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.
Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts reported on the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State University for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They immediately began working on this book. Thirteen Seconds was originally published just months later, in fall 1970. Impressively, it still stands as one of the best narrative accounts of those tragic events.
Nearly 50 years later, in a preface to a paperback edition, Joe Eszterhas wrote, “Nearly a half century after its publication, I’m still proud of the fact that Thirteen Seconds dared to speak the unspeakable: That Richard Nixon, allied with Ohio Governor James Rhodes and Ohio National Guard Director Sylvester Del Corso, helped cause the deaths of four innocent young people.” Michael D. Roberts wrote, “Over the years, that fateful day has been revisited in seminars, articles, memorials, investigations, and government inquiries. In that time, no major revelation has come to light that would alter the facts in this book.”
This excerpt recounts in detail the events of May 4, 1970 …
Guardsmen stirred at their posts, their forms drab and bulky in the early morning mist. Dew stretched white on the Commons, awaiting the sun. On the practice football field, guardsmen sleeping under tents awoke to see the first students of the day: the dishwashers and board jobbers who worked in the university dining halls. They trudged by with hardly a glance at the young soldiers.
“Think we’ll get out of here today?” a soldier asked his sergeant.
“Man,” the sergeant said, “I hope so.” The collar of his fatigue jacket was turned up against the chill.
By 8 a.m. the campus was alive and the wet grass on the Commons was criss-crossed with the trails of students hurrying to their first classes. Mrs. Charles Lavicka, a French teacher, was walking to her class, watching for a clue that might indicate the mood of the day. It was quiet and she felt the worst was over.
Joseph Carter, a graduate student, was sipping coffee in his off-campus apartment. The radio told him U.S. forces in Cambodia had captured a sixty-ton Viet Cong rice cache.
The weather for the Kent area would be mostly sunny and mild, with variable winds and temperatures in the seventies.
When the newscaster started talking about Kent State, Carter’s attention was sharpened. He was told Governor Rhodes had banned all assemblies on campus. The announcement seemed odd to him in light of the fact that classes were to be held as usual.
The news that interested him, though, was the noon rally that was said to be scheduled that day. He made up his mind he would go. Carter thought the university administration had been strangely silent during the weekend disturbances. Maybe they would explain.
Major John Simons, chaplain of the 107th Armored Cavalry and an Episcopal minister from Cleveland, arrived on campus around 9 a.m. He was wearing the new black subdued insignia that the Guard had recently adopted. It annoyed him that he was not readily identified as a clergyman because of the blackened symbols on his helmet. He saw the tired troops standing at their posts. That bothered him, too. “The only thing I saw among the guys was fatigue and nerves,” he said.
Donald Schwartzmiller, chief of campus police, was in and out of the Guard’s command post on the second floor of the administration building above his headquarters. He was a mere observer with the Guard in control. He, too, thought the Guard was jumpy. “There were all sorts of reports of snipers that morning, totally unverified reports,” he said. “There were rumors of caches of explosives.”
On campus the word was out. “See you on the Commons at noon,” students called to each other as they trekked to class. Chaplain Simons watched them, talked with some, and noticed an atmosphere of peaceful togetherness. Every now and then a student who passed him would flash the peace sign.
Lou Cusella, who lived off campus, climbed out of bed and heard about the rally on the radio. He decided to go. “I thought I was going to be smart for a change. I was going to dress for this rally. I wore a pair of dress slacks and a button-down shirt and a tie. I wanted to look as much like a Jaycee as I could.” Sunday night, dressed in bell bottoms and a denim jacket, he had narrowly escaped arrest.
A friend told Michael Erwin about the rally the night before. He was going to go. There were two reasons for his decision. He wanted to protest the Cambodian invasion and the presence of the Guard on his campus. Erwin picked up his gas mask. “I did not intend to cause trouble.” He knew about the ban on gathering and because of this the chances of being gassed were, he felt, “fairly high.”
At the fire station a few blocks from campus, the authorities were gathering: Guard commander General Canterbury, a State Patrol representative, Mayor Satrom, Chief Thompson, and university president Robert White. They were there to discuss rumors and plans, specifically plans about the noon rally. It was a moody meeting.
President White felt intimidated. The general and the mayor insisted the Ohio National Guard was in complete command. “It was hammered at me from all sides that the Guard was in complete command,” White said. “They told me the noon rally was illegal and they’d break it up.”
It was Mayor Satrom’s impression that Robert White was being very “cocky” during the meeting. “He sat there doodling on a pad and nodding his head,” the mayor said. “I think he felt above the rest of us. He didn’t say much.”
Oddly, the Guard report pertaining to the meeting said, “The President of the University informed those present that a rally was scheduled for noon on the Commons. He said it would be dangerous and should not be permitted. It was agreed that the rally would not be permitted.”
Dressed in what he considered an unobtrusive uniform, Lou Cusella made his way across the campus and watched two long-haired, denim-clad students spoofing with guardsmen perched on an armored personnel carrier. They were ducking behind trees and shouting to the soldiers. Cusella thought, Where do these idiots think they’re playing their war games, in the jungle? Twenty minutes later he saw the same two longhairs handing out leaflets advertising the noon rally. “They gave each other the brotherhood handshake and with about fifty people they trooped out to the Commons. They seemed real happy.”
When the Guard took over the campus it insisted that all newsmen arriving on campus carry a special Ohio National Guard press pass. Greg Sbaraglia, a reporter for the Canton Repository, was on his way to get one when he saw one of the sportswriters from his newspaper. The writer had been called up for duty with the Guard. “What the hell have you been doing here, loafing as usual?” Sbaraglia called. “Yeah, I’ll bet,” replied the part-time soldier. “We had some action last night and I really nailed some kid’s head with a rifle butt. That’ll teach those damn hippies to run faster.” He showed Sbaraglia the rifle’s steel butt plate and it had dried blood on it. Sbaraglia walked away.
Alan Canfora, a junior, made his way to the Commons with a black flag on which the word “Kent” was spray-painted in red. “I did this to signify the sad turn of events in the city and on our campus. I was sad and angry.”
Chaplain Simons was in the command post when General Canterbury returned from the meeting at the fire station. The general seemed in a hurry and announced there would be no rally on the Commons. Then he said he needed troops. The burned-out shell of the ROTC building was cordoned off by guardsmen, but there were no men in reserve. Reinforcements were due shortly, but there was no time to wait. Already students were gathering. Chaplain Simons made a suggestion. “Let’s collect together a bunch of guys, some drivers, and wake some guys up at the gym and we could use them for the rally.”
“That’s a great idea, John,” Canterbury said.
The troops had been on twelve-hour shifts since arriving from Akron. They were tired and anxious. Sergeant Russell Repp, a tile and floor installer, had not had a chance to go to the bathroom. He had not slept in two nights and he was hungry.
Lunch had been prepared for the Guard but tension and fatigue stunted appetites. There was chow mein and fruit salad for 250 men. About ten stopped to eat.
A number of photographers were getting ready to cover the rally and Jerry Stoklas, a photojournalism student, thought if he could get on the roof of Taylor Hall he would have a good vantage point and might be able to get some exclusive pictures. A journalism professor thought it was a fine idea and escorted him to the roof. “I figured I’d screw all those other paparazzi,” Stoklas said.
After returning from his disappointing meeting with Mayor Satrom and General Canterbury, Robert White took his vice presidents, Ronald Roskens and Robert Matson, for a quick lunch at a restaurant a mile or so from campus. Before leaving he instructed his secretary to call if anything important happened. It was 11:15 a.m.
Groups of students continued to gather on the Commons near the victory bell. Someone started to ring it and the clang could be heard across the campus. There were no announcements that all of this was illegal, Joseph Carter noticed.
Meanwhile, Chaplain Simons had finished helping to gather a force of nearly a hundred men to be used in dispersing the crowd from the Commons. As General Canterbury was leaving the command post, Simons asked if he might go along. “He turned to me and said, ‘Sure John, come on,’ ” Simons said. “ ‘Del Corso and I had a great time throwing rocks at those kids the other night.’ ”
Five or six students were huddled around the victory bell, ringing it with force. A professor emerged from Taylor Hall and scrambled down the hill. “Please stop ringing that bell,” he called. The students gathered around him. One shouted, “Get away, old man.”
By now the west side of Blanket Hill was filled with people and from across the Commons it looked like a gallery at a sporting event. “It had a surrealistic, an unreal-like quality,” said Michael Stein, a graduate student. “It struck me as sort of distant. Even though I was there, it was sort of like watching it on a screen instead of being physically part of it.”
