It was Christmas break, 1963, and I sat in the kitchen trying to stay awake while writing a homework essay. Homework during break just wasn’t fair, but it had to be done. I turned on the large portable orange and white radio that was my lifeline to the outer world, pointed the telescoping chrome antenna toward the window, and turned the dial to 1420 WHK.
Some of the popular songs on Cleveland radio that week were “Since I Fell for You” by Lenny Welch, “Deep Purple” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, and “I’m Leaving It Up to You” by Dale and Grace. Pretty tame. The liveliest song going was “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, a song that kids weren’t supposed to listen to because some adults thought it was suggestive. I didn’t even know what suggestive meant. The radio stations played it, and we danced away.
Instead of working on my essay, I tapped the sharpened tip of my yellow No. 2 pencil to the beat of “There I’ve Said it Again” by Bobby Vinton. I had nothing against Bobby Vinton, but the tune was kind of boring. Then “Popsicles and Icicles” by The Murmaids: I’d heard it about a million times. I glanced down at the few sentences I’d written and stared out the kitchen window at the dark-gray, winter Cleveland sky. The wind whistled through the trees, and, as usual, it was cold and snowing.
“Dominique” by the Singing Nun came on. She sang it in French, so I didn’t know what she was saying, but she had a sweet voice and accompanied herself on an acoustic guitar, which was cool for a nun. Even though teens couldn’t dance to it, the song was in the number-one spot on the Billboard Top 10. As an Irish Catholic girl who went to a Catholic girls’ high school with nuns as teachers, I had to love this song or risk going straight to hell upon death—or maybe even sooner. All the nuns went wild, so to speak, over this accomplishment by one of their own. I heard a nun or two humming the tune as they passed by in the school hallway, amid the normal nuns-wearing-habits sounds, the jingling of keys, rosaries, and crucifixes.
I turned the dial from WHK to KYW. A new disc jockey, Jerry G, had just arrived at KYW from Chicago. Chicago—the big city I knew of only because that’s where my mother went with her boyfriend after abandoning her three children and husband. I didn’t hold that against Chicago, though. Maybe, I hoped, this new disc jockey brought some records with him that we hadn’t yet heard in Cleveland.
Jerry G was on, announcing a new group with a one-word name. Beagles? I didn’t hear the name clearly. Then, a sound I’d never heard before. The guitar chords and harmony electrified me. I jumped up from my kitchen chair, grabbed the radio with both hands, and held it close, straining to hear every note, every word.
The song was “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
After the song finished, Jerry G announced the group’s name again: “And that was the Beatles . . .” He described them as a new singing sensation from England.
I almost knocked my chair over as I lunged for the yellow telephone on the kitchen wall. I grabbed the receiver and called the station. Busy. I redialed. Busy again. I must have dialed the number a dozen times hoping to speak to Jerry G and ask him to play the Beatles song again, but I couldn’t get through. Every kid in Cleveland must have been calling.
The Beatles! I wanted to hold their hands too, and right then. The words presented such a simple, yet powerful, request. I needed someone to hold my hand. I’d never experienced that feeling before. I couldn’t think of anyone who had held my hand with love, ever. Holding someone’s hand meant they thought you were worthwhile, that they cared about you. It meant that they were telling you everything was going to be okay, that you were not alone in the world.
My heart wanted that.
I had to see what the Beatles looked like. I wanted to learn everything about them—as soon as possible. Now, aside from seeing Jesus in heaven, I had something to live for.
Winter is an interesting time of year to be a TV news reporter out on the streets of Northeast Ohio. My least favorite live-shot assignment of all time was going out to stand by the side of the road to tell people it was snowing. But sometimes a story with a winter angle turned out to be a winner. Here are a couple of stories from winters past …
TV news loves bad weather. I laughed one time when I was the lead story on a bad snowstorm. The message to viewers from our weather people was, “Don’t even think about going out. Stay in your home.” That was followed by the anchor saying, “We sent Paul Orlousky on a three-state tour to survey what is going on . . .” Wait, what?
