Only five seasons after fielding one of the worst teams in NBA history, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a strong run at the league championship. They put together a string of last-second playoff victories and captured the hearts of Northeast Ohio’s basketball fans. Perhaps never before or since have local sports fans made more noise per capita.
A mythic barrage of sound thundered through the building even before the team came out to warm up.
“WE WANT THE CAVS! WE WANT THE CAVS!”
The refrain quite literally shook the building. The Coliseum was a solid facility, only a year old, built with enough steel to crush the Eiffel Tower. But the place was vibrating, just as surely as if it were sitting atop a fault line that had swung into geological action.
“WE WANT THE CAVS! WE WANT THE CAVS!”
In the visiting locker room, coach K. C. Jones asked his assistant to walk over and hold the blackboard against the wall to keep it from shaking. Jones was having a hard time drawing the plays. And this was half an hour before the tip.
“WE WANT THE CAVS! WE WANT THE CAVS!”
Only someone who was hearing impaired could have avoided a prolonged case of the chills. No, scratch that. You didn’t even need ears. The noise was so intense you could feel it in your chest.
“WE WANT THE CAVS! WE WANT THE CAVS!”
Perhaps never before or since has Northeast Ohio fallen harder for a sports team. During the 1975–76 playoffs, the love seemed absolutely unconditional. It was such an unlikely affair, and one so passionate, that the fling became known as “The Miracle of Richfield.”
Outsiders look at that moniker and scratch their heads. A team that failed to win the Eastern Conference championship, much less the NBA championship, is regarded as miraculous?
You betcha. For those of us who knew where the Cavaliers had been during the previous five years, this was something on the order of loaves and fishes.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were born in 1970 at 3717 Euclid Avenue, in a 33-year-old structure known as the Cleveland Arena. By that time, the place seemed less like an “arena” and more like a glorified gymnasium.
The place had been built primarily for hockey, and hockey—minor league hockey, at that—was still the driving force. The Barons were in their 35th season and had a decent following. Basketball was just another sideshow, along with wrestling, boxing, the circus, the Globetrotters, roller derby, Disney on Parade, and ice shows. You want ice shows? Both the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies were booked for extended runs. And don’t forget the TRW Christmas party, also dutifully listed on the facility’s printed schedules.
The Arena’s game program—the same one was sold for both basketball and hockey—touted “a bigger and better variety of refreshments,” such as “pizzas and hamburgers.” How adventurous.
You could buy a souvenir Cavaliers cap for $2, a T-shirt for $3, and a Cavaliers winter jacket for $15.
All else being equal, you wanted to park at the Midtown Sheraton across the street, not in the parking lot behind the Arena, because you stood a better chance of recovering your car when you came back out.
Just to the right of the main entrance was a place called the Wine &Roses. It was a strip joint. On the other side of the Arena’s entrance was Richie Vojtesek’s Sporting Goods. One door past that was a greasy spoon called the Tick-Tock.
Inside the Arena, patrons circled a ground-level concourse to get to their seats below. The place sat about 10,000, but you could jam in 11,000 on the rare occasion when that many people were interested.
The Arena’s locker rooms were only somewhat more luxurious than the facilities at a forced labor camp. They were about 12 by 20 feet, with concrete-block walls and three showerheads that dripped and rarely delivered warm water. Team owner Nick Mileti tried to spruce up the place by hanging banners over the concrete, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. Around the league, the Arena was known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.
The moldy facilities were so bad that the visiting players changed into their uniforms in their hotel rooms and walked across the street. After the games, they’d return to the hotel for their postgame showers.
Visiting players didn’t always take the most direct route to the game. Before their first game against the Cavaliers, for instance, three of the Los Angeles Lakers paid a brief visit to the Wine &Roses—wearing their warm-ups.
If that doesn’t sound very professional, well, it was difficult to take the Cavaliers seriously in those days. In fact, it is hard to exaggerate how truly horrible that first team was.
The first game was ugly—a 15-point loss to a fellow expansion team, Buffalo—and things went straight downhill from there. Cleveland began its maiden season with 15 consecutive losses. And most of those weren’t even close.
By the night of the home opener, they were already 0–7. Still, their debut drew a respectable crowd of 6,144. The first starting lineup looked like this:
F: McCoy McLemore, 18
F: Bingo Smith, 7
C: Luther Rackley, 45
G: Johnny Egan, 21
G: John Warren, 11
Naturally, the home team was blown out by San Diego. The next night, against the Cincinnati Royals, the crowd dropped 48 percent, to a mere 3,199.
After finally winning their first game—against another expansion team, Portland—they lost 12 more in a row. Their second win came against Buffalo, and was followed by seven more losses. On Christmas morning, Cleveland’s new team woke up sporting a record of 3–36.
Want to talk about ineptitude? For the season, the best free-throw shooter on the team was Walter Wesley, who posted a percentage of—get this—.687. That’s only marginally competent for a high school player. The big center, taken from Chicago in the expansion draft, also owned the team’s best field-goal percentage, an almost-as-lame .455.
What the young Cavs lacked in shooting they made up for with terrible defense. In two home games over a three-day period in November, they gave up 53 points to Milwaukee’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 43 points to Atlanta’s Lou Hudson.
By the way, Jabbar recorded his first double-bird during that game. Not a double-double, mind you, a double-bird. As his point total grew, the fans started booing him with increasing enthusiasm. Why? Hard to tell. Maybe just because he was good and our guys weren’t. Milwaukee was on track to win 51 games more than the Cavs. Anyway, near the end of the game, as Jabbar stood at the free-throw line and boos cascaded down upon him, he raised both hands above his head and unfurled both middle fingers.