By a few minutes before noon nearly fifteen hundred students had gathered around the bell. Another two thousand to three thousand students were assembled on the opposite side of the Commons behind the National Guard lines. Another two thousand were on the northern edge of the Commons near the tennis courts.
Not all of the students had come to participate in the rally. The noon hour at Kent caught many between classes and the central location of the Commons made it necessary for most to pass by on the way to lunch or their next class. “There were people who were just curious,” said Yvonne Mitchell, one of the passers-by. “There weren’t just kids messing with the National Guard, or radical kids or conservative kids. There was just an integration of everybody.”
Bill Montgomery, a twenty-three-year-old Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, watched and saw what he said were clean-cut fraternity types. “Really, I saw few you would call radicals there,” he said. “There were a lot of kids there who had just come back from the weekend and didn’t know what was coming off.”
When he looked over the crowd, Michael Erwin felt the same way. “The crowd was made up of the Greeks, athletes, and the largest segment of the group were, like me, anti-war moderates.” Student Buzz Terhune described the crowd this way: “You had super-straight Joe Fraternity and ultra-radical Joe Freak out there.”
Guard sergeant Mike Delaney looked out at them from the other side of the Commons and said he felt sympathy with the students. “I don’t think I should change what I think because I’m wearing a uniform.”
The crowd was growing and milling. The anti-war chants with obscene stanzas began to roll over the Commons and fall upon the ears of the authorities. Among the crowd, people began to call out a telephone number where students could get legal help if anything happened. Lou Cusella wrote it down. Jeffrey Miller, a sophomore, wrote it down. Hundreds of others did the same.
“Pigs go home,” the crowd chanted.
“Guard off campus.”
“Peace now. Peace now.”
In the midst of the protestors Alan Canfora waved his black flag. He was angry at the stories of Guard harassment the night before.
Standing near the remaining ROTC buildings on the Commons was Captain Don Peters, an Army instructor assigned to the officers’ training course. He was a combat veteran of Vietnam. Peters thought the beginning of the demonstration had the merry atmosphere of a mudfight.
A campus policeman armed with a bullhorn stood near the ROTC building and shouted out to the students to disperse. The wind and noise drowned his call. He yelled again. The other side of the Commons was too far away and no one heard his command. The noise swallowed it.
“Yell your head off,” Chaplain Simons called. “Get a jeep and drive out there.”
A guardsman pulled a jeep over and the policeman climbed awkwardly in the back. In the front seat was Major Harry Jones, a forty-three-year-old native of Tennessee who served full time in the Guard as the 145th Infantry’s training officer. He wore a baseball fatigue cap and was unarmed except for a baton he carried.
The jeep drove slowly across the Commons, the bullhorn calling its message to the crowd that stood on the hillside.
“This assembly is unlawful. The crowd must disperse at this time. This is an order!” The jeers increased as the jeep neared the hill. It swung within a hundred feet of the crowd. Lou Cusella had the impression that the man with the bullhorn was not ordering, but begging. “There was all kinds of pathos in his voice. He looked like a high-school band director.”
“We just shouted him down,” said Steve Tarr, a freshman. The chants taunting the Guard continued to come over the green.
Then a rock arched out of the crowd, bounced on the ground, and hit the jeep. Several more followed. The chanting of the crowd increased in tempo:
“Off the pigs, off the pigs.”
“One-two-three-four, we don’t want your fucking war.”
“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win.”
“Two-four-six-eight, we don’t want your fascist state.”
Paul Schlemmer, a university sports information publicist, looked at his watch and noted that the time was eleven fifty-eight.
The jeep was pelted by more rocks. Kathy Berry, student government vice president, saw two rocks “hit the jeep’s hood with a ping.” Al Thompson, a reporter from the Cleveland Press, saw a “rock bounce off the jeep.”
Quickly the driver swerved from the crowd and raced across the Commons to General Canterbury and his composite force of cooks, drivers, messengers and sleep-hungry guardsmen. The general was dressed in a business suit.
Some of the guardsmen standing by recall the moment: “If I wouldn’t have been in uniform, I would have been on the other side of the line, but I wouldn’t have thrown rocks,” said Sergeant Mike Delaney. “This guy would have been throwing rocks and wrenches,” said Staff Sergeant Jim Thomas.
Earel Neikirk, a reporter from the Elyria Chronicle and Telegram, himself a Kent State graduate, was near Canterbury when Jones returned from the jeep ride across the Commons. The two officers huddled. Seconds later, guardsmen were ordered into a skirmish line, Neikirk said.
“I heard an officer say, ‘Fix bayonets, gas masks, load,’” the reporter said. “I could not believe it. What were these guys going to do, mount a charge against a bunch of kids who weren’t harming anything or anybody?”
The students were nearly a hundred yards away when the order went out to launch tear gas. Men armed with M-79 grenade launchers stepped forward and fired their gas rounds. The grenades fluttered through the air and the mass of students parted as the missiles, streaming trails of smoke, dropped near their front ranks.
The tear gas was necessary, a Guard report said, because “the size of the crowd was increasing rapidly by the minute and it became apparent that the order to disperse would not be heeded.”
The wind, which had been shifting from time to time, was blowing toward the Guard when the gas rounds were launched. It carried the fumes away from the students. Several rushed forward, grabbed the smoking canisters, and hurled them back toward the Guard, far out of throwing range.
Donald Schwartzmiller watched the Guard skirmish line move toward the demonstrators. He “felt there would be trouble” when the students refused to disperse and such a small contingent of Guard went after them.
More tear gas was fired. As the canisters tumbled on the ground students made an attempt to throw them back. The Guard noted “members of the crowd quickly donned gas masks and put gloves on—these people picked up gas grenades and threw them back.”
Applause and cheers broke out for those who pitched the steaming missiles back. “I saw one student throw back a tear-gas canister,” said Michael Stein. “He was applauded by his fellow students as a kind of folk hero. Tear gas was very ineffective since the wind was blowing toward the National Guard.”
Robert Roepke, a graduate student who was standing on one end of the Commons, said, “People thought it was a game, a circus.” Sergeant Mike Delaney, on the other end, also described it as a game: “A serious game of Frisbee.”
“I picked up a canister and threw it back, but I stuck my face in the damn stuff,” said Ben Parsons, a twenty-two-year-old drama student. “It almost got to be a joke because the guardsmen were laughing. It was just a game.”
Michael Erwin, who had put on his gas mask, threw “four or five canisters of gas” back at the advancing troops. “I was winded,” he said. “I thought that I was out of range of the gas but the wind shifted and blew gas into my face as I took the mask off.”
Captain Don Peters, the ROTC adviser, thought “a lot of guys were throwing those canisters back for heroics. The broads loved it.”
Staff Sergeant Jim Thomas looked at the carnival atmosphere and wished he had a popcorn stand. “I could have made a thousand dollars.”
All the while, the victory bell clanged its challenge.
Major Harry Jones advanced with the troops he commanded. “Some of these kooks had to be on dope,” he said. “I bet they’ve got needle marks on their arms.” The troops moved forward, firing gas and stepping with an even pace.
A ripple of panic passed through the crowd. Some students began to run. “People were yelling to walk, not run,” said Alan Chesler, a teaching fellow.
Bayonets fixed and before them, the Guard stepped forward, scattering straggling students. “This is mad,” thought Steve Smith, a freshman. “These guys are chasing kids all over this area. They don’t have a chance to catch them. This could go on forever.”
By now the entire Commons was covered with a shifting haze of gas. Students ripped up shirts and rags to protect their faces from the sting. Jim Nichols, a student, was in Taylor Hall at the top of the hill and saw teachers and staff members tearing up cloth, toweling, and pieces of girls’ skirts. “They were dousing them in water fountains and in the restrooms and handing them to kids.”
Outside, John P. Hayes, a journalism student, saw one student run toward a soldier and throw a tear-gas canister at him. “Three soldiers began chasing the student up Taylor Hill. One soldier caught the student and began hitting him with a billy club while others pointed their rifles at him.” Dennis Taruben saw the same student being clubbed. “One of the guardsmen fired tear gas at him point blank.” Screaming, the student ran off.
“I saw one student who was a little slow in leaving the hill behind Taylor Hall,” said Michael Stein. “The National Guard advanced up the hill and they managed to reach him. He was beaten rather severely and fell to the ground and someone pulled him into Taylor Hall.”
