Ilgauskas takes soccer fandom to new heights

Oct 28 2010 - 5:18pm

MIAMI -- Turns out one of the biggest Manchester United fans in the world is now living on Miami Beach.

And when we say big, we mean really big, as in 7-3 big. New Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the less-hyped player with a Cleveland Cavaliers background obtained over the summer, is a die-hard soccer fan and thrilled to be living in a city that shares his passion.

Ilgauskas, known as "Z" in the locker room and around the league, grew up in Lithuania. His first love was soccer and he watched Man U on TV whenever he got a chance. His favorite players past and present are Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham. In fact, his 5-year-old Newfoundland dog is named Beckham.

"But my dog is better-looking, more handsome than the soccer player," Ilgauskas joked.

He was worried Rooney was going to leave the club last week, but Rooney announced Friday he was staying.

"I love how Rooney plays because he wears his emotions on his sleeves, but I think he misses having Ronaldo around because that was his set-up guy," Ilgauskas said. "Ronaldo relieved a lot of the pressure on Rooney, and now defenses zero in on Rooney."

Ilgauskas said he liked soccer more than basketball as a child, and was a decent forward through his early teens. But then a growth spurt hit. As he grew taller and taller, his coaches moved him farther and farther back on the field until he ended up as a goalkeeper.

"I was actually a pretty good forward because I was more athletic than most kids and I had height and I really loved to score, but when I turned 15, 16, I started getting really tall and they put me at goalie, which I didn't like so much," he said. "By then I was already playing basketball, so I drifted away from soccer. But I'm still a huge fan."

You can say that again.

He said he envies and marvels at the speed and stamina of professional soccer players and was particularly impressed seeing the stars of the sport up close at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. This past summer, he watched the South Africa World Cup at various pubs in New York.

England is his favorite team, but his wife, Jennifer, is American, so they were split on the day of England's match against the United States.

"It was so much fun watching that game because the people in New York were going crazy for the World Cup," he said. "The New York Post had a big headline that said: 'Red Coats are Coming, It's a War!' And all the bars were packed. Even the other players on the Cavs were into it. It was very different when I first got to this country, and nobody else in the locker room could name the top players or teams in soccer. Now, most guys know who Lionel Messi and Ronaldo and Real Madrid and Man U."

Ilgauskas joined the Cavs in 1996, and he remembers having a hard time keeping up with the 1998 World Cup.

"Most people in Cleveland didn't even seem to know the World Cup was going on in France that year," he said. "I had to search for scores on the Internet and by calling home. Things really changed since then. ESPN shows more games, the scores come across the ticker, and that's been great for me."

Six-year-old Deividas, the older of Ilgauskas' two adopted sons, is a soccer fan and loves to play. The younger son, Povidas, "prefers to do karate and dig holes in the yard."

Deividas is playing in an after-school league on Miami Beach, and his proud dad said he "has no fear and goes for the tackles."

Needless to say, he has outfitted his boys with red and white Manchester United jerseys and shorts. But his wife has family in England, and they're Arsenal fans.

"They've tried to brainwash my boys, tried to sneak some Arsenal and Liverpool and Chelsea jerseys in there," Ilgauskas said, smiling. "But I'm not a dictator. I'm trying to keep an open mind, but it's not easy."

Ilgauskas is just learning his way around town and hasn't been out to watch matches yet, but don't be surprised if you see him at Churchill's some morning, taking in the Premier League. He will be easy to spot.


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