You could get away with that kind of thing in those days, before ESPN was replaying every cough, every itch, every trickle of sweat. Heck, only 60 percent of the Cavaliers games were even on the radio.
The flagship station—okay, the only station—was WERE (1300 AM). Unfortunately for the Cavs, WERE was carrying every sport in town. Some nights, the new basketball team had to compete for airtime with both the Indians and the Barons. And it was no contest. Even the Barons outdrew the Cavs, and they were competing for an AHL championship. Tape-delay broadcasts weren’t happening, either. If it wasn’t on live, it wasn’t on.
The lowly Cavaliers were not Cleveland’s first crack at professional basketball, not by a long shot. Pro ball in Cleveland was already at least 0-for-5. A team called the Cleveland Rosenblums, named after owner Max Rosenblum, a department store magnate, had come and gone, despite winning the ABL title in 1928–29. So, too, had the Allmen Transfers, the Chase Brassmen, the Rebels, and, most recently, the Pipers, who won an ABL title in 1962.
Now came the attempt by Mileti, an entrepreneur who had shelled out $3.7 million to gain entry in the 25-year-old National Basketball Association. Three other teams were supposed to be added that first year—Portland, Buffalo, and Houston—but Houston dropped out because of a lack of money.
At times, the Cavaliers seemed destined for the same fate. A mere 1,737 people paid for tickets to a January 4 game against Portland. Four times that first season, the crowd numbered 2,000 or fewer. The average was a pitiful 3,518.
On November 2, the Cavs journeyed to Philadelphia and put on one of the worst performances in NBA history. They lost by 54 points. In other words, all five starters could have scored 10 more points each, and it wouldn’t have made any difference.
The new play-by-play announcer, Joe Tait, didn’t make the trip because of a broadcast schedule conflict. So he went back to Terre Haute, Indiana, to move more of his belongings to Cleveland. While he was packing, he was listening to the game over a Philadelphia station. In the middle of the second quarter, he heard one of the announcers say, “This is the worst basketball team I have ever seen. No one will want to see this. If people see them once, they will never come back. This franchise won’t make it beyond the All-Star break.”
Mind you, Tait had just quit his job as a station manager in Terre Haute to take the Cavs job alongside his old acquaintance, coach Bill Fitch, for half the pay—$100 per game. Now even that meager salary seemed to be in jeopardy.
But the Cavs managed to draw just enough attention and revenue to hang on. How they did is an enduring mystery. We’re talking about a bunch of guys who were so bad that they actually shot at the wrong basket, like little kids in a Saturday-morning peewee league.
That bizarre scene took place on a Thursday evening, December 9, during one of 12 games against Portland. Picture this: The teams come out for the fourth-quarter jump ball, and Walt Wesley taps it to Johnny Warren. Warren takes off the wrong way. He has plenty of company. Rookie John Johnson is on one side, and expansion pickup Bobby Lewis is on the other. Both of them are calling for the ball, thinking they have a better shot. But Warren takes it to the rack and scores—for Portland.
Think that’s bad? Portland’s center, Leroy Ellis, tried to block the shot!
As if grade-school teams needed any more bad examples, the Blazers found themselves a few minutes later with six men on the floor, drawing a technical. Once back in a traditional basketball alignment, they still had enough manpower to overpower the Cavs, 109–102. That dropped Cleveland’s home record to 1–12.
Even with the expansion draft on top of the normal collegiate draft, Cleveland’s roster wasn’t exactly deep. One of the bench players was a fellow by the name of Gary Suiter, a six-foot-nine, 240-pound forward from that basketball powerhouse, Midwestern University, in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.
Suiter may well have been the worst player in Cavaliers history. He also had some quirks. Among his odd habits was a tendency to spend quite a bit of time in the restroom shortly before game time. Most of the time, he would emerge from his stall right before the trainer locked the clubhouse for the first half. But more than once, when the trainer called out for stragglers, nobody answered, and Suiter was locked inside. Because he never played, nobody noticed until the team returned to the locker room at halftime.
Suiter’s big chance finally came late in the season at a road game against Buffalo. He was truly an awful player, shooting 35 percent from the field and 44 percent from the line, but the Cavaliers had sustained so many injuries that the coach finally wrote in his name as a starter. Just before tip-off, Fitch gathered the starters around to finalize their defensive assignments. He noticed that Suiter was missing. The trainer was dispatched to the locker room to see whether he was locked inside again. He wasn’t. The team’s starting forward was finally discovered standing in front of a concession stand, in full uniform, with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other.
After the game, Suiter was cut. (Even the Cavs had some pride.) When he came downtown the next morning to collect his travel pay, he stopped first at the Wine &Roses, which, during daylight hours, was a frequent hangout for ladies of the evening. Suiter looked around the house and asked one of them whether she wanted to make $50—not in the traditional manner, but by accompanying him to the Cavaliers offices and posing as his wife. That way he could collect extra per-diem travel money for the previous road trip.
Fitch came out of his second-floor office, looked at Suiter, looked at the woman, and promptly shoved Suiter down the stairs and back out onto Euclid Avenue.
Suiter’s replacements, though perhaps more businesslike, weren’t much better, and the team finished the season at 15–67. That’s fewer than two wins every 10 games.
As painful as the 1970–71 season was, it was not totally unexpected. Fitch and Mileti had decided—unlike the other two expansion teams, which picked up established but aging veterans in an attempt to be competitive right away—that they would assemble a collection of youngsters, give them experience, then add a couple of vets when the kids began to jell.