On the way to Cleveland Hopkins airport, cameraman Tom Livingston and I shot some video of local bad weather. We landed in Cincinnati, where the airport is located across the Ohio River in Kentucky, and shot some video of bad weather there. Two states down! Next it was on to Huntington, West Virginia, which was hardest hit. As the plane was approaching the airport and we were just about to land, the engines suddenly revved and we climbed back into the sky. The pilot came on the intercom. “We’re going to come around again. There was a snowplow on the runway.” I looked at Tom and asked, “Don’t they have radios at this place?” We landed and got our story. But the assignment desk hadn’t checked the flight schedule. There was no return flight. They had to send a charter plane to get us. It arrived and we made it back to Cleveland just in time for the 11 p.m. news.
A Christmas Story
It was just a routine story to cover at WEWS. Not a lot of fanfare had been made about it. A movie was being made on downtown’s Public Square. It was a bit unusual at the time, as not many movies were shot in Cleveland in the early 1980s.
The last big one had been The Deer Hunter, in the mid-1970s, which used exteriors of St. Theodosius Cathedral in the Tremont neighborhood. (Much of that movie was shot in Pittsburgh, with a shot or two filmed in Youngstown.) In 1977, interiors of the penthouse at a building then known as the Chesterfield, on East 12th Street near Chester Avenue, were used for a scene in The Gathering featuring actor Ed Asner. The movie-making scene in Cleveland had been dry since then.
The new movie being filmed in Cleveland was A Christmas Story, adapted from a book by Jean Shepherd. Yes, the same movie that is now a classic holiday ritual for so many.
The movie company made a deal with the City of Cleveland to purchase late 1930s- era Christmas decorations for Public Square if the city would agree to keep the decorations displayed until movie filming was done in February. The city quickly said yes, as the decorations from past years had outlived their usefulness.
Christmas came and went, and the movie crew moved in that January. My assignment was to cover a big parade scene that was to be shot at night. It is the scene where Ralphie looks into a store window display and falls in love with the idea of getting an “Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle” for Christmas.
It hadn’t been a particularly cold winter in Cleveland, so the snow you see in the movie was heavily augmented with soap bubbles as a kind of filler. Many locals who owned vintage cars from that era were involved. Modern phone booths were covered by postwar-looking bus stops. A gospel choir from a historic Black Cleveland church is the one singing in the parade. All went well. (I have seen old tapes of my coverage from that night; I was about thirty and looked like a child myself with my excitement.)
A day or two later, I went inside the Higbee department store to interview Peter Billingsley, the actor in the role of Ralphie. It was Higbee’s store window that Ralphie was looking into on the corner of Euclid and Ontario when he obsessed on the Red Ryder BB gun. Between two escalators was the Santa Mountain made famous in the movie. The place where Ralphie at first couldn’t spit it out, then while being tossed down the slide on the mountain by an elf, stops and asks Santa for the Red Ryder. The spot where Santa listens and says, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” (By the way, that Santa Mountain elf who sits the kids on Santa’s lap is from Cleveland. And yes, I have a leg lamp!)
At the top of Santa Mountain, I interviewed Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie. I always kind of dreaded doing kid interviews; but he was particularly good. Over the years, I have met many of, and even worked with one of, the children waiting in line to see Santa in the movie. They were local extras. Most were young and don’t have a lot of memories of the filming. Elisa Olgin, whom I worked with at WOIO, remembers that Billingsley was “very nice” and that they had a great place to hang out between scenes. She said, “Even had pinball machines and stuff like that, that Peter liked.”
The movie didn’t do much at the box office. Years later, though, the TBS television network picked it up for its now-annual Christmas Eve and Day marathon, which made it into a classic.
Some of the actors from the movie returned to Cleveland over the years to sign autographs and make appearances. My favorite was Zack Ward, who played bully Scut Farkus. In the first return appearance by the cast, I did a story about it. I had to think of a creative way to “tease” ahead to the story, which would air later in the news broadcast after the first commercial break or two. I had Zack put his arm around my neck from behind, kind of a choke hold. He did that Scut Farkus growl, and I said, “All these years later, and he’s still a bully, I’ll explain.” He was a good sport to play along with us.
I was working in Binghamton, New York and had sent out dozens of resumes and videotapes of my work. I had received dozens of rejection letters and returned tapes. When WYTV in Youngstown, Ohio offered me a job, I jumped at it. It was not a great station, but it was a bigger television market. A bonus was that it was close to Cleveland. I was an avid Browns fan. (And despite the pain over all these years, I remain one!)