Private Paul Naujoks was coming up the hill with the Guard, breathing heavily because of the equipment he carried. “The rock throwing was just occasional,” he said. “The guy beside me got hit in the shoulder. I never got hit. It seemed like we were trying to drive the bad guys out of there. I still remember this one guy with an Apache headband with a flag. I thought to myself, these guys are crazy. You never knew who was a spectator and who was a rioter.”
As the Guard force began to climb the hill it broke into two elements, one going to the left side of the hill so Taylor Hall was flanked on both sides.
Joseph Carter, who had once served in the Guard, said, “I presumed the entire line of guardsmen would move up the hill and divide into two units, one driving the crowd away from the front of Taylor and the other dispersing kids around the side.” Carter thought it strange that “only a platoon of men came over the crest of the hill and marched directly into the practice football field where there was no one to be dispersed.”
Lieutenant Roy W. Drew, a guardsman, thought it odd that the right flank pushed onward. “When they got to the edge of the building, on top of the hill, they should have stopped. They didn’t have enough men to go over the hill.”
Bill Montgomery, the Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, was equally amazed. “They maneuvered themselves into a stupid position. They walked right down into the field against the fence and the kids surrounded them.”
Chaplain John Simons thought, “That silly Canterbury; they’re supposed to disperse the crowd, the crowd is dispersed, where in the hell is he leading those men?” The general was in the practice football field with the men.
“The students began to realize that the National Guard had maneuvered themselves into a partially enclosed area and were, in a sense, encircled,” said Joseph Carter.
Harold Froehlich, a student, saw the Guard move onto the field. There was a fence in front of them with only a small gate. There were fences to the right of them and to the left. “They couldn’t pursue and they couldn’t contain,” Froehlich said. “The students started gaining the upper hand for the first time. And they knew it.”
Specialist Fourth Class Karry Werny, a twenty-three-year-old guardsman, was standing in the practice football field. He was scared stiff. “It’s only a natural reaction, I guess,” he said.
Joseph Carter said he saw about fifteen students throw rocks at the boxed-in Guard. “Most of the students were standing between 80 and 125 feet away from the guardsmen.” A small board was flung, missing the troops. A protestor jumped up and down waving the black flag of anarchy in front of the students. He was shouting. Carter saw three or four students picking up stones in the parking lot about two hundred feet from the practice field.
Alan Canfora was in front of the students waving his black flag. He noticed the rocks being thrown were falling short of the Guard. “I did not see one rock hit a single soldier,” he said. “At least once I saw a soldier throw rocks back.”
Sergeant Russell Repp said he was hit ten times by stones. “They were just having a good time. They thought we were a bunch of nobodies. A good-sized kid kept coming up behind me and stoning me from behind, then laying down about five yards away. I picked up a rock and threw it back.”
Sarah Terhune, a student, saw a piece of wood, “a dead branch,” thrown from the crowd. Michael Erwin saw students in the parking lot gathering stones. The lot was unpaved and it provided rocks “about the size of golf balls.” He estimated that twenty-five to thirty people were throwing rocks. “Most were falling short by fifteen to twenty feet,” he said. “One soldier staggered. I don’t know if he was hit with a rock or if he just tripped.” John Barilla, another student, saw four or five people throwing rocks.
“A half of a brick almost knocked me down,” said Major Harry Jones. “Some [men] were knocked down with rocks but scrambled up,” said General Canterbury.
Joseph Carter saw no guardsmen go down from a stone. “It was too far to heave a rock with any accuracy or force. A couple of the troops picked up stones and threw them back,” he said.
Jim Minard, a student, said, “I was really mad. And we were throwing stones and we were yelling at them to get off campus. Some students had kidded me about my good arm because I had thrown a lot of tear-gas canisters back.”
Michael W. Hill, a senior, saw a guardsman get hit in the foot. “They were all fired up and it’s sort of easy to tell when somebody gets hit because you sort of move out of formation and jump back.”
Suddenly, some of the guardsmen in the practice field dropped back, took a kneeling position, and pointed their M-1 rifles at the demonstrators. Greg Benedetti, a campus radio newsman, watched the Guard back off. “The protestors would retreat, then charge, throwing things and shouting,” he said. “The Guard kept moving back and the protestors kept coming forward.”
Students began to yell, “Shoot, Shoot, Shoot.”
John Filo, a student photographer, saw a stone the size of a golf ball bounce off a guardsman’s helmet.
“The tear gas wasn’t doing any good,” said Sergeant Russell Repp. “We didn’t run out. I still had eight canisters on a bandolier.”
“We exhausted every tear gas round,” said Canterbury.
From his vantage point atop Taylor Hall, Jerry Stoklas looked down on the practice field and saw a guardsman with a .45 pistol fire in the air. He appeared as “a guy who looked like an officer.” Richard Schreiber, a journalism professor, saw the same thing. “He aimed over the rock throwers and fired at least one round over their heads,” he said.
“Those guardsmen who had not assumed the kneeling position seemed to be milling around in no particular formation and began to take a few steps toward Taylor Hall,” said Joseph Carter. “Some interpreted it as a withdrawal.”
The Guard assembled in a formation and started toward Blanket Hill, away from the crowd. “They walked at a pretty fast pace,” said Ben Parsons. “Then they started running. Everybody started screaming because it was like we’d won.”
James Dawson saw students throwing rocks and bottles more heavily as the Guard left the practice field. “It seemed to almost panic the guardsmen,” he said. “They almost seemed to start running. Which I thought did nothing but give more impetus to the students and the students started to move quickly toward them.”
The troops were ordered to return to their original position at the bottom of the Commons. “The behavior of an estimated seventy-five to one hundred members of the crowd was illogical, they appeared to be frenzied and frantic during the period when the troops were being attacked when returning to the original positions,” a Guard report said.
Sergeant Dale Antram said, “We were walking up the hill but we were thinking behind us. We were always glancing over our shoulders and guys were saying, ‘Back there, watch it, here comes a rock.’ I couldn’t wear my glasses because of the gas mask.”
“It was hard to see through the plastic,” said Private Paul Zimmerman. “To look behind you, you’d have to turn your head all the way around. I was hot and sweaty.”
“Those people were closing in on three sides,” General Canterbury said.
The Guard’s withdrawal up Blanket Hill drew cheers and hoots from the students. Jim Minard described the scene, “People were just going everywhere, going crazy.” Jerry Stoklas watched the Guard climb the hill and saw a “bunch of kids further back in the parking lot, throwing stones at them over the others’ heads.”
“There were some kids coming up the hill who had been down at the bottom before and there was a lot of yelling,” said Cheryl Birkner, a student. “People were yelling and screaming.”
Jim Minard was moving up the hill behind the Guard when he began what he called an “eye and verbal” battle with an officer. “I was yelling at him to get off the campus. And actually, maybe three or four times, he pulled his .45 out of his holster and pointed it at me. And one time he did that and said, ‘Come on, come on.’ ”
Watching from a window on the second floor of Taylor Hall, Donald Ross, a janitor, said he saw “this guardsman with a .45 behind the rest of them pointing his pistol at a couple of the kids.”
General Canterbury said, “Every guardsman up there was hit by rocks.”
Bruno Speco, a junior, saw a two-foot-long stick thrown. Steve Tarr said students were right behind the Guard throwing stones, “hitting them because they were at close range.”
“I heard the students yell, ‘Kill the pigs!’ ” said Bill Resch, president of the Graduate Student Council. “The intensity of the yell surprised me.”
“The situation was extremely dangerous,” said General Canterbury. “I felt I could have been killed.”
“I didn’t feel danger and I was right in the middle of it,” said Captain Raymond Srp.
“There were only two ways out of there,” said Private Paul Naujoks. “To run down the hill or shoot and turn them back.” The guardsmen now were a few steps over the crest of the hill.
“Suddenly a small group of students raced within close range of the Guard,” said Al Thompson, the reporter. “They were throwing more rocks.”
“I could see a kid run close behind the Guard,” said Donald MacKenzie, a senior. “He had a rock and he threw.”
A reporter from the Akron Beacon Journal saw “a civilian with a large rock run up behind the Guard.” There were more students behind him. “I saw this one in front throw the rock.”
“I saw the guardsmen stop and turn,” said Alan Canfora. “I had my flag in my hand. They were aiming their guns into the crowd. I turned and started to run.”
“They turned toward us,” said Barbara Neff, a sophomore. “We were expecting tear gas. We knew they were going to fire. We knew they were going to fire something.”
“One of the guardsmen turned and fired and then I heard the volley,” said Donald MacKenzie. As the Guardsmen turned, they rushed a few steps back up the knoll, firing, led by a guardsman with a .45 pistol.