Most of the guys on that first team really did try. The adversity brought them together, gave them a camaraderie that most teams don’t have, and made them play even harder. And, with the exception of Suiter, they usually did what they were told. In fact, after Fitch retired three decades later, he said the maiden Cavaliers ran his offense better than any team he ever had. The problem was they simply weren’t good enough to make the shots.
During their second season, the Cavs won only eight more games but moved solidly into the realm of respectability, thanks in large measure to a first-round draft pick from Notre Dame. Austin Carr was a scoring machine, averaging nearly 35 points per game during his three years with the Irish, and he came out firing in the pros. Carr was humming along at 21.2 points per game when he blew out a knee in the season’s 43rd game.
The second-year team also benefited from the services of guard Butch Beard, who had been taken in the expansion draft but missed a year because of military duty. The frontcourt was bolstered by the draft of UCLA’s Steve Patterson and a trade for Lakers center Rick Roberson. Roberson was a beast on the backboards, averaging 12.7 rebounds per game. In addition, second-year-man Johnson really began to produce, averaging 17 points.
Carr’s midseason injury was too much to overcome, though, and the team never made a serious run at the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Mileti was creating an instant empire. First, he put together a group of investors and bought powerful WKYC radio, renaming it WWWE (1100 AM), or “3WE.” Fewer than a dozen stations in the entire nation could match its 50,000 watts. A month later, he assembled another group that bought the Cleveland Indians. A few months after that, he bought a Cleveland franchise for the World Hockey Association.
Who was this guy? Most Clevelanders had never heard of him before he headed a group that bought the Arena and launched the Cavaliers. He had practiced law and, while working on a project for the Lakewood Jaycees, found a business niche in putting together funding for housing projects for the elderly. He became nationally known as an expert on the funding and maintenance of elderly housing, and worked as a well-paid consultant. Still, most of the money he was throwing around was coming from other people’s pockets. This flashy, pendant-wearing son of Sicilian immigrants could put together a deal like few others.
Mileti’s basketball team improved again during its third year, adding another nine victories, to finish at 32–50. That season Fitch began to import some experience, trading Beard for an All-Star point guard, Lenny Wilkens, and a veteran forward with a great shooting touch, Barry Clemens. The Cavs also added two more youngsters, swapping a future draft pick for a second-year Lakers guard named Jim Cleamons, and using their own first-round pick on big Dwight Davis.
Carr was healthy again, and both he and Wilkens averaged 21 points a game. For the first time, even the best teams in basketball had to pay attention or pay the price. Just ask the Celtics, Bucks, or Lakers, each of whom won 60 or more games but dropped at least one contest to the Cavaliers. The young Cavs beat Los Angeles by 15, Milwaukee by 14, and Boston by 5. Only a lousy February kept Cleveland from amassing enough wins for a late-season playoff run.
The master plan developed a rip in Year Four. In a notable regression, Cleveland won three fewer games. Part of the problem was a major personnel shakeup at the start of the season. Roberson and Johnson were sent to Portland for the rights to University of Minnesota star Jim Brewer. The new group, unaccustomed to playing with each other, began with four straight losses and dumped 15 of their first 19. Given the shaky start, the 29-win season was not a total disaster. And hope was on the horizon. On the southern horizon, to be precise.
Out in the wilds of northern Summit County, amid 33,000 untouched acres that in another few years would become a national park, Mileti—borrowing heavily—was creating his own personal dream, a massive, state-of-the-art arena in which his basketball team could finally blossom.
Just off Interstate 271, and just up the pike from Interstate 77, the location was, Mileti said, easily accessible from throughout the region. He initially envisioned hotels, restaurants, and other amenities springing up around it. Others had a harder time with his vision—namely, Cleveland’s biggest bankers. Most of them thought the plan too risky, and Mileti was forced to go out of state for the bulk of his money.
Lawsuits slowed him down too. The project not only teed off Cleveland’s power brokers, who wanted the team downtown, but plenty of people in Richfield, who had no interest in importing an additional 5,000 automobiles every night of the week.
Legal wars raged, some of them going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Mileti persevered, and eventually—two years behind schedule and almost twice the projected $17 million cost—the Cavaliers had a glorious place to play. Looking back, in 1979, a Sports Illustrated article remarked, “No arena was more beautiful than the Coliseum, a magnificent structure in Richfield, Ohio.”
Not that basketball was the only game in town. The Coliseum would provide an even bigger list of entertainment offerings than the Arena.
Never one to underplay an opening, Mileti arranged for Frank Sinatra to christen the new palace with a black-tie concert. Other than a nightmare traffic jam that resulted in dozens of people simply abandoning their cars and walking the final half-mile or so in tuxedos and evening gowns, the affair won rave reviews.
Everybody called it “the Richfield Coliseum” except for the people who worked in the corporate offices there. They were adamant: it was “the Coliseum in Richfield.” In other words, the Coliseum was gracing Richfield, not the other way around. Newspaper reporters were chastised for reversing the order—which led, of course, to even more reversals.
No matter what the place was called, emotions of the potential customers were decidedly mixed. Fans in Akron, Canton, and southeastern Cuyahoga County loved the place because it was a more convenient destination than downtown Cleveland. Folks in other areas were far less enthralled. The most vocal criticism may have come from Cleveland sportswriters, who were forced to drive out of town every night in the dark, in all kinds of weather, and no longer had the luxury of returning to their newsrooms to write their stories.
Once inside the building, though, few people had any complaints. The sightlines were marvelous. The Coliseum had a wonderful communal feel. Unlike the future Gund Arena, whose design shepherds patrons into their one little seating area and traps them there, the Coliseum had a wide inner concourse about halfway between the floor and the top row. You could enter anywhere you pleased and truck around to your section without taking your eyes off the court. If you spotted a pal, you could walk right over and talk.