Youngstown, at the time I arrived there, was mob-infested. For a news guy, that meant it was a great place to learn how to cover a city where you could get some dirt under your fingernails. Problem was, I was the weekend anchor and was only on the streets three days a week. I never got my nails that dirty, but did see a lot from that anchor chair.
There was a huge underworld culture in Youngstown at the time. It was right out in the open. It was almost like the movie Goodfellas. People talked with reverence about “Briar Hill Jimmy,” the Carabbias, the Strollo Brothers, and Joey Naples. There was a bar and drive-through beverage store close to the TV station, almost out the back door. You could go there to buy beer, pop, and all the usual stuff. You could also go there and play football parlay sheets from your car. In Youngstown, parlays also included high school games. On Tuesday you’d go back and collect if you won.
WYTV aired Monday Night Football. If games were in Pittsburgh or Cleveland and didn’t sell out, the Youngstown market was blacked out and the TV station couldn’t carry the game—which made viewers irate. One Monday night during a blackout, a guy who had been drinking came knocking on the station door, complaining. We didn’t want any trouble and he wasn’t drunk, just pissed off. We said, OK, come on into the newsroom and watch. We could get the game from ABC; but we couldn’t broadcast it. He watched, thanked us, and left. I am sure we had a viewer for life.
That situation gave the photographers an idea. An illegal but ingenious one. On the next blackout night, they cooked up a deal with the bar we backed up to. They ran a cable from the TV station to the bar. The bar then plugged the network football feed into their TVs. They made a fortune because it was the only place in town that had the game. It was on the QT, but all the “goodfellas” in town knew about it. The payoff for the cameraman was a free bar tab for a week or two.
Watch What You Drive to Lordstown
A big employer in the Mahoning Valley at the time was the Lordstown General Motors Plant. Thousands worked there. The UAW was king. It was notorious for a contentious relationship with GM. In the union hall parking lot, there were two parking areas. One was close to the building, with a sign announcing that only American-made cars were welcome there. The other, farther away across a small bridge over a creek, was for anyone driving a foreign car.
Only one of our news vehicles was a foreign make. I don’t know how WYTV’s station management ever decided to buy it. It was probably a trade-out with one of our advertisers. It wasn’t a great move to take that foreign car to a press conference at the union hall. When the crew came out, all four tires were flat. They didn’t just leak air. Knife punctures took care of that. Message received. I believe the station bought only American cars after that. They certainly didn’t take that foreign car anywhere near Lordstown again.
In 1980, just before I moved to Cleveland, I was the co-anchor of the nightly news. One night, the weatherperson was off and we had an opportunity for an unusual replacement. Donny Osmond, “America’s Sweetheart” at the time, was in town to promote an upcoming concert given by his family. Arrangements were made to have him come in and do a guest weather segment. I knew a bit about weather and had done the weather in a pinch in the past, so I would lead Donny through it.
The weather segment came, and my co-anchor threw it over to me. I introduced Donny and announced him as our guest weatherman. In those days, weather graphics were created on a large erasable board showing an outline of the United States. Weather fronts and other information were drawn on the board with a marker by the weather person.
Donny had the marker and started by drawing a big sun over Utah, where his family is from. Good start. He noted that a front had passed us by and that the all-day rain in Youngstown had stopped. I told him he was doing great. Then he moved farther east on the map, and closer to me; then, unexpectedly, he reached over and started drawing the weather on my face!
I was caught flat-footed, dumbfounded. It was unplanned and I was completely unprepared! What was I supposed to do? This was America’s Sweetheart; I certainly couldn’t punch him. Pushing him away would look awkward; I was at least a foot taller than he was. So I just stood there, going along with it. To this day, I wish I had done something—anything—else.
“You owe me $240, and if you don’t pay, I’m gonna kick your ass!”
There I was, in a downtown Cleveland hotel room with two prostitutes and their pimp, and the pimp was angry. Very angry. He was a big guy and about twenty years younger than me.
What the heck have I gotten myself into?
It wasn’t the first time I had wondered that. As an investigative reporter for TV news, such thoughts came with the job.
I found myself in dangerous situations sometimes. I didn’t plan it that way, but it happens. You simply don’t know how people will react to being challenged or questioned, or—in this case—being refused payment for their illegal services.
