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.

January 11, 2010 - 11:24am
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