The Coliseum was one of the first arenas to offer loges, but the loges were way up out of the way, ringing the top row of seats, and took absolutely nothing away from the hardcore fans in the regular seats. Quite a contrast to the Gund, where the loges dominate the lower bowl, starting only 15 rows above the playing floor.
The first year at the Coliseum, inspired by the new digs and reinforcements from the now-defunct American Basketball Association, the Cavs won 40 games, 11 more than the previous season and only one below the once-impossible dream of a .500 season.
The key acquisition for 1974–75 was center Jim Chones, who had been playing in the rival ABA. Los Angeles held his rights, but the Cavs sent the Lakers a first-round draft choice to change that. It was a choice well spent. Chones, only 24, averaged 14.5 points a game and led the team in rebounding.
Fitch traded draft positions with Seattle to get ahold of guard Dick Snyder, and on draft day called the name of an unknown point guard from West Georgia, Foots Walker.
As the 1975–76 season opened, though, the Cavs gave every indication that they were backsliding. Losing their home opener was no big deal—hell, they’d done that six years in a row. The problem was that nothing much changed as the schedule unfolded. After 17 games, Fitch’s boys were 6–11. They had broken 100 points only four times. They were averaging barely 9,500 fans in the fancy new building, less than half the capacity. Then, something magical happened.
The Miracle of Richfield was, in many ways, the Miracle of Nate Thurmond.
Thurmond, an inch shy of seven feet tall, was a seemingly unworkable collection of spindly legs, huge hands, and massive biceps. But he somehow managed to move with uncommon elegance.
He had grown up less than 20 miles south of the Coliseum, on the rough-and-tumble streets of inner-city Akron. Among his high school teammates was Gus Johnson, who would go on to a brilliant career with the Washington Bullets.
They went to Central High (now Central-Hower) together. Afterward, Johnson, who was three years older, went off to the NBA while Thurmond was tearing up the Mid-American Conference at Bowling Green. When the two returned home during the summertime and hit the playgrounds, Thurmond couldn’t believe how rough Johnson had become. The message was unspoken but clear. That’s the way we do it in the big time, son. The NBA is a war. You gotta be tough. If you let them push you around, you won’t be there long.
Thurmond learned the message—learned it so well that he blossomed into one of the most feared defenders in NBA history, a man who made the Hall of Fame primarily on the strength of his defense and rebounding.
He was drafted by San Francisco, which many people considered an odd move, given the fact that the Warriors already had a center by the name of Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain could play a bit. And, at seven-foot-one, 275 pounds, he gave Thurmond all he could handle in practice.
Thurmond learned plenty from Wilt—both on and off the court. Like Chamberlain, Thurmond developed a little black book the size of a Michener novel.
Unlike Wilt, Thurmond didn’t keep stats on his off-the-field successes. Nor did he brag about his basketball talent. But he quickly showed he could hold his own in the pivot against anyone. He made the all-rookie team, and looked so strong that the Warriors traded Chamberlain back to Philadelphia the following season. Big Nate would spend the next decade as the unchallenged king of the paint in the City by the Bay.
But things went sour with the Warriors, as things almost always do with any team in any professional sport, and after 11 years Thurmond was sent packing. He was traded to Chicago for Clifford Ray and a tall stack of bills. The trade shocked and hurt Thurmond. The next psychological stage is anger, and by opening day of 1974, when Thurmond walked onto the home court in his new Bulls uniform, he was plenty angry. He channeled that anger into a manic performance that led to a quadruple double, a feat that has been done only four times in the history of the NBA. And it wasn’t even close: give him 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, and 12 blocked shots.
The rest of his season was far less glitzy. The big man was beginning to show his mileage. His scoring average plunged to 13 per game, on horrendous 36 percent shooting, and the Bulls had seen enough. The following year, they wanted to dump him, and the Cavs were delighted to accept him. On November 27, 1975, Cleveland sent Steve Patterson and Eric Fernsten to the Bulls for Thurmond and Rowland Garrett
The Miracle of Richfield began two days later. That was the day Nate Thurmond pulled on the wine-and-gold for the first time.
Gradually, Thurmond had worked his way back home, from the ancient Cow Palace in San Francisco, 2,200 miles from his childhood playgrounds, to the aging Chicago Stadium, 325 miles from home, to the new Richfield Coliseum—a mere 18 miles from where his parents now lived in West Akron.
The hometown fans knew the hometown team was not getting the original equipment. The new guy wearing No. 42 had lost most of his hair and wore a big pad on his aching right knee. He was 34 years old. A generation of basketball players later, Michael Jordan would average 20 points at the age of 40. But this was the mid-1970s, when training methods and equipment were nowhere near as good. Few people trained year round. In those days, it was not unheard of for a professional player to light up a cigarette at halftime.
Thurmond didn’t smoke, but he was no longer the same physical specimen who could fly up and down the court for as long as it took to get the job done. He had undergone two knee operations in an era when there was no such thing as arthroscopic surgery. Before the ’scope, a surgeon would have to slice open the whole knee to repair the damage, then close it with 30 stitches.
Now, as Thurmond’s career was winding down, his coach had to keep an eye on the clock. But that was fine. The Cavaliers didn’t need a young buck in the post. They already had one—Jim Chones, six feet, eleven inches of energy and flash. What the Cavaliers needed was somebody to spell Chones, preferably a big, intimidating boulder in the middle of the lane.
They came to the right place. Nobody got an offensive rebound over the back of Nate Thurmond. Nobody cruised down the lane for an easy layup. Bring that weak stuff into the paint and Big Nate would swat it away like a horse shooing insects with his tail.