“One guardsman with a pistol shot first,” said Rick Levinger, a freshman, “and then the others opened up.”
“All of a sudden,” said Bill Reymond, a senior, “everything just blew up.”
“I heard a single shot precede the volley,” said General Canterbury. “I did not identify the kind of weapon. It was a split second before the volley.”
“Everything happened so fast,” said Private Paul Naujoks, “it was like a car wreck.”
“I heard no single shot,” said Jackie Stewart, a university secretary. “They turned together. They just started shooting. I stood there.”
It was a long, irregular volley that snapped and crackled, partially obscuring the men on the firing fine in a cloud of smoke and dust.
“It sounded just like the Fourth of July,” said Jim Nichols, a junior.
Those being fired at could not comprehend the hail of bullets. “I thought,” said Mike Erwin, “that only blank rounds were being fired and I thought that until the bullets started kicking up dust at my feet.” When he heard the volley, Chaplain Simons “knew better, but I thought they were blanks.” Cleveland Press reporter Al Thompson thought, They must be firing blanks, those can’t be real bullets.
“Everyone was up tight,” said Sergeant Russell Repp. “No one was thinking of firing. Then I heard small-arms fire, three shots, it might have been an echo, and the guys returned the fire.”
“One guardsman was raking the area,” a student said. “He wasn’t aiming. Others had their guns in the air. The guy I was watching was cutting an arc with his rifle.”
“I thought I heard the command to fire,” a guardsman said. “I was approximately in the center of the line formation. The students were throwing rocks and were too close for the safety of the men.”
“I was laughing,” said Walter Zimny, a junior. “I thought, Those jerks are firing a machine-gun over everyone’s heads.”
“Others in my unit fired,” said Private Duane Raber, “and I tried to fire but I couldn’t. I extracted the first round and then fired three rounds over their heads as warning.”
“I was watching the firing line,” said Ben Parsons, a sophomore. “I saw at least a couple spin, lock the butts of their rifles against their hips, and fire straight into the air, and I saw some spin and fire without looking.”
“I heard the first shot,” said a guardsman. “I had my rifle at my shoulder, not sighting, just at my shoulder. I had my finger on the trigger and fired when the others did. I just didn’t think about it. It just happened. How can you think at a time like that? Right after the first shot, it sounded like everyone squeezed off one round, like at the range, drawn out. I fired once. I just closed my eyes and shot. I didn’t aim at anyone in particular. I just shot at shoulder level toward the crowd.”
“A few guardsmen just didn’t let up,” said freshman Steve Tarr. “They just emptied their rifles.”
“I heard the men fire,” said Private Lonnie Hinton. “So I fired one .30-caliber round straight into the air. The reason was they were all around us and I thought it the most suitable thing to do at the time.”
“I turned, and when I saw all those guys falling in front I knew we were safe,” said Private Paul Naujoks. “They wouldn’t keep coming. It was a relief. I felt it was our only way out.”
“Each man made a judgment on his own that his own life was in danger,” said General Canterbury.
“I didn’t feel threatened,” said a guardsman. “I didn’t feel trapped. I didn’t think they’d try to take our rifles, not while we could use the bayonets and the butts.”
Major Harry Jones said he gave no order. He had a baton in his hands and he brought the stick down so hard after the firing began that he broke it. Some students, confused in their timing, thought the stick came down before the firing and constituted an order.
“I had my stick in my right hand,” Jones said, “and I started beating the men over their helmets. I had to run out in front of the line, in front of the fire. If I wouldn’t have, they never would have stopped. And I yelled, ‘Cease fire! Cease fire! Cease fire!’ And General Canterbury was yelling too at the other end of the line.”
One Guard official said some of the soldiers may have misunderstood the “Cease fire!” order, thinking the order was to “Fire!”
Private David Rogers was struck by Major Jones’ stick. “The major hit me so hard it made my ears ring. I could see the kids fall. I saw this one. I don’t know if it was a boy or girl. It didn’t bother me at first, either. I’ve been with my brother’s wrecking truck out on accidents and things. The major was out there waving like crazy.”
Twenty feet to his left reporter Al Thompson saw a student, long hair flying, pirouette as he was hit in the chest. Blood flowed through his shirt. As he twisted, head bowed, one shoulder wrenched high in the air, the student had a look of “utter disbelief” on his face.
Robert Stamps, a sophomore, was standing seven hundred feet away. He had a pretzel in one hand and a notebook in the other. He heard the shots. “Something hit me in the ass. I thought it was a rock, and then I put my hand back there and felt the blood.” If another bullet hits me, he thought, I’m going to die. He leaped down on top of two girls in the parking lot. “As soon as it stopped, I jumped up and started running again.” He ran into another student, threw his arms around him, and said, “Brother, I’ve been shot, help me.”
On top of Taylor Hall, photographer Jerry Stoklas saw a boy “jerk like a puppet,” then twist and fall, “like he got broken into pieces.”
In the parking lot, photographer John Filo was looking through his viewfinder and saw the guardsmen point their rifles directly at him. He heard a bullet bang through a metal sculpture near him. He dropped his camera and fell flat on his face.
Sophomore Douglas Wrentmore, a conscientious objector, heard the noise, took a few steps, and found he couldn’t walk any more. “I was on the ground. I crawled behind a car. Bullets hit the side of the car. I tried to get up and walk. I had to hop.”
Greg Benedetti was running toward Taylor Hall. As he ran he looked down and saw blood on his hands. Five feet from him a student had been hit. “The wound sprayed blood over the area.”
Four or five seconds elapsed in terrible stillness after the shooting stopped.
Then junior John Dienert got up and yelled: “MURDERERS!”
Freshman Danny Herman got up and pointed to a wounded student. “Look what you did!” he yelled.
Michael Erwin saw a boy holding a rag over a girl’s throat, “only there wasn’t much of her throat left.”
Robert Dyal, a philosophy professor, couldn’t hear any voices “except screams.”
Earel Neikirk, the Elyria reporter, thought, I have seen this all before, in the service, during the war, on a beach in the South Pacific. Now I have to see it again? Here? At my alma mater?
Graduate student Joseph Carter thought, Where am I? Is this a battlefield? Is this a nightmare? Is this a campus? Is this America? Is this a war? Who is fighting? Who is the enemy? Who won?
Greg Sbaraglia, the reporter, looked around and couldn’t comprehend it. He thought, Campus radicals have used animal blood to give the impression of injury. This is guerrilla theater, a bad joke.
Bobbi Moran, a freshman coed, saw the blood and couldn’t “fathom” it. She thought it was fingerpaint.
Jerry Geiger, twenty-four, a junior and a Vietnam combat veteran, thought, There is a helicopter up there and there are people bleeding all around. I’m back in Vietnam.
The Guard contingent that had fired from Blanket Hill withdrew. Twenty-six men had fired fifty-nine shots.
“We felt we had accomplished our purpose,” General Canterbury said. “The crowd was dispersed at that point.”
The guardsmen went cautiously down the hill. Junior Jim Nichols noticed how each guardsman covered a different angle with his rifle. As they neared the bottom of the hill, they broke into a dead run to reach the Guard compound by the ROTC building.
“We didn’t know anything was seriously wrong,” said Sergeant Mike Delaney, who was on the Commons, “until we saw the guys coming over the hill and the officers yelling for help.”
Chaplain Simons ran toward the men as they came off the hill. They didn’t want to talk to him. “They were already withdrawing,” Simons said.
When Sergeant Dale Antram got to the bottom of the hill, he felt like crying. “I couldn’t believe it. My first thought was, I’m getting out of the Guard, I’m a conscientious objector, baby.”
When the guardsmen left the hill, the students were clumped around the dead and wounded.
Michael Stein, watching from Blanket Hill, saw a coed run toward the guardsmen on the Commons with her hands over her head to make sure she wouldn’t be shot. She was Pam Holland, a sophomore. An ambulance stood next to the guardsmen.
“As I ran down,” Pam said, “I was screaming obscenities. I wasn’t in any way to be talked to.” She screamed, “People are dying, get the ambulance up there!” One of the guardsmen came up to her, shoved her, and said, “Where’s your identification?” She kept screaming, “Get a doctor!” They finally sent the ambulance up.
As the guardsmen stood on the Commons near the ROTC building, General Canterbury asked Chaplain Simons to talk to the men who had been on the firing line. “He wanted to know whether they fired up or down,” Simons said.