To be honest, I got an adrenaline rush from situations like this. Professionally, I lived for that rush. I couldn’t wait to get back to the station to tell everyone what happened. I usually painted myself as the victim.
But not always an unwilling victim.
In this case, the hidden-camera investigation was my own idea. It didn’t go exactly as planned.
It was, I admit, one of my dumber ideas: to show that the back pages of some weekly entertainment-oriented local newspapers were making prostitution easily available. (This was in the early 2000s, before such services migrated mostly to the internet.)
Let’s prove it, I thought, and I pitched the idea. The news director would have to agree to renting hotel rooms for the investigation. He said OK.
Our 19 Action News was taking an aggressive approach to reporting at that time. This story certainly had sex appeal. Probably not much news value, since most everyone already knew what those back-page ads were for. But the station had asked me to come up with something sexy for the ratings—and what is sexier than sex?
We rented two adjoining hotel rooms. I was in one room with a couple of hidden cameras. Those were monitored in the adjoining room by two cameramen and our station security guard. They were ready to come out once I had made contact and the pimp had said enough to show this was a “sex for money” deal.
Clearly, we had no intention of paying for anything illegal. Yet that actually became the problem. A big one!
I had set up a code phrase for the guys in the other room. If things got at all rough after I said I was unwilling to pay, they were to rush into my room and rescue me. The code was “I don’t think this is gonna work out.”
With cameras rolling, I placed a couple of calls to phone numbers in the ads. I was wearing a wireless microphone with the transmitter in my pocket, and the wire and microphone running up my sleeve to my shirt cuff. After only about a half-hour I received a confirmation call back. Very shortly after that, there was a knock on the door. My three colleagues retreated into the other room.
I answered the door.
A huge guy stood there with two women. “You called?” he asked. I said yes and told them to come on in. They did. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “It’s $160 for one of them or $240 for both.”
I tried to get more information by acting dumb. (Some say that’s my best trait.) I hemmed and hawed.
“What’s it gonna be?” he said.
I hemmed and hawed some more. He was getting agitated.
“What’s it gonna be?”
I then asked the most important question: “Are you a full-service agency?” That meant, in the terminology of the trade, sex for money. He answered that they were.
I now had what I needed to prove my story. And I now had to get out of the situation.
“You know, I don’t think this is gonna work out,” I said. The code phrase.
“I don’t think this is gonna work out,” I repeated, expecting my troops to come to my rescue (and also grab additional video). They didn’t. So I said yet again, “I don’t think this is gonna work out.”
“I don’t care if this isn’t gonna work out or not,” the pimp said, pointing his finger in my face. “You owe me $240 for our time or we’re gonna have a f***ing problem.”
By now, I was getting nervous. I put the microphone in my sleeve right up to my mouth and said, loudly, “I DON’T THINK THIS IS GONNA WORK OUT.” Still, nothing happened. I was in for a beating for sure.
Only one thing to do: I announced that I was a TV reporter and that all of this was being taped.
“Yeah, I thought I recognized him,” one of the women said. Then they took off.
The video shows me looking back, directly at the hidden cameras, waving my arms wildly like a third-base coach telling a runner to run home, trying to signal the crew that they should get in there quickly.
By the time they finally came to my “rescue,” the big guy and the women were already down the elevator.
From this event I learned two things. First, don’t take chances with doing a dumb story that involves getting your ass kicked. Second, and more practical, check the batteries in the wireless. You guessed it; they were dead. The security guard and camera guys in the other room never heard me say the code phrase. After that, I carried extra batteries in my briefcase until the day I retired!
This wasn’t the first time I found myself in a tough situation, and it wouldn’t be the last. And yes, there were times when I did get roughed up. I just wasn’t the kind of investigative reporter who liked do his investigating by sifting through government data and crunching numbers. Sure, stories about things like overtime abuse can be told that way, but it just wasn’t my style. Plus, TV news relies on pictures, and the better way for us to do a story like that is to show someone doing something wrong. And that can lead to confrontation.
I became known in Cleveland for these kinds of news stories. It wasn’t something I had planned, though. It just worked out that way. Actually, it’s about the furthest thing from what I imagined a career in news would be when I got into it more than fifty years ago . . .
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
— As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII)
Whenever I look through the press releases sent to me by the city’s professional playhouses that announce their roster of new season productions, the former actor in me gets the itch to perform in one of them.
