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A Brief (Sad) History of the Cleveland Cavaliers

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Where to start a post about LeBron James and renaissance except in the dark ages of the basketball town where I live.


Some context first: The last championship in our city was in 1964. Not that anyone is counting but you could sooner make money delivering ice at the Arctic Circle than you could opening a confetti store in Cleveland.

The prevailing sense of doom—did I mention the landmark in town is called the Terminal Tower and that it's not far from Deadman's Curve?—changed considerably the day in 2003 the Cleveland Cavaliers won the lottery for being a truly terrible team and got the draft pick that became James.

lebron-james-SIWith James, the Cavaliers reached the 2007 NBA finals. It was a milestone moment for a franchise that had never been there, though the San Antonio Spurs treated the Cavs more like an annoyance than a true challenge. The result was a four-game sweep.


James is from Akron, not far from Cleveland. He was raised believing the sun goes on vacation in another galaxy from November through April, so the weather is no big deal to him. The top NBA free agents often shun cold-weather cities. They pick teams in states with friendly tax rates and, specifically, cities whose drug stores carry SPF 30 and above all year round.


That's why so many people here are more concerned about whether LeBron James stays or leaves when he becomes a free agent this summer than they are about the blue fingers they find at the end of their snow shovels five months a year.

Shaquille O'Neal came to Cleveland because of James. Without James, the best we can hope for is Tatum O'Neal stopping by to film a movie.

shaq-lebronShaq arrived to spend the winter of his sun-splashed career, validating Cleveland as a NBA destination city. Suddenly, we were Sally Field at the Oscars: "You like us, you really like us!!"


The day he signed, O'Neal announced his intentions in Ali style verse: "Win a ring for the king."


But for a true appreciation of our renaissance as a basketball city, you need to go back before James promised to light up the city "like Las Vegas" on the day he was drafted. Way back.


The Cavs are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. "Humble beginnings" doesn't begin to capture the journey.

They Looked Good on Paper (Specifically Bubblegum Cards)

As an expansion team, the Cavs lost their first 15 games, won one, then dropped their next 12.

They made it painfully apparent that a sense of humor would come in handy. So in that regard, Bill Fitch, their first head coach, was the right man at the right time and place.

He marked his introductory press conference by saying, "Just remember, the name's Fitch, not Houdini."

One day, with the losses piling up, Fitch approached the woman behind the United Airlines counter during the away portion of the schedule and said, "Where do we go to surrender?"

The Cavaliers weren't just bad, they were excruciatingly bad, book-worthy bad.

My friend Burt Graeff, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's long-time basketball writer who took a buyout a few years ago, co-authored a Cavaliers history entitled, From Fitch to Fratello back in the late 1990s.

Graeff remembers what happened in San Francisco after the Cavs lost the first 14 games of their inaugural season. Facing Golden State that night, Fitch walked to the arena from the hotel.

Upon arriving, he realized he forgot to bring his NBA pass that would get him past arena security.

"I'm the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers,'' Fitch told the guard.

"How do I know you're the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers?" the guard asked.

Fitch: "Do you know what the Cavaliers record is?"

"Yes,'' said the guard, "0-14."

"Then,'' said Fitch, "let me ask you something else. Do you think I would tell you I am coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers if I am not coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers?"

"Go right in,'' said the security guard.

When I asked Graeff to condense his experiences covering the early Cavaliers, he told me the story of a player named Gary Suiter, a 6-9 free agent from Midwestern State.

Says Graeff: "He arrived in Cleveland by airplane, but was a no-show at Hopkins Airport when trainer Ron Culp went out to get him. Airport personnel eventually found him alone—sleeping in the back of the plane.

"Before the franchise's first regular season game at Buffalo, Fitch could not find Suiter. Again, Culp was dispatched to track him down. He eventually did, finding Suiter standing in a concession stand line ordering a hot dog and coke while in full uniform and warm-ups.

cards-sheet"Suiter was eventually cut. Not long after, the Cavaliers received a call from a funeral home near the Cleveland Arena. The caller said a guy claiming to be a Cavaliers player came in one day saying there was a death in the family and he had to make some calls to set up funeral arrangements.


"Turned out Suiter was making calls to general managers around the league trying to get a job."


Small wonder that Fitch would soon say, "Sometimes, I wish my parents had never met."


Graeff remembered a press conference in which Fitch stopped talking, shushed everyone else and said, "Hear that drip? I think it's an ulcer."


The expansion draft "scouting" he did, along with his only assistant, Jim Lessig, amounted to reading players statistics off the back of NBA bubblegum cards.


Lessig told Graeff: "I bought $15 or $20 worth of them. One night before the draft, Bill and I laid them all out on the floor of my family room. There were about 120 or so players in the NBA at the time, and we had about 97 of their cards. We also had enough bubblegum to last for years."

Is it any wonder, Graeff said, why a team largely assembled from information gathered on the backs of bubblegum cards lost 67 games?

Fitch lasted long enough to coach the first good Cavaliers team to the playoffs and past Washington in what people in Northeast Ohio still know as the "Miracle of Richfield" (Richfield being the suburb where the team played after moving out of downtown Cleveland).