The first guardsman Simons talked to said, “I fired right down the gulley.” The chaplain noted “there was hate on the guy’s face” and he thought, You just can’t get away from it. This guy placed one exactly where he wanted to.
Simons talked to another guardsman who said, “I didn’t realize the guys were shooting at the kids until I saw this kid’s chest break into blood.” The guardsman said he had fired into the air.
Joseph Carter was inside Prentice Hall, the dormitory behind the parking lot. “The lounge was a scene of terrible shock and confusion.” Coeds screamed in hysteria.
In the parking lot Dan Smith, a photographer for the Kent Record Courier, heard a coed scream, “Get mattresses, the pigs shot them, help us.” The wounded were carried from the parking lot. He saw a girl, her face waxen, her clothes and those of the students carrying her bloodstained. He saw a boy whose headband had slipped below his eyes. It was soaked with his tears.
In the administration building Leona Wright, the university’s chief telephone operator, saw the Centrex system go dead. She thought of one thing: Dallas.
A wild rumor spread among the students that the Guard had ordered the phone line closed down so nobody would find out what had happened.
A group of guardsmen who had stood between Taylor and Prentice Halls at the time of the shooting moved toward the parking lot to look at the wounded and the dead. They were led by Captain Ron Snyder, an investigator for the Summit County coroner’s office.
Freshman Steve Tarr saw a girl approach one of the guardsmen and yell, “You killed him!” and “Fuck you!” The guardsman got about six feet from a body and turned around and went back.
“I saw a boy in the road,” said Captain Snyder. “I tried to make a recovery of him. They were calling us goddamned murderers.” He made the decision to “forget the bodies” and moved his men from the parking lot toward Blanket Hill.
When the new contingent of guardsmen were on the hill, Snyder saw “a kid was yelling trying to get another crowd together.” He threw a tear gas canister at him. The student ran away. It was the last canister fired that day. Those clumped around the bodies couldn’t believe it. “Here was all this blood,” said Steve Tarr, “and they were still shooting tear gas.”
Dan Smith, the photographer, was numb. He walked inside Prentice Hall. He wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t come. He saw that a window screen had been removed from the lounge’s big front window. Two of the injured were brought through the opening carefully on couches. He saw a tall, dark-haired girl strip the mattress from her bed and, despite its bulkiness, throw it through the corridor outside.
Greg Sbaraglia walked around the parking lot and saw rocks, bricks, and cartridge shells on the ground near the fallen students.
Dan Smith, back in the parking lot, was still waiting for the ambulances. Students were screaming for help. The only ones quiet, he noted, were the wounded and those in shock. When the first of the red-and-white Kent ambulances got there, a crowd gathered around it. They began yelling at the ambulance attendants. “You goddamn pigs!” they yelled. Seconds later, Smith saw, students were helping the attendants with the wounded.
Steve Tarr watched in the parking lot as a faculty member checked the pulse of a student who’d been hit. “He had no coloring on his lips. His face was completely pale. I knew he was in shock then because he said, ‘I have to take a piss bad.’ We unbuckled his pants and he started to kick his legs aloft and I held both legs down.”
As the ambulances were picking up the dead and wounded, a helicopter hovered overhead and a voice from a loudspeaker ordered everyone back to the dormitories. Junior Scott Varner thought, It sounds like a voice from heaven.
Dan Smith, standing next to an ambulance, was loading his camera. Why should I shoot? he wondered. Almost subconsciously he threaded the film. He shot through the ambulance window at the wounded. He was half ashamed of what he was doing but he was too shocked not to do it.
Gene Pekarik, a sophomore, saw a student in a sport coat running around near Blanket Hill “like a wildman.” The student had a gun. “He looked like he was going to shoot somebody.” He was three feet from Pekarik. He was pointing the gun at him. “He was so close to me I could see the gold bullets in the chamber.” Pekarik thought, I am going to die.
The student was junior Terry Norman, a sometime undercover photographer for the campus police department. “I was up on the hill after the shooting and I stopped to help one of the students who’d been hit and some of them surrounded me and yelled, ‘Get the pig! Get the pig!’ They took my camera away and beat me. I heard someone yell ‘Stick the pig!’ ” Norman said he saw a student reach for a knife. “I pulled my gun and scared him off.”
Chaplain Simons saw Norman race down the hill toward the Commons chased by two or three people. Norman ran to a guardsman.
Sergeant Mike Delaney took the pistol from Norman. He had issued press credentials to him earlier. A campus policeman told him Norman would be taking pictures of the demonstration for the FBI. Delaney gave the gun, a .38, to campus police detective Tom Kelley. Kelley examined it and determined that it had not been fired. Campus police chief Schwartzmiller said Norman “definitely” was not on assignment for his department that day.
In Lowry Hall, not far from Blanket Hill, a girl with a pony tail ran screaming to Mrs. Darlene Mack, a secretary. The girl screamed, “I killed him, I killed him.” She blamed herself for the boy’s death because, she said, she had taken part in the demonstration. Mrs. Mack tried to comfort her. “She told me to please leave her alone.”
In the parking lot a student tied a bloodied white cloth onto his purple anti-war flag and walked away.
Another student, eyes glazed in hysteria, dipped a black flag into a pool of blood, staining it red. “Here, here,” the student cried wildly, whirling the bloody flag in the air.
Dan Smith inspected his dusty ’61 Volkswagen, which had been parked in the lot behind Taylor Hall. The back window was completely shattered. The same bullet hit an adjoining car, shattering a side window and ripping through the driver’s window. “At that moment I felt very close to that oil-burning heap of mine,” Smith said. “I photographed its wounds.”
Captain Ron Snyder saw a student ringing the victory bell again. He went over to the student. “I flailed him a few times with a big stick.”
On the Commons, Guard private Richard Parker, a Wooster patrolman, saw some of the men who had been on Blanket Hill “throw down their weapons and start to bawl.” Private Mike Chizmadia noticed that “no one wanted to talk about it.”
General Canterbury told Chaplain Simons to tell every man not to fire again unless an officer “tapped him on the shoulder and told him to fire.” Simons tried to console the men. Should I go up there to help the dying and the wounded? he thought. “It sounds awful crass to say let them bury their own dead.”
In the emergency room at Robinson Memorial Hospital, wounded Doug Wrentmore watched as “the kids came in, stretchers and stuff. Most of them were a lot worse off than I was. It is really something when you see a girl lying on a stretcher, her face is all contorted and swollen and then, you know, they pick up this sheet and slowly lay it over her.”
President White, eating lunch with university vice presidents Matson and Roskens, got a phone call telling him of the shooting. Matson and Roskens raced to their offices. White rushed to his home, on campus, overlooking the Commons. He saw that two or three thousand students had massed again on the Commons and made an immediate decision to close the school.
Around Blanket Hill and on the Commons the mood had turned from shock to fury. “Everything really turned ugly,” said student Dick Woods, an ex-Marine. “I really wanted to hit one of those clowns. We started shouting and screaming.
Gene Pekarik also noted the wild anger of the students. “There were a couple thousand kids milling on the Commons and the hill, not going past the victory bell. The guardsmen stood around the ROTC building.” To Pekarik, it looked like two camps, two sides grouping before a big battle. He thought, God, again? Is it going to happen again?
Standing with the guardsmen by the ROTC building, sensing the building fury in the crowd, Chaplain Simons heard one of the soldiers say, “Gee, if they come down again, we’ve got no alternative except to shoot.”
General Canterbury said, “If they come down again, we’ll give them the Commons.”
Simons was afraid. He foresaw horrible possibilities.
Geology professor Dr. Glenn Frank, voted the university’s outstanding professor the previous year, went to Canterbury. “Don’t do anything; give us time to get the students away,” Frank said.
Canterbury told him, “You’ve got five minutes.”
Frank was desperate. He began to cry. He ran back to the students on the Commons and begged them to disperse.
As Frank walked away, Captain Ron Snyder heard Canterbury say, “They’re going to have to find out what law and order is all about.”
With tears streaming down his cheeks Frank stood in front of the crowd and begged, “Please, we can’t do anything here. They’re going to shoot us again. We’re going to get slaughtered. They’ve got guns and the guns are at our throats. People died here, but please, because of their martyrdom, let’s not have any more martyrs. I beg you, let’s move.”
As Frank spoke, General Canterbury got the reinforcements he was waiting for. “He got all cranked up to clear the area again,” Chaplain Simons said. “He wanted to start the sweep again.”
Simons thought, No. No. No.
