripple, and that before the time feels just, his body will age rapidly. I know that I would have to go back to some college intramural game to discover a time when I was still willing to make physical sacrifices. And that feels like forever ago.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas lost three crucial seasons in his development to foot surgeries, becoming a twenty-seven-year-old version of a forty-year-old Arvydis Sabonis. While he is certainly less sweaty and not as good, Ilgauskas is still endowed with all the magical what ifs, and I find it strangely coincidental that a center who was kind of a star, but not really, chose to walk away from the game the weekend before Tuesday’s crucial NBA labor negotiations–a work stoppage that has resulted from the owners’ beliefs that the middle tier of players, which players like Big Z were a part of, has been vastly overpaid for over the last decade.
In a summer that saw Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming both retire, it’s a career like Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ that looms largest over the league. Guys like Shaq and Yao will always get paid: top talent, top production, top stars never have to fret. But guys like Big Z? Well, they may never get paid the same again. Yet, when contemplating a possible pay cut for players such as Ilgauskas, I find myself filled with a lot less sympathy than when I ponder his five-foot surgeries. Why? Because I would break my pinkie toe all over again if whatever the new deal is — a hard cap, a semi-hard cap, or new changes to the old Larry Bird rights — rendered someone like me who, when compared with my peers is pretty much average or maybe just slightly above, amazing.
And so, after a summer that saw LeBron continue to become even more of a hot button issue, saw Kevin Durant pass his game around like a mix tape, and has ended with Kobe contemplating Italy, it’s men like the seemingly ordinary Zydrunas Ilgauskas, with his hit man face and osteoporosis feet, that are the topic of debate. And in fact, owners, player reps, and even agents are debating the state of the NBA’s middle class much more effectively than the GOP or even Democrats could ever dream of doing, because while the NBA may not pay them as much as it once did, at least it mentions them from time to time.
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