The Cavs needed about 18 minutes of intimidation per night, just enough to keep Chones well rested—and just enough to rub off on the guy who was resting.
After initially being threatened by Thurmond’s arrival, Chones soon realized that Thurmond wanted nothing more than victories. Fitch appreciated Thurmond’s incredible work ethic, as well as his full-fledged support, something that was not always present early in the season.
Thurmond knew all about hard work. His father, Andrew, had labored for 31 years at Firestone. If Dad could put up with that, Nate figured, he could certainly give it everything he had when he was playing a game.
In addition to his toughness, Thurmond brought a hunger that had been lacking. He knew his days were numbered, and after 12 seasons of banging against monsters from Boston to Los Angeles, he had never gotten a championship ring. He felt like a winner, he burned to be a winner, but the basketball world had not officially acknowledged that designation with jewelry.
Thurmond thought he was good enough to play for a champion, and he was troubled that the rest of the Cavaliers didn’t seem as certain of themselves. A couple of games after he arrived, he called them together in the locker room and told them they were good enough to win it all, but they had to start believing in themselves.
Off the court, Thurmond was a good example too. He had developed into a mannerly, refined, well-spoken man. He liked the good things in life—in San Francisco he had tooled around in a classic Rolls, and he knew his way around a menu and a wine list—but he was far more than just show. He was bright, and he treated people with respect. He was an easy guy for a basketball fan to love.
Thurmond completely transformed the team. Probably never before or since has a man playing only 18 minutes a night had such a huge impact.
Before he arrived, the Cavaliers were 6–11. As soon as Nate came on board, they went on a 12–4 run. They had a .352 winning percentage without him; the rest of the season, they were .662.
Thurmond didn’t blow holes in the record books, scoring 4.6 points per game, but he was a monster in the middle. Opponents had grown accustomed to having their way in the paint once Chones took a breather; they were quickly forced to reassess that situation.
During one particularly physical game against Detroit, the Pistons’ massive center, six-foot-eleven, 260-pound Bob Lanier, got so angry that he threw a left hook at Thurmond. Big Nate caught Lanier’s arm and tugged it forward so hard that he dislocated Lanier’s shoulder.
Most opponents knew better than to tangle with the backup center. Some would simply refrain from driving the lane; others would alter their shot when he was nearby.
Thurmond was not, however, the only reason for the breakthrough. The 1975–76 Cavs were 10 players deep, and both units managed to carve out their own personalities.
The first team was more structured. It would nurse the ball and control the tempo. The starters:
F: Jim Brewer, 52
F: Bingo Smith, 7
C: Jim Chones, 22
G: Dick Snyder, 10
G: Jimmy Cleamons, 35
The second group was the “run and gun” unit. With the exception of Thurmond, these guys started shooting almost before they took the floor:
F: Campy Russell, 21
F: Rowland Garrett, 23
C: Nate Thurmond, 42
G: Austin Carr, 34
G: Foots Walker, 14
Carr was coming off knee surgery, but there was nothing wrong with his shooting arm. He averaged nearly a shot every two minutes of playing time. Russell pulled the trigger even more often.
Opponents couldn’t match the Cavs’ depth. The wine-and-gold not only was tough at home, but the second-best road team in the game.
On March 31, with seven games left in the season, they marched into the New Orleans Superdome and beat the Jazz, 110–101, to clinch the first playoff berth in the history of the franchise.
On April 10, they beat the Knicks to clinch the Central Division crown, a feat inconceivable only six months earlier.
These playoff novices then found themselves facing the playoff-hardened Washington Bullets, winners of the previous five Central Division titles.
The Bullets featured superstar Elvin Hayes, who had averaged 20 points a game for eight seasons. They had hotshot guards Phil Chenier, coming off his fifth straight 20-point-per-game season, and Dave Bing, who had moved over from Detroit after nine seasons of stardom. Bing was in the twilight of his career, and his scoring average had dropped from the high 20s to 16, put he could still make the scoreboard flicker. Washington had plenty of beef in the middle, too, with six-foot-eight, 250-pound Wes Unseld, averaging 13 boards per game.
By the time the playoffs arrived, the new Coliseum was beginning to look too small. The place was packed more tightly with each succeeding game. The second home game drew 21,061, an NBA playoff record. Another 251 squeezed in for the next game, and 252 more for the game after that. Finally, the fire marshal put up his hand when the figure reached 21,564, the attendance for Game Seven.
Simply getting inside the building had turned into a social coup. None of the games was on local television that season—for the simple reason that no local television station had wanted to buy the rights. Why would any station manager knock down the door to sign a TV contract with a team that averaged 28 wins during its first five seasons?
Now, suddenly, the whole region had contracted Cavs fever, and Mileti was relishing the turnabout. He permitted local TV stations to air only one 30-second cut-in from the Coliseum each hour.
As a result, the playoffs were a coming-out party for Joe Tait, the radio announcer personally imported by Fitch. Cleveland radio in those days was dominated by WMMS (100.7), a rock station on the FM band. Bruce Springsteen’s hit Born to Run had become a local anthem, airing every Friday at 6 p.m. to kick off the weekend. But tens of thousands of Greater Clevelanders were suddenly switching over to the AM dial to hear Tait’s vivid blow-by-blow descriptions of the town’s basketball Cinderella.
Tait’s playlist included a peppy fight song written the year before by Cleveland radio announcer Larry Morrow—“Come on Cavs/got to make it happen.” And they did.
The most amazing thing about the crowds at the Coliseum was not their size but their enthusiasm. You’d think every last spectator had a blood relative on the team.
Some of them did. Thurmond’s older brother, Ben, a special-education teacher in inner-city Cleveland, brought a cassette tape recorder to the games, held it in his lap, and captured the incredible crowd noise as a souvenir for Nate.