Canterbury was picking up the bullhorn, ready to tell the crowd to disperse. Simons went up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Come on,” the chaplain said, “you told him five minutes.”
“Oh, all right,” Canterbury said. He shrugged his shoulders.
The crowd on the Commons began moving.
“Almost beyond reality,” Frank said, “they started to leave the Commons. I could barely walk I was so weak. I could hardly see because of the tears in my eyes. They moved up the hill overlooking the Commons and sat down.”
Dr. Seymour Baron, chairman of the psychology department, went down to the Commons to speak to Canterbury. The two had a long conversation. Baron told Canterbury he was involved in a situation of mutual escalation.
“The general had no comprehension of the idea,” Baron said. “He did not want to lose his advantage.”
Baron asked for a gesture.
“If you could put your guns down,” he said, “the kids would see that and listen to me.”
Baron looked at the guardsmen around him. “They were a bunch of young men with dry mouths whose fists were clenched up so tight to their rifles that their knuckles were white. They were benumbed.”
He kept talking to Canterbury.
“He kept telling me he had his job to do, which was to clear the kids away. He did not want me to tell him how to do his job.”
Baron asked that the guardsmen’s rifles be placed behind a truck.
“Canterbury was unimpressed. I kept on talking.”
He begged that the rifles be put down at parade rest.
“Canterbury thought about it, finally he said, ‘Oh, all right.’ ”
Baron went back to the crowd sitting on the hill. He was scared to death. He had spent his life studying psychology. If you know anything at all about it, he thought, now is the time to show it.
He yelled, straining to be heard:
“Listen,” he said, “if there’s one thing those guys are taught, it’s not to take their hands off their weapons. So for crying out loud, I’ve got them now, they’ve got their guns at parade rest. Look, in the meantime, there’s one thing that we can do, we can sit. It’s a nice sunny day. I’ll be glad to join you. Let’s talk about the issues, let’s talk about the problems, and for God’s sake let’s not charge them, they’ve got live ammo. Now listen, has anybody done the smartest thing yet, go to see if we can get some sandwiches? Who’s got a bottle of beer? I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask about food when guys have got killed. I say there are three ways I know of to settle a man’s stomach—women, whiskey, and food.”
A coed interrupted him. “How about rationality instead of women?”
“Okay,” Baron said, “rationality too if it helps anybody. Now listen to me, if you go down toward them, they’ll kill you. Now the reason they’ll kill you is because they’re scared to death. They’re a bunch of summertime soldiers. They have no idea about what soldiering is or what war is about. Those guys are scared kids. Now I’m telling you, you can yell all kinds of things at me, but I just want you to stay alive. I don’t want you going after them. Some of you guys feel that you have to be heroes, well, you can be heroes, but remember, the girls and people here don’t want to get shot and that includes me.”
A student leaped up and tried to take the bullhorn from Baron. Another student told him to stop. “Let him speak,” the crowd yelled.
“He says not to take it away from me,” Baron said, “and I surely, surely am not going to stop anybody from making any kind of speech. I have no authority of any sort, whatever. I just want to say this: Please don’t, don’t let anybody start you going across this Commons again. We’ve had bloodshed and it’s a terrible thing what happened here today. This campus will never forget it. Don’t, don’t, don’t start chasing across this field again. I’m a faculty member. I want you to understand that the faculty is with you in regards to this stinking war.”
The crowd cheered.
Red-faced, at the top of his lungs, Baron yelled, “We’re with you, we’re with you, we’re with you and I mean it, we’re with you all the way!”
After twenty minutes the students began breaking up and headed for their dormitories. A sound truck blared that the university had been closed.
Seymour Baron dripped with sweat. When the crowd broke up, Glenn Frank threw his arm around him and, helping each other, the two professors climbed Blanket Hill and disappeared over the rise.
General Canterbury sat on a jeep and watched.
Earel Neikirk, the middle-aged Elyria reporter, walked around the ROTC building. He saw a guardsman huddled in a jeep. The soldier pushed his helmet down over his face to cover his tears.
“My God,” the guardsman said, “they were just lads.”
Yeah, Neikirk thought, and you, you too, you’re just a kid too.
General Canterbury walked across the Commons. A newsman stopped him.
“General, how can you be so calm?”
“You can’t see the inside of my stomach,” the general said.
Captain Don Peters watched from the hulk of the burned-out ROTC building and thought, It is just like another Kennedy has been shot.
“Even if you are directly involved in such a horror,” Chaplain Simons said, “life has a weird way of going on, as if nothing happened.”
By five o’clock most of the campus was deserted.
At Johnson Hall near Blanket Hill, dangling from the windows, were several bedsheets that had been tied together. One word was scrawled there, in big red letters:
Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts reported on the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State University for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They immediately began working on this book. Thirteen Seconds was originally published just months later, in fall 1970. Impressively, it still stands as one of the best narrative accounts of those tragic events.
Nearly 50 years later, the two authors looked back on the events and their reporting for a preface to a new paperback edition …
Nearly a half century after its publication, I’m still proud of the fact that Thirteen Seconds dared to speak the unspeakable: That Richard Nixon, allied with Ohio Governor James Rhodes and Ohio National Guard Director Sylvester Del Corso, helped cause the deaths of four innocent young people.
Through the use of inflammatory and demagogic words, President Nixon and his Ohio allies created a national climate of division and hatred, culminating in murder. Nixon and his allies didn’t actually pull the triggers of the Guardsmen’s weapons, but they might as well have.
The official history of the events at Kent State—James A. Michener’s Kent State: What Happened and Why—was the Nixon’s administration’s whitewash, written by a man with close ties to the Republican Party and the Nixon administration. The book was an obscene attempt to put the blame for the deaths on the victims themselves: the dead kids. I am proud that thanks to the very existence of Thirteen Seconds, that attempt failed. In a one-hour interview on the Today Show, Michael D. Roberts and I (with the legendary political pundit I. F. Stone) confronted James Michener and decimated him.
One of the great lessons of the horror at Kent State is that inflammatory political rhetoric, divisive and polarizing propaganda, can lead to violence and death.
I think it is worthwhile to keep that lesson in mind.
— Joe Eszterhas, August 2012
Michael D. Roberts:
The killing of four students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard was in a way the final, awful act of a tumultuous decade. Not since the Civil War, a hundred years before, had America found itself so torn and divided as it was in the 1960s, a decade full of acrimony, one generation pitted against another over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. It was the incursion into Cambodia in the spring of 1970 by U.S. forces that caused a demonstration that lead to the violence at Kent State. The deaths of those four students stunned a nation that never thought its youth to be at risk at home.
This book was written in the four months following the shootings and published that fall. Joe Eszterhas and I arrived on campus shortly after the shootings, and then spent days covering the tragedy for The Plain Dealer, the Cleveland newspaper for which we both were reporters.
It was an unpleasant task in many ways. First, the newspaper had failed to cover the story over the previous weekend when the tension was mounting in the city of Kent and a confrontation with the Ohio National Guard was forming. This meant that the paper was unprepared to cover what would be one of the tragic moments in history. (This was one of the factors that motivated us to stick with the story and write it as a book.)
Second, the emotion and agony surrounding the event gave one pause as to the course of the nation.
One could draw many parallels between America today and the polarization of the nation in 1970. The big difference would be the degree and the direction of that polarization. The Vietnam War divided the country not only politically, but also generationally. The draft would send thousands of young men to their deaths, and the contempt young people felt for older and conservative leaders was matched only by the bewilderment of older adults toward what they saw as a growing unruly and undisciplined element undermining society. These attitudes were noticeable as we set out to document what had happened over those few days in Kent. Neither side trusted our intentions in telling this story.
The collective experience Joe and I possessed played an important role in how we approached the story. Joe, only 25 years old, had a deep understanding of the youth culture of the time, and I—by virtue of covering the Vietnam War for a year—had some insights into the National Guard’s actions that day.
We divided the book between us, each responsible for certain chapters and personae. The hardest thing was spending hours with the parents of those killed and feeling their loss and pain. They could not understand why their children died on a campus seemingly remote from the turmoil that gripped the county. It was precisely that, the middle-class nature of the school, that added to the national shock.
Over the years, that fateful day has been revisited in seminars, articles, memorials, investigations, and government inquiries. In that time, no major revelation has come to light that would alter the facts in this book. True, many theories abound, some conspiratorial in nature, but nothing has been proven to support these theories of exactly what caused the Guard to shoot.
I believe that the first guardsman who fired from the hill on that day knows what caused him to shoot. Only he can answer why he chose to do so, and it is unlikely we will ever have that answer.