That feeling always fades, like a phantom ache where a surgically removed limb used to be, when I remember that the name Asher Kaufman pays the bills better when in the byline of a show’s review than in its playbill. But this time the itch was agitated by Mark, the assistant managing editor of the weekly Cleveland newspaper that hired me as its theater critic.
“What if you wrote a series of articles about what takes place on the other side of the proscenium arch while in an actual production?” he suggested during one of our infrequent and always unproductive meetings about ways to drive up the paper’s readership. This one took place over a light snack at Corky & Lenny’s, where Mark decided to forego the snack and have the Reuben and fries. “You know,” he said loudly, in competition with the lunchtime din of the deli, “do a Plimpton.”
George Plimpton was an American journalist who, in 1963, attended the preseason training camp of the Detroit Lions of the National Football League under the pretense of being a backup quarterback. It wasn’t much of a pretense once he stood under center and called out signals with an aristocratic inflection from a different era. Also, the lanky, Harvard-educated Plimpton was not an athletic-looking man unless the sport was Division III badminton. He was thirty-six years old at the time, which was older than some coaches on the Lions’ sideline. Nonetheless, he was granted permission to run five plays in an intrasquad scrimmage so he could write about the experience.
The first play was called “3 left 26 near 0 pinch” which, despite the convoluted nomenclature, was a basic running play. Upon taking the snap, Plimpton promptly bumped into his own offensive guard and fumbled the football for a five-yard loss.
The second play, “Green right 3 right 93,” was a pass that ended prematurely when Plimpton took one step back after the ball was snapped and fell down on his own volition, succumbing to the pressure of the moment, gravity, and the demons in his head.
During the third play, Plimpton managed to take several steps back but was met by a 300-pound defensive lineman named Roger “Rhinofoot” Brown, who yanked the football right from the quarterback’s soft, shaking, ink-stained fingers and lumbered to the end zone for an easy touchdown. And so on.
Yeah, “do a Plimpton” sounded like a grand idea.
But then Mark reminded me that Plimpton’s embarrassing little excursion into participatory journalism resulted in a series of popular articles in Sports Illustrated, which was then turned into the bestselling book Paper Lion and, later, into a movie starring Alan Alda as Plimpton.
I had stopped listening by then because all I heard was “3 left 26 near 0 pinch” and the sound of stampeding rhinos. Now I can’t stop wondering who would play me in the movie.
Remote in hand, I was clicking across the channels when I saw . . . me, on TV.
It was me, back when I was too dumb to know no matter how long you grow hair on the side of your head, you’re still bald on top. It appeared I was auditioning for a Ben Franklin look-alike contest.
Yikes! That was embarrassing.
But there I was covering a Cavaliers game when the NBA was a different place. It was when the Cavalier beat writers were assigned to sit at the scorers’ table, right next to the Cleveland bench.
This was a Cavaliers/Chicago Bulls game from March 25, 1988, being broadcast as part of the NBA TV channel’s “Hardwood Classics” series.
This was not Michael Jordan’s “Shot” in Game 5 of the 1989 playoffs. It wasn’t a playoff game at all. It was just a March night in the NBA from decades ago at my favorite place to watch a game . . .
The Richfield Coliseum.
As I tuned into the game, the camera zoomed into the Cavaliers huddle. Coach Lenny Wilkens was drawing up a play. I saw my bald head staring into the huddle, watching Wilkens scribbling his Xs and Os on a white board.
The Cavs came out of the huddle onto the court . . .
That was the Cavs starting lineup that night. I found the game as the second half began. The Cavs were losing.
The television coverage featured the Chicago Bulls broadcasters, Jimmy Durham and Johnny Kerr. They kept talking about how Cleveland and the Bulls “were the NBA’s teams of the future.” They praised general manager Wayne Embry for putting together the Cavs roster. They talked about Lenny Wilkens being the right coach for this young team.
The Bulls were coached by Doug Collins. They praised him as the ideal coach for Jordan. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize the tall guy next to Collins was Phil Jackson, an assistant coach. Jackson was clean-shaven, imported from the Albany Patroons of the minor league Continental Basketball Association (CBA) by Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Jackson was there to help Collins. He also was Krause’s choice to take over for Collins if the Bulls didn’t progress as the general manager expected.