You wouldn’t know they were brothers. Ben was only six-one. (For that matter, Nate’s father and mother were a relatively normal six-three and five-eleven.) No matter. In those days, every hoops fan in Northeast Ohio felt a little bit like Nate Thurmond’s brother.
Game One of Cleveland’s first-ever playoff series took place on a Tuesday night. The Cavs owned the home-court advantage, and the Coliseum’s parking lot filled up early.
A crowd of 19,974 was on hand. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers were either nervous or intimidated by Washington’s playoff experience, or both, because they fell behind 8–0 and never made much of a game of it, eventually losing by five and dumping their hard-earned home-court edge.
Still, there was plenty of time left in the best-of-seven series. Nobody was panicking. Cleveland had beaten Washington four times in six regular-season games, so the first-game defeat was viewed by the newly confident Cavs as little more than a bump. The players saw no good reason why they couldn’t go into Landover, Maryland, two days later and even things up.
Reaching the playoffs was particularly sweet for Bobby “Bingo” Smith, the only player left from that first dismal Cavaliers team. He stood six-six, plus a few more inches with his big Afro, and he never saw a jump shot he didn’t think he could make.
That’s why nobody was particularly surprised when, in Game Two, with the contest on the line—and quite possibly the direction of the whole series—Smith rose off the floor with two seconds left, 25 feet from the basket, well back from the top of the circle, and drilled a jumper to give Cleveland a thrilling 80–79 win.
The shot capped a remarkable comeback; Cleveland had trailed by five points with only 1:27 left. Buckets by Chones and Cleamons set the stage.
For Game Three, on a Saturday, back home, the Cavs were on national television. Remember, this was a team that had been so weak it didn’t even have a local TV contract. So this was another milestone for the franchise, and 21,061 showed up to lend support.
This time the Cavs showed no sign of stage fright. Carr stroked 15 first-half points as the Cavs drilled the Bullets, 88–76.
The action shifted back to D.C. for Game Four, which turned out to be one of the oddest games of the series. As the stars pounded away at each other all night, a seldom-used bench player, Clem Haskins, who had averaged all of six points during the regular season, sneaked out of the pack and led the Bullets to a 109–98 win. He hit 10 of 14 shots to blow open a game that had been tied at halftime.
Now the series was tied again.
For Game Five at the Coliseum, another record crowd arrived early and cheered often. The game was tied after one quarter, and the Bullets led by one at the half. Cleveland came out strong in the third quarter, and the game took a six-point swing.
The fourth quarter was a war. The game was tied 78 . . . then tied at 86 . . . then tied at 88.
With 36 seconds left, Chenier hit a jumper over Snyder to give the Bullets a one-point lead. Then Unseld knocked away a pass, and Washington began to run out the clock. Campy Russell whacked Hayes to stop it. “The Big E” would get two foul shots with only seven seconds left. “Hayes can give the Cavaliers an almost insurmountable task,” intoned Tait.
But Hayes missed his first free-throw. Then he missed the second. Brewer grabbed the rebound. Time out, Cleveland, with six seconds to go. Now it’s simple: If the Cavs score, they win. If they miss, they lose.
Snyder inbounded the ball near the middle of the floor. He passed to Chones at the top of the key, and Unseld, knowing the Bullets had a foul to waste, immediately slapped him.
Snyder inbounded again with five seconds left. The pass went to Smith, who dribbled and threw up a runner that fell short. But Cleamons grabbed the ball under the basket and, in one motion, flipped a reverse layup behind him.
“GOOD!” shrieked Tait. “Cleamons got it! Cleamons got a rebound! And the game’s over! Cleveland wins, 92–91! Unbelievable! Jimmy Cleamons rebounded a missed shot with one second to go! And the Cavaliers have won it! And the place is going crazy!”
That marked the second miraculous finish in five games.
Now it was back to Landover, with the Cavs needing only one more win. Washington’s veteran team was not about to roll over, though. Hayes was on a mission, having blown Game Four, and the Bullets came out smoking, quickly building a 17-point first-half lead. But Carr got hot, and the Cavs cut it to 49–44 at the intermission.
Washington bumped its lead to six after three quarters, but the Cavs fought back again and tied the score with two minutes left. That’s where it stayed, thanks to vicious defense by both teams.
In overtime, the Bullets scored the first three baskets and held on to win, 102–98.
Now it would come down to a single game—at the Coliseum.
The chants rattling the locker rooms before warm-ups—“We want the Cavs!”—segue smoothly into “Let’s go Cavs!” as the team trots out onto the floor. In a seeming aural impossibility, the volume has increased. Tait can’t hear himself talk, even with his headphones cranked up.
One game. Forty-eight minutes. A crowd of 21,564 on a heart-pounding Thursday night in April.
Neither team will crack. The lead changes hands 16 times. Eight more times the game is tied. Cleveland is ahead by four after one quarter and by one at the half. After three quarters, Washington has slipped into the lead, 71–69.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Cavs reel off eight straight points and pull ahead, 83–79. But shots by Nick Weatherspoon and James Jones tie it with two minutes to play.
Snyder misses a 12-foot jumper from the left wing, but rebounds his own shot and puts it back in. Snyder, a floppy-haired white guy who played high school ball in North Canton and college ball at Davidson, now has 21 points, and the Cavs lead by two.
Whistle. Foul on Cleamons. With a minute and a half in the game, Hayes goes to the line. Will this be Elvin Hayes, Superstar, or Elvin Hayes, the Game Five Goat?
He bricks his first shot. The crowd roars. He bricks his second, and Thurmond grabs the rebound as the crowd explodes.