Over the years, Kent State remained with me in one way or another, too. The most ironic was my discovery, years later, that my father’s cousin, Major General Elvy B. Roberts, was the commander of the Cambodian Incursion in 1970 that indirectly resulted in the shootings at Kent.
President Nixon personally asked Roberts to lead the assault after a Vietnamese general, chosen to lead the operation as a symbol of the “Vietnamization” of the war, refused the assignment because his fortune teller predicted his death.
Hotels and rock stars have a long, twisted history. Debauchery reigned at the “Riot Hyatt” on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where Robert Plant stood on a balcony and screamed that he was a god. The Who are still under a lifetime ban from Holiday Inn after Keith Moon drove a Lincoln Continental into the swimming pool at the brand’s Flint, Michigan, location. And New York City police dodged cherry bombs thrown at them from a window after—here’s that name again—Keith Moon blew up the plumbing flushing explosives down the toilet at the Gorham Hotel. Just about every city has horror stories about rock stars, and very likely Moon, but everyone loved coming to Cleveland because of Swingos’ Celebrity Hotel.
Jim Swingos and his family were entertainers in their own right. Artists came to town knowing the hotel had a top-rated restaurant, a superior wine list, exceptional security, and an owner who was very lenient as long as you paid your bills. They all paid, too—plenty, and word got around in the rock and roll community that Swingos’ was a safe haven in a great market.
Swingos had been a well-known name on the local restaurant scene for years for the Keg and Quarter and got rave reviews when it moved into the Downtowner Motor Inn in 1967. The old restaurant operator owed $12,000, and that’s what Swingos paid for the lease. The restaurant always drew, but hotels were suffering in the downtown area. Who would come to Cleveland, and why? When the opportunity arose in 1971, Swingos bought the hotel, renamed it, and started to refresh its 150 rooms into an oasis for visiting entertainers. People were still coming for the restaurant, but he had to get “heads in beds,” and that was a pretty tough sell. Then he got a call from Memphis. Elvis Presley’s tour was looking for a base of operations, something centrally located to travel to and from tour dates, with Cleveland as the hub. As the Plain Dealer reported, it was “One hundred rooms, three floors, and enough room service to keep the chefs working overtime—and Elvis had run up a $20,000 bill.” And Presley loved the location. Reports say Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker stopped in to check out the place on a Wednesday and Swingos had a special menu with fatback, corn bread, and collard greens. That scored some points, and the Colonel called Presley in a day early to see for himself. The paper also reported that Presley had certain demands. It quotes Swingos saying, “Elvis ordered a Boston strip steak and a chopped steak, a simple order. Then I took it up to the room and he says, ‘OK, now cut it up into little pieces.’ I did. Then he looks at ’em and says, ‘Now, put ’em back together.’ ”
Presley’s manager apparently took a liking to Swingos. One day they were sitting in the office talking about Presley’s upcoming stay when the Colonel heard Swingos discussing terms for a show booking in the bar. Swingos later told a reporter, “Suddenly he cussed me out and told me to put the call on hold, which I did. He told me to insist on all the money up front for a week run with Jerry Lewis, Connie Stevens, and Pat Boone. I don’t know why, but I did what he told me. I got the money up front. The show closed after three days. Ticket sales were zip after the third show. I don’t know how he knew that. But he did.”
The King was one story, but there also was the Chairman of the Board. When the Coliseum at Richfield opened in 1974, Nick Mileti booked rooms for Frank Sinatra and his entourage at Swingos’. This was a big deal, but “old Blue Eyes” was said to be very demanding. Swingos got on the phone with Sinatra’s personal chef, found out that he loved fresh apple fritters and was a big fan of hot peppers. Swingos stocked his favorite dinner wine, Montrachet, and left plenty of lighters around in case he wanted a smoke. On his first night, Sinatra sat down to dinner, Swingos sent over the peppers and stood out of sight to see if they passed muster. Reports say Sinatra tried one, threw down his fork and said, “Goddamn! These are the best peppers I ever had!” Giant sigh of relief!
Sinatra was in for another surprise.
On the day he checked out, Sinatra asked for the bill and Swingos said it was on the house. No way! Sinatra insisted he wanted to square up but Swingos wouldn’t hear it. After a moment, Sinatra told Swingos to gather the hotel staff in the lobby, and then he went down the line with his bodyguard and handed each staffer a $100 bill. He told Swingos the hotel was like a new home, and he visited a number of times after that.
Many other artists were welcomed just as warmly, but they had bills to pay.
You can’t ignore TVs dropping out of windows. Hey, someone has that room after you! A young Elton John reportedly ordered everything on the room service menu along with a number of bottles of expensive wine, took a nibble here and a sip there and then sent all of it out his window. Ian Hunter with Mott the Hoople was quoted as saying you remember checking in and out of Swingos’ and nothing in between, and the Rolling Stones would spend an entire month taking up three floors satelliting out to various cities but always flying back to Cleveland. Now, those stories about Led Zeppelin.
When Zeppelin was at the Waldorf Astoria New York to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, there was some lingering tension over the omission of bassist John Paul Jones from the Page-Plant tour. It was announced that there would be photos but no questions in the press room—as if that would stop anyone. When they took the stage, a shout rang out, “When are you coming back to finish the demolition work on Swingos’?” Jimmy Page turned with a big smile and proudly said, “Cleveland!” Zeppelin would use Swingos’ as a tour hub, having a major, and often destructive, party just about every night. They went on in several rooms, and one guest once saw drummer John Bonham walk in and tear down two masts from a four-poster bed. He looked around with a shrug and said, “drumsticks.” Very young girls and hangers-on were everywhere, each trying to outdo the other. Swingos recalled at the end of the tour he would walk from room to room with a tour accountant who clicked off damages on an adding machine. “How much for that bed?’ “$2,000.” “For a bed?” Swingos would say, “Industrial bed!” Never an argument. The accountant would total up thousands of dollars and ask, “Do you want that in cash, check or bank transfer?” They would make the transaction, shake hands, and it was “See you next tour!” Zeppelin had big fun, and Swingos got three floors of newly remodeled rooms.
Swingos also gave Bruce Springsteen a break on rooms early in his career when he couldn’t afford $15 a night. They settled for $8 a room, and Springsteen always remembered that after his star rose dramatically. Not all rockers had such fond memories.
In a Plain Dealer story, Swingos recalled a fateful night saying, “I got a call at my house at 4 a.m. It was Yul Brynner complaining: ‘This Deep Purple band is driving me crazy making noise.’ So I showed up and saw Brynner going at it with Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.” Swingos took a stand, saying, “I told that [expletive] Blackmore ‘Can’t you have some respect for Mr. Brynner?’ ” Blackmore is said to have called Brynner “a little French gypsy.” They soon found themselves on separate floors.
Swingos’ had such a stellar reputation that director Cameron Crowe not only insisted it be included in his film Almost Famous but demanded authenticity down to the pattern on the carpeting, which was only seen for a few moments in the film. Bette Midler also tipped her hat in one of her songs, though she mentions it was in Seven Hills. Hey, artistic license.
Swingos’ didn’t draw just rock stars. There were sports teams, actors, businessmen . . . lots of folks. You might even see Gene Simmons of Kiss with then-girlfriend Cher. But as a rule they didn’t tear up rooms. Even so, all were welcome.
By the mid-’80s Swingos decided to move restaurant operations to the Statler Office Tower, and the old location became a Comfort Inn and later, dorms for Cleveland State University.
One last story before we turn the page on Swingos’. Record companies often held promotional parties at Swingos’, which brought media people out in droves. One famous party had folks packed wall to wall, and a guy dressed as a policeman and mumbling incoherently handcuffed WMMS’s Kid Leo to a young blonde. Then he left with the key! The fake cop? Who else? Keith Moon!
Or maybe, the former Cavs general manager didn’t want to admit what World B. Free meant to the Cavaliers as they were coming out of the Ted Stepien Era.
Embry is an exceptional person. He was a good general manager for the Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks. But when he came to the Cavaliers in the summer of 1986, one of his first big decisions was about re-signing Free.
Embry used to make fun of how the Cavaliers sent a helicopter to pick up Free at Burke Lakefront Airport on Sept. 30, 1983. Free was flown to the Richfield Coliseum, where a red carpet awaited him—leading the shooting guard to the door of the arena.
Why all the ceremony for player with a reputation for shooting too much, with the ball or his mouth?