The Traveling Circus

softball-ownerBut not long after, the Cavaliers found themselves right back in the competition for league laughingstock after Ted Stepien bought the team in 1980.


Stepien made his fortune in advertising. He also owned a pro softball team.


One of his early publicity stunts was to toss softballs off the 52nd floor of a downtown skyscraper to raise the profile of the league.

A physics major, he wasn't. Two pedestrians were injured in the softball drop. According to legend, one ball hit a car. Another broke a woman's wrist. One grazed someone's shoulder. Finally, somebody caught one.

When attendance dwindled, he toyed with renaming the team the Ohio Cavaliers and playing home games in nearby cities. A true traveling circus.

He fired coaches as quickly as he hired them. One, Chuck Daly, who passed away this year, became a Hall of Famer for his work winning NBA championships in Detroit. Back then, though, he was 51 and wanted an NBA job. Stepien had one.

I met Stepien for the first time that season. I was working in Philadelphia. Daly had been the head coach there at the University of Pennsylvania before leaving to become an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers.

My boss sent me to Cleveland to see if it was really as bad for Daly as it sounded from afar.

I met him one cold afternoon in 1982 in the lobby of the Richfield hotel where he stayed. He was too smart to buy a house.

He handed me a stack of newspaper sports sections with paragraphs highlighted and quotes from Stepien underlined.

"You will not believe some of the stuff going on here," he said.

He was right. Stepien had Daly come one night to a lingerie show the owner was emceeing downtown. He asked Daly to resign.

Daly: "No, why don't you fire me?"

Stepien softened, ended up buying Daly a drink and saying, "This is a lot like (the movie) Patton."

Daly estimated he spent 92 nights in the Richfield hotel, learning every imaginable back door out of the place to avoid talking to anyone.

The Cavaliers record under Stepien was 66-180. He had five coaches in three seasons and lost $15 million.

ehloThe league instituted the The Stepien Rule, preventing teams from trading first-round draft picks in consecutive seasons. Long-time NBA coach Stan Albeck once told Sports Illustrated, "Goodness, Cleveland doesn't have a first-round pick for years. Whoever he is, he's a high school freshman right now."


The year I moved to Cleveland to work at The Plain Dealer, the Cavs were 57-25 but had the unfortunate timing to become a good team while Michael Jordan was becoming one of the game's greatest players. They could never get past him.


Another long valley followed. Nothing as precipitous as the first few years of expansion or the Stepien years. Just a slow deterioration and then rampant middle-of-the-pack nothingness.


Until James, the suffering didn't stop for the people who lived through the growth pains of expansion and the other miseries.

Selected Lowlights

Shawn Kemp: Desperate for a marquee player, the Cavaliers gave Kemp a long-term deal. Unfortunately, the biggest headlines he made in Cleveland came from a Sports Illustrated expose on athletes fathering children out of committed relationships. Kemp was paying child-support on seven children during his time in Cleveland.

After a labor issue sabotaged the NBA in 1998, Kemp came back looking as if he'd eaten his way through a chocolate factory. He went from weighing 260 in Seattle to 317 in Cleveland and Cavs coaches later told reporters they worried he might have a heart attack.

Vitaly Potapenko: The 12th pick in the 1996 draft became notable only because a skinny kid from Philadelphia named Kobe Bryant was the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft.

Tyrone Hill: After a death-defying flight in bad weather, Hill decided he couldn't fly to a playoff game in New York and instead took a nine-hour, 475-mile limo drive. He needed sedatives to get on the plane for the return flight to Cleveland.

Tim Kempton: Kempton played four games for the Cavaliers, three of them in the 1994 playoffs. His claim to fame? He could eat a Burger King Whopper in a single bite.

Ricky Davis: In March 2003, Davis famously and selfishly took a shot at the wrong basket late in a game against Utah thinking he could get the necessary 10th rebound for a triple double (double figures in three categories).

Jeff McInnis: Upset with the team over numerous issues, he put his practice jersey on inside out and declared himself an "independent contractor."

The Reign of King James

17-65. That was the record the year before the Cavaliers drafted James. I've seen better displays of basketball by players riding on the back of donkeys.

Seven seasons later, still no championship to make all the tribulations worthwhile.

Typically, nothing comes easy here. Now the clock is ticking on the chance to win a title with James as the chairman of the party committee.

Every night at Quicken Loans Arena is a sellout. Not at all like the old broken down Cleveland Arena where crowds were sparse and where Hall of Famer John Havlicek of Boston once said he wouldn't take a post-game shower for fear of catching an incurable disease.

In the old arena, a UPI sportswriter was once pounding out a story on a typewriter near the end of a game. One of the few fans in attendance yelled out, "Shut that damn machine up. It's making too much noise."

Now, every night is ear-splitting excitement—and not just because of the pyrotechnics.

How does this story end? That's the daily question in Cleveland.

I think James will sign on again for another three years. At the end of that contract, he'll have invested 10 years in his hometown team and still only be 28 years old. No one could reasonably find him at fault at that point if he wanted a change of scenery.

If he commits a decade of his basketball life to Cleveland and the Cavaliers don't win a single NBA trophy, Bill Fitch gave him the line to say on his way out of town.

The name's James, not Houdini.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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