Russell passes to Snyder, but the ball is knocked loose and picked up by Unseld. Jones dribbles across midcourt, then moves toward the foul line. Suddenly, the Bullets are whistled for a three-second violation.
With one minute to go, Cleveland still leads, 85–83.
Snyder inbounds in the backcourt to Cleamons, who passes back to Snyder on the left wing. Snyder passes back to Cleamons at the top, who swings it around to Brewer. Brewer hands to Russell, who passes to Snyder. Snyder drives against Chenier, but his layup is blocked. Two Cleveland tips miss, and Jones grabs the rebound.
At the other end, Unseld feeds Chenier on the right wing, and the six-three guard drills a 15-foot jumper. Tie game. Twenty-four seconds to go. Chenier has been Dick Snyder’s worst nightmare, having scored 31 points.
Now Cleamons inbounds to Thurmond, who gives it back to Cleamons. Cleamons dribbles down the clock, and Fitch orders a time-out with nine seconds left.
All 21,564 fans are delirious. (The real “miracle” of Richfield: that fans were still able to make this much noise after two hours of relentless wailing.)
Tait is broadcasting to a massive audience. Here’s what his listeners hear:
“Nine seconds left in the game and it’s tied at 85. Cleamons will inbound on the left side. Cleamons looks and waits. Flips to Snyder. Snyder sideline left. Snyder on the dribble-drive, to the hoop, put it up . . . GOOD! It’s GOOD! Snyder scores with four seconds to go! And the Bullets take time! Cleveland 87 and the Bullets 85 with four seconds to go!”
It was a high-arching shot that hit high on the glass before coming down through the net, a right-handed runner from the left side of the backboard. And it was the biggest shot in Cavaliers history.
But four seconds is a lifetime in the NBA. (See “The Shot.”) So nobody is taking anything for granted as Washington comes out of the huddle.
“Unseld gets the ball from [referee] Jake O’Donnell at center floor,” says Tait. “Here comes the play. Unseld lobs it underneath Snyder knocks it free! Ball picked up by Chenier. Shoots it . . . NO GOOD! NO GOOD! CAVALIERS WIN! THE CAVALIERS WIN! 87–85! The Cavaliers have defeated the Washington Bullets, 87 to 85, and the crowd is going berserk at the Coliseum!”
Instantly, the floor is flooded by fans sprinting toward the players from all points on the compass. Some of the players grow uneasy in the sea of humanity, but they have nothing to fear. These fans aren’t trying to tear off jerseys for souvenirs or tear down the baskets or smash the windows of the loges. This is a love fest. The fans are indulging in pure celebration, trying to commune with the players they have come to view as their own personal representatives, players who have pulled the home team from the dregs of pro basketball to an honored pedestal. Although most of the folks on the floor are young white males, this team has brought together white folks and black folks, young fans and old.
At the scorer’s table between the two benches, a security guard who is trying to shield Tait from the commotion long enough for him to conduct a postgame wrap-up is knocked to the ground but is not hurt. Nobody else is seriously hurt, either.
The next morning, the newspapers were brimming with Cavs stories, and the same television stations that had expressed no interest in carrying the games were splashing the Cavaliers onscreen as their top news story.
The madness was fueled in part by the futility of the town’s other pro teams. The spring of 1976 was not a good time to be a Cleveland sports fan. The Browns were coming off a 3–11 season, preceded by a 4–10 season. The Indians were coming off their seventh straight losing season, and their 21st without a pennant. But now, suddenly, the lowly Cavaliers, the team branded as the “Cadavers” by a Cincinnati reporter during their first year in business, had parted the clouds.
Fortunately, the players had six days to catch their breath and nurse their wounds. And Northeast Ohio had six days to revel in sports ecstasy.
And then, without warning, the Curse of Moses Cleaveland struck again.
That is the real reason Cleveland never wins. The city’s founder was honked off that his descendants spelled his name wrong, dropping the “a,” and he put a curse on the city that has remained unbroken for centuries. How else to explain the injury to Jim Chones?
Here are the Cavs, on a roll, primed for the Boston Celtics, fine-tuning their game on the eve of the second round of the playoffs, and Chones goes up to block a Campy Russell shot in practice, comes down on somebody’s foot, and breaks his own foot. In practice. The team’s leading scorer in the regular season and the playoffs. The leading shot-blocker. The second-leading rebounder (behind Brewer). The monster in the middle for 33 minutes a game. Suddenly, out of the blue, he is gone.
And now 34-year-old Nate Thurmond is the one and only center. An old man who averaged only 17.4 minutes per game during the regular season.
Lurking right around the corner was not only a solid basketball team but a storied franchise with an ongoing mystique, a team with 12 NBA titles. The ceiling of Boston Garden flew more flags than the United Nations.
The Celts had a nice blend of experience and young stars. There were big names like John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, steady hands like Paul Silas and Don Nelson, and flashy guards like Charlie Scott and Jo Jo White. It was an imposing lineup for any team, much less a team missing its best player.
But Big Nate marched onto the revered parquet floor of Boston Garden for Game One of the Eastern Division Finals and more than held his own. He played 39 minutes, yanking down 16 boards and contributing nine points. It wasn’t nearly enough, though. Although the game was tied after three quarters, Boston sprinted away in the fourth, cruising home with an easy 111–99 decision.
Game Two was also in Boston, three days later. The well-rested Cavs looked strong early, surging to a pair of nine-point leads. But Boston again was stronger in the fourth quarter, immediately pushing out to an eight-point lead and waltzing home with a 15-point win.
