It’s a wooden knocking sound.   An AK-47 machine gun firing, maybe two or three at once or maybe even more, in succession.  It is a chorus, over and over and over, expelling ringing spent shells.  In the bright lights cutting through a fog of haze and of two hundred thousand are soldiers swinging brutal rifles in dark shadows, connecting again and again.  Fifteen year old Zydrunas Ilgauskas is there and he hears these gunshots and it is a terrifying and bloody scene.



It is January 13th, 1991.   It is “Bloody Sunday” in Vilinus, Lithuania and unarmed protesting Lithuanians who have gathered there by the television tower will die tonight and hundreds injured while opposing an invasion by a Soviet army clinging to the annexed nation of Lithuania.  

Vilinus is the capital of Lithuania.  The television tower in Vilinus is the largest structure in the country.  This is where it went off.   

It has been two days since the invasion of Lithuania by the Soviet army and there is already carnage.   Paratroopers and military units have surrounded and seized the National Defense department and assumed control over the railway and the press.  Soviets have used live ammunition on Lithuanian citizens. 

On the 12th there are reports that Lithuanian citizens have gathered and encircled government buildings, the radio building and this tallest building in Lithuania.  At midnight, the tanks roll.  The Soviet army is headed to the television tower which is still broadcasting the events of the invasion.  Zydrunas Ilgauskas and two hundred thousand others are there.

As they arrive, there is a vapor that hangs in the air amid the sounds of Lithuanian patriotic hymns being sung with shaky cold voices.  And they are both extinguished by the grinding sounds of machines and violent explosions as the tanks fire blank rounds into the air. 

No one is prepared for this.  No one has a plan for this.  No one knows how to deal with this situation.

The ground and air feels like it is swelling, pounding with tank reports and dark burning gunpowder.  Windows shatter and there is a lingering ringing and the deep bass of a heart beating and then nothing at all.  Mouths move, there are blasts of light, but there is no sound.  It has flatlined.  It is literally deafening. 

It will be the last thing that some of these thousands hear. They won’t hear that rat-tat-tat knocking of machine guns firing rounds over the heads or down and at them.  They won’t hear the cranking tanks driving through the crowds, the screams and the bones of people snapping, breaking and being completely crushed by tanks treads.  They won’t hear pro-Soviet Lithuanian voice over loudspeakers imploring the crowd to disburse or the gunshots and explosions that shot and killed regular people.  They see images of horror, presented without the context of noise.  They are citizens.  Workers and students.


There’s an image of Lithuania, the last one before the Soviets finally took the tower and ended the broadcast.  A soldier is coming down a hallway at the camera.  He reaches the camera and the broadcast goes dark.  Lithuania is fighting for independence from the Soviet Union by plumbers and vocational students standing up to tanks and soldiers swinging rifles at thier heads.  They will prevail.  It will change the world.




There’s a suburb on the West side of Cleveland.   And it’s quiet in the night and so many lawns are manicured.  Everything is where it should be.  That’s where Zydrunas Ilgauskas wakes up and makes breakfast for his wife and two sons in the mornings.

He’s seven foot three.  He walks taller than almost anyone in any crowd anywhere.    He is harder and tougher than any player on Paul Silas’ Cavaliers in 2004 and in every other year he is on the team.  He throws bruising giant hands into the sternum of the nearest rebounder reaching for a rebound in a way no one does.  He develops a shooting stroke, runs a tip drill clinic and plants himself at the top of the arc setting screens and picks.

It is never forgotten, it never truly goes away, and a part of you is always there with the bodies and the armored trucks and tanks and bright spotlights light cutting through smoke and fog and the knocking and screaming and air raid sirens and explosions.  They are ghosts as you move to a new country, as you learn English, as you decide to agree to experimental surgery on your feet, as you rehabilitate them over and over through years, as you view that complex spiral of wires within them on each angle of each x-ray, and as you marry and start a family.  They are your ghosts.  They are there with you at center court for every jump ball, at the free throw line for every shot, inside the paint as you jump and jump again on those feet those thousands of times, tipping offensive rebounds into the rim.  

Regular extrordinary people that stood down an army while it was shooting at them and blasting shells that night where Zydrunas Ilgauskas stood in the cold and were not intimidated.  The past is miles away and on the other side of the world sometimes.  It is a light that dims and goes out as much as it screams until its lungs burn at other times.  It hides and then arrives invited or uninvited and with or without warning, wanted or not

But we all feel it in our bones, flowing in our blood and printed on DNA.  The confetti is the smoky air, the love though the rafters are the roar of sirens, the passion is the conveyance that brought us all here to be together where we are safe and loved and have always belonged.  

Congratulations Zydrunas.

(Matt Florjancic, WKYC)

(This piece was written in part based on a report from Plain Dealer writer Mary Schmidt Boyer about Zydrunas Ilgauskas in 2011 that is published on cleveland.com.  Photo credits for the pictures of "Blood Sunday", from the documentary film "Krustcels", director Juris Podnieks )