That would happen a year later.
The Bulls starting lineup …
This game was so long ago and the Bulls were so young, future stars Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were coming off the bench.
And the Cavs?
They had John Williams, Craig Ehlo and Dell Curry coming off their bench.
These were two good teams who indeed would be battling it out in the playoffs for several years.
* * *
As I write this, I can close my eyes and not only see the Coliseum, I can feel it shaking . . .
I can hear the crowd of 19,876 screaming . . .
Over and over, they chanted: “LET’S GO CAVS . . . LET’S GO CAVS.”
Or: “DEE-FENSE . . . DEE-FENSE!”
The Coliseum had a nice overhead scoreboard, not a Humungotron like the monstrosity that hovers over the court at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse today. This was before the Internet, cellphones and the obsession with e-sports and video games. The scoreboard supplied basic information, and maybe a few commercial messages.
The fans were there to be entertained by the game, to feel the energy from the court and their cheers from the seats. It also helped that the “luxury boxes” at the old Coliseum were up near the ceiling. That allowed “regular fans” to sit much closer to the court—where they could be heard. In 1988, fans didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to be near the floor. Prime seats in the lower bowl went for $18 each.
Those same tickets for an average game in the 2018–19 season were $95.
Here is the disclaimer: Every sports fan has a sense of nostalgia for the era when they fell in love with their favorite team.
The Cavaliers of the late 1980s-early 1990s were my favorite team.
And the spring of 1988 was a special time.
That’s what this team represented to the Cavalier fans.
* * *
Watching the game that was played more than 30 years ago, I kept thinking, “Everyone looks so young!”
Neither team had a clue what was coming. At this point, the NBA was ruled by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics and the emerging Detroit Pistons.
The Bulls were trying to build a roster around Jordan.
The Cavs were trying to construct a team with no superstar, but a group of high-character, unselfish and very talented players.
Six-foot Mark Price looked like he was a senior in high school, not a 24-year-old in his second pro season. I watched him dribble the ball up the court. As he reached the top of the key, Brad Daugherty came from under the basket to set a pick.
The 7-foot Daugherty was only 22 years old and had the face of a high school sophomore.
As Daugherty set a pick on Price’s man (Chicago’s Sam Vincent), Price took a dribble, then stopped at the foul line. For a brief second, it appeared Price would take a jumper.
But Daugherty was lumbering to the rim. His man (Chicago’s Dave Corzine) had stopped to stare at Price. And Daugherty was wide open. Price delivered a perfect pass.
Daugherty layup . . . two points for Cleveland.
Chicago broadcaster Johnny Kerr was a former NBA center. He raved about Daugherty’s ability to set picks, catch passes on the move and score with fluid grace near the rim.
“Fundamental basketball!” marveled Kerr.
That was the Cavs in their second season under Wilkens.
The ball moved from side-to-side of the court. Players created “spacing,” meaning they were not standing in the same area.
The ball moved . . .
The players moved . . .
The passing was crisp, often leading to open shots . . .
It was basketball the way it was supposed to be played—or at least, the way those of us of a certain age thought it should be played.
Daugherty would set his 260-pound frame near the basket in the low post. And the Cavs knew how to pass him the ball in that spot.
Because Wilkens had his players do it over and over again in practice. He showed them the proper angles to pass to a big man close to the rim. He showed the big man how to position his body to keep his defender on his back and create an excellent target for the passer.
How do I know this?
Because this was an era when the media was allowed to watch practice.
As Danny Ferry told me, “Lenny had a beautiful offense.”
It was refreshing to see teams not obsessed with the 3-point shot. They believed an open 15-footer was a good shot. Today’s analytics insist a 25-footer for three points is better than a 15-footer for two points. The best modern offenses are supposed to feature 3-point shots or drives to the rim resulting in layups and/or dunks.
Nothing in-between. Long or short shots, period.
Wilkens wanted his team to take smart, uncontested shots within a reasonable distance of the basket.
In this game, the Bulls were 2-of-3 on 3-pointers. Wilkens liked the wide open 3-pointer for certain players. The Cavs were 3-for-8.
Chicago’s offense was often stagnant. The Bulls often allowed Jordan to take the ball at the top of the key and create his own shot while the other four players watched. At times, Jordan would dribble and dribble and dribble, often drawing a double-team on defense. With the 24-second clock ticking down, he’d fire a pass to John Paxson or Oakley for an open jumper.