Finally, for the first time in 12 days, the action returned to the Coliseum. Game Three, on a Tuesday evening, was a defensive battled in front of another 21,564 rowdy fans. If possible, the noise level was even higher. Boston’s Cowens, a veteran of six seasons and nine playoff rounds, said he had never heard as much noise in his entire life.
The fans were rewarded. With 10 minutes left in the game, the score was tied. But this time, the Cavs were the ones who put on a fourth-quarter surge to pull away and win, 83–78. Thurmond played 40 minutes and collected nine rebounds, six points, six assists, four blocks, and three steals. The old fossil certainly had Boston’s attention. And the Cavs seemed to be back in business.
That notion was confirmed three nights later during Game Four at the Coliseum. Another sellout, another riotous atmosphere. And in the fourth quarter, the Cavs offense exploded, led by Bingo Smith, who wound up with 27 points. With 2:20 left, the Celtics threw in the towel, clearing their bench, saving their starters for what now would clearly be a tough, lengthy series. Cleveland had blown out the proud Celtics, 106–87, and tied the series at two games apiece.
Thurmond played another 37 minutes and held Cowens to 5 of 20 from the field. Big Nate also registered 12 points, eight boards, and—best of all—six blocked shots.
Now Boston was the team that seemed to be showing its age. The 36-year-old Havlicek had to leave the game in the first quarter with a bad foot. His status for Game Five was very much in doubt.
Two days later, back at the Garden, the people of Greater Boston for the first time began to challenge the decibel level of the people of Greater Cleveland.
But not right away. As late as the third quarter, the Cavs were rolling. They were up 12 points, and coach Tom Heinsohn had gotten so frustrated that he screamed at the officials and got thrown out of the game.
Retired coaching legend Red Auerbach was sitting up in the stands. He stood up, walked down the aisle to the floor, and slowly circled the floor, heading toward the Boston bench. All eyes were on him by the time he reached the team. League rules prohibited him from sitting on the bench, but he sat right next to it, at the press table, in a seat normally occupied by Boston’s PR man. As Auerbach sat down, he dramatically pulled out one of his trademark cigars—the ones he lit only when victory was assured—and laid it on the table. The Garden went absolutely ballistic. The Celtics, fueled by the noise, went from 12 points down to 10 up.
It didn’t help matters that Thurmond picked up his fifth foul early in the third quarter and got his sixth—on a questionable call—with five minutes left in the game. At that point, the game was tied. And that’s when the Celtics pulled off another psychological blockbuster. Havlicek checked into the game, bad foot and all. When the Boston fans saw the six-foot-five legend, wearing his low-cut black shoes and his white uniform with the dark green “17” on the back, they exploded again. Although Havlicek didn’t score at all, his teammates ripped off 19 points in the final five minutes. Boston won, 99–94.
Game Six came two days later, on a Thursday night in Richfield. It was yet another war, tied several times down the stretch. With four minutes left and Boston ahead by one, Carr hit a jumper for his 23rd and 24th points, giving Cleveland the edge. Then Cowens pump-faked twice, hoping to fool Thurmond, but Big Nate batted away the shot.
Boston edged ahead on a long bomb by White, then Russell retaliated with a 25-foot jumper from the wing for a one-point lead.
Brewer stole the ball but Russell missed a jumper. Another jumper by White gave him 25 for the game and gave the Celtics a one-point lead with about a minute left. Cleveland then fell apart. Russell had the ball stolen, Scott drove the length of the floor for the layup, and the miracle was over.
Bingo Smith fouled out with 17 seconds left. He sat down next to Fitch and started to cry. Thurmond waited to cry until he got into the locker room. Then, the balding giant of a man, sitting on a stool in front of his cubicle, put his head in his huge hands and wept.
Fitch was voted Coach of the Year. Mileti’s accountants were smiling, because the Coliseum had hosted 148,603 fanatical fans for the seven games playoff games, an incredible average of 21,229 per game.
Hometown fans were disappointed, but hardly suicidal. They treasured the moment. The six-year-old basketball team had generated so much interest that a full-length record album was cut featuring Tait’s play-by-play descriptions from throughout the season. It was produced at WWWE by longtime Cleveland broadcast personality Larry Morrow. Ten thousand copies were made, and 10,000 copies were sold.
The album was titled The Miracle in Richfield, a phrase first uttered by flaming sports-talk host Pete Franklin. Somehow, over the years, the event has come to be known as the Miracle of Richfield. But regardless of the precise terminology, April 1976 continues to stand as the most glorious moment in the history of the franchise.
Thurmond’s performance was miraculous in itself, the very personification of willpower. Within nine months, he would be finished. He played only 49 games in 1976–77 before tearing cartilage in his left knee in Houston and hobbling off into the sunset.
Despite appearing in fewer than 1,000 pro contests, Thurmond scored more than 14,000 points and grabbed more than 14,000 rebounds. It wasn’t too far into that career when his mom stopped being angry with him for quitting piano lessons.
She told him when he quit that he could do what he wanted as long as he did it as well as he could.
Outsiders look at Thurmond’s retired jersey hanging from the rafters and ask how a team can retire a jersey that was worn for less than two seasons.
You just had to be there.^ top
Excerpted from the book The Top 20 Moments in Cleveland Sports, copyright © Bob Dyer. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Bob Dyer
Relive the 20 most sensational events in Cleveland sports history. These are the moments Northeast Ohioans still talk about, decades later—and will probably continue to debate, bemoan, and otherwise cherish for generations to come.
Many are known by shorthand . . . [ Read More ]
Bob Dyer has served as a feature writer and columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal since 1984. His stories and columns have won 22 regional and national awards. He was one of the lead writers for A Qu . . . [ Read More ]