This isolation offense would eventually lead to Collins being fired and replaced by Jackson, who installed a “triangle” offense. It was different from what Wilkens employed, but it created the same ball and player movement.
Watching Jordan against the Cavs in the late 1980s—and the contrasting offenses—led Krause to make the coaching change. The general manager believed his team would never win a title with the “All Michael, All The Time” offense. And he didn’t trust Collins to make the changes he wanted.
* * *
I covered the game, but have no memory of it.
I still don’t know why NBA TV featured it 31 years later. It had no significance in the standings. Jordan finished with 39 points. That’s a lot. But not 50 or even 60 points as he sometimes scored against the Cavs. In that 1987–88 season, Jordan averaged 35 points.
So his 39 points on 14-of-29 shooting wasn’t anything special.
The Bulls won, 111-110, in overtime. But there was no buzzer-beating shot by Jordan.
The Cavs had an impressive shot-blocking defense. In one sequence, John Williams swatted away a Jordan layup. Oakley grabbed the ball, tried his own layup—and Williams blocked that, too. He had four blocks in that game.
Nance scored 29 points and had 11 rebounds and six blocks. He played so cool and with so much poise.
But the Cavs were crushed on the boards, 60-33. Chicago often dominated the rebounding when facing the Cavs. Part of it was Nance and Williams leaving their men to try to block shots, especially on Jordan. That created open lanes to the rim for the Bulls’ big men to grab offensive rebounds.
Looking back, it was a fascinating game in terms of what was to happen in the next few years.
Here were the four Cleveland guards who played in that game: Ron Harper, Craig Ehlo, Mark Price and Dell Curry.
Curry is the most interesting of the group because it’s easy to forget the Cavs once had him. In 1986–87, Curry was a rookie who played little for Utah. In training camp, the Cavs traded Mel Turpin to Utah for Kent Benson and the 6-foot-4 Curry.
Embry loved Curry for his outside shooting. In his one season with the Cavs, Curry averaged 10 points per game in 19 minutes. He shot 46 percent from the field coming off the bench.
When that season ended, Charlotte was entering the NBA as an expansion team. Each established team was allowed to protect eight players.
The Cavs’ final decision for the list came down to Curry or small forward Mike Sanders.
In this March 25 game against the Bulls, Curry came off the bench sizzling, scoring 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting. Sanders played eight scoreless minutes.
By the end of the season, Sanders was playing a lot as a small forward whose main job was defense. Sanders was 27 and it was clear he was a hustling player with limited physical ability. There always are a number of players like Sanders floating around the NBA in any given season.
But there are few who shot the ball as well as Curry, now or in the late 1980s. Curry also was only in his second NBA season.
I recall a conversation with Embry when I said, “I assume you are protecting Curry.”
There was a long silence.
“Wayne,” I said. “Who else?”
He said Wilkens liked Sanders.
“Wayne, Charlotte is not going to take Sanders. You have to know that. But if you leave Curry exposed, any expansion team would take him.”
Embry didn’t want to discuss it.
Sanders was protected. Curry went to Charlotte. Curry played 16 NBA seasons, averaging 11.7 points. As the 3-point shot became more popular, his value increased. He shot 40 percent behind the arc. His son, Stephen Curry, has become one of the greatest 3-point shooters in history. Stephen Curry was born in an Akron hospital during the one season his father spent playing for the Cavs.
A little over a year later, the Cavs traded Harper to the L.A. Clippers.
Suppose they had protected Curry. Suppose they had Curry and Ehlo to fill in for the departed Harper, instead of only Ehlo.
The Cavs went from a tall, talented group of shooting guards (Ehlo, Harper and Curry) all in the 6-4 to 6-6 range to only Ehlo less than two seasons later.
But on March 25, 1988, no one knew Jordan would go on to win six titles . . . and the Cavs none.
No one knew Curry and Harper would soon be gone.
No one knew the Cavs would face Jordan five times in the playoffs . . . and never win a series.
No one knew Chicago was destined to be great, while the Cavs and their fans would be frustrated with simply being good.
But this much I did know back then—and still do when thinking about the game more than three decades later.
That was a special time in Cavs history.
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