The Cavaliers acquired Free from the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 15, 1982. They were the worst team in the NBA with a 3-19 record before he played his first game with his new team. Even worse, the Cavaliers were probably the most boring team to watch—dead last in the NBA in scoring. The few fans who did show up were there to scream that Stepien should sell the team.
Then came World B. Free.
“I remember when I got to the Cleveland airport right after the trade,” Free told me in 1986. “The people looked tired. I said I was going to pump some life into this place. ‘What Cleveland needed was World B. shakin’, bakin’, stoppin’ and poppin’. That’s what I was thinking.”
And there was more.
“When I got to the Coliseum, and wondered, where were all the people?” he said. “I remember there were games where the crowd was my girl and a couple of her friends. I’d try to give tickets away, and people would say, ‘Hey, World, don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ The team would walk through the airport and the baggage people would ignore us. It was sad.”
Free changed some of that.
“I knew World’s strengths and I knew his weaknesses,” former Cavs general manager Harry Weltman told me years ago. “And I knew his strengths were what we needed. He could put the ball in the basket. He was exciting to watch. We desperately needed that.”
Weltman didn’t worry about Free forcing a few poor shots during a game. He inherited (from Bill Musselman) a roster full of guys who couldn’t make wide open 15-footers . . . or guys who hated being in Cleveland.
Free was not a good defender, but he played hard. He signed autographs, posed for pictures, shook hands and made friends. Maybe he wasn’t the brightest star in the NBA galaxy, but he was a ray of sunshine on the Cavaliers roster.
The Cavs finished the 1982–83 season with a 20-40 record after the Free trade. They were 3-19 before.
He averaged 24.2 points and shot .458 from the field. Free was a free agent in the summer of 1983. After Gordon Gund bought the team, he green-lighted a multi-year deal for Free. Weltman signed him with the help of team attorney and salary cap expert Richard Watson.
Weltman and Watson then cooked up the idea of bringing Free to the Coliseum via helicopter, Free popping out and walking up the red carpet for a press conference to announce his new contract.
“We needed something positive, something fun,” said Weltman. “The fans wanted World back. We needed World. And we needed some good publicity.”
The helicopter landing delivered exactly that. Free was a showman. He loved talking to the media, and they had a great time listening to him.
No matter how many times this was explained to Embry and others who dismissed Free’s time with the Cavaliers as a strange sideshow, they refused to grasp the state of the game in Cleveland when Free arrived.
“I swear, they didn’t even have all the lights on in the Coliseum during my first year,” said Free.
That’s a stretch. But basketball was in the dark ages in Cleveland until he began to light up the scoreboard.
* * *
My introduction to World B. Free was in the spring of 1974.
I didn’t actually meet him. But I was with the Hiram College baseball team. We were on a spring trip and playing a few games at Guilford College near Greensboro, N.C.
We were sleeping near the gym. Many of the Hiram players had gone into town. It was night time. I heard a basketball bouncing. I went into the gym and saw a player shooting around. I loved pickup basketball. I walked over, talked to him for a while. His name was Billy Highsmith. He was a freshman on the basketball team.
This was the Guilford College basketball team that had won the 1973 NAIA national title. The Quakers—yes, that’s their nickname—were led by a young man from New York named Lloyd Free.
Highsmith and I played a lot of 1-on-1 that night. He won every game. But he spent a lot of time practicing his jumpers rather than simply driving around me to make layups. He talked about Lloyd Free, how Free was going to play in the NBA.
I’d never heard of Free until that day.
Highsmith and I were playing in a shoebox of a gym. It was hard to imagine anyone from that small school and that tiny gym becoming a star in the NBA.
But Highsmith was right. Not only did Free play in the NBA, but so did his teammates M.L. Carr and Greg Jackson. Free was a second-round pick by Philadelphia in 1975. Carr and Jackson were future NBA fifth-round picks.
Highsmith would play four years at Guilford, averaging 10 points per game.
But the story didn’t end there.
In the summer of 1977, I was hired to my first full-time newspaper job with the Greensboro News-Record. One of my assignments was covering small college basketball, which included Guilford. I met Jack Jensen, the basketball coach. He was an engaging man, a story-teller with a young reporter willing to listen.
He talked about going to Brooklyn to not only recruit Free, but Greg Jackson and others.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were no AAU shoe-company sponsored summer tournaments for the nation’s best high school players. They tended to stay near home. In the summer, they played on the playground, or perhaps in legendary settings such as the Rucker League in Harlem.
Free remembered playing against the asphalt legends such as Phil “The Thrill” Sellers, who became a star at Rutgers. There was Earl “The Goat” Manigault, who could have been a star but battled drugs. He was revered on the New York playgrounds.
Free talked about Nate “Tiny” Archibald, another New York playground star who was terrific in the NBA. There also was Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins and so many others—virtually all with nicknames.
“So I had a nickname dating back to junior high,” he said.
He was called “World,” short for “All-World.” He had a 44-inch vertical leap, whirling dunks and a global sized ego. Like many New York playground stars, he also talked lots of trash to opponents.
Jensen heard about Free and some others. Free was not exactly a star student. This also was a time when some major Southern schools didn’t recruit black players, or at least were keeping an unofficial quota when it came to African-Americans on their roster.
The saying about how to use black players at some schools was “play one or two at home, three or four on the road . . . and five if you were in trouble of losing.”
Jensen convinced Free to come to Guilford, and it was a place where he could play as many minorities as he wanted without worrying about public pressure.
Free didn’t have a lot of other options. The same with Jackson, who teamed up with Free in the backcourt to win the 1973 NAIA title. Jackson would only play a single season in the NBA. He returned to Brooklyn and was well-known for his work with young people at the Brownsville Recreation Center, where Free played as a youngster.
I recently ran into Leonard Hamilton, the veteran coach from Florida State. He began his college career as an assistant at Austin Peay. We began talking about James “Fly” Williams, another playground star from Brooklyn and the Brownsville Recreation Center. Hamilton convinced Williams to come to the university in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Williams played there for two years, then turned pro.
But the point is college basketball was a much different place in the days of Lloyd Free. Those young men from the mean streets of New York and the small colleges in the South had to battle their way to the NBA. They weren’t anointed “The Chosen One” as LeBron James was at the age of 17 when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Shoe companies weren’t recruiting young teenagers to attend camps that funnel them to the college basketball powers.
As Hamilton and Jensen told me, so much of the scouting was word of mouth. Someone knew someone who knew of a good player who needed a college.
“I know what it means to come from nothing,” Free told me in 1986. “My father (Charles) was a longshoreman. His work wasn’t steady. But the man always found something for us to eat. There were six of us and we lived in a one-bedroom place. We stuffed towels in the windows to keep the cold out. When my father worked, it went day-to-night-to-day. These long shifts. He’d come home and be about dead.”
Basketball was Free’s ticket. He shot his way out of New York to a small college in North Carolina. Then he shot his way into the NBA. And he kept shooting, kept scoring, kept talking.
“It started for me on the playground,” said Free. “When I was a kid, Nate Archibald was the guy in Harlem. It was me in Brooklyn. Sometimes, I’d go there for games. Sometimes, he’d come to Brownsville. It was Nate the Skate vs. World the Thrill. It was like the Old West. Who was going to be the top gun? When we took the court, it was time to hook up your holsters, pull out your guns and see who could shoot each other’s brains out.”
Free told me that in 1986, it wasn’t common for people to show up at playgrounds and start shooting with guns. He was talking about jump shots, dunks and layups. He was talking playground basketball as it once was, before AAU teams and shoe companies moved everything indoors and turned it corporate.
“I remember when I was one of those boys, sitting on the sideline, waiting to get into a game,” he said. “I used to shoot left-handed. But no one shot left-handed, so I switched to the right hand.”
Free could indeed shoot left-handed. After Cavs practices, he’d go to the foul line and make free throws with his left hand. His form was perfect. Then he’d practice his right-handed free throws.
His jump shot came from almost behind his head with a high arc.
“You learn that if you don’t want it blocked,” he said. “I learned that from some other guys on the playground.”
He was cocky. He was relentless. He was a player and an entertainer.
“I didn’t have the same advantages as a lot of guys,” he said. “There was no big name school for me. No NCAA tournament. I had to make my way the hard way to the NBA.”
Free said he has pictures of himself as a young player with the Sixers.
“I have my first pair of tennis shoes from the NBA,” he said. “They are an old pair of canvas Converses, the Chuck Taylor model. I never knew who Chuck Taylor was, but I wore his shoes.”
In the 1970s, few players had a shoe contract worth mentioning.
“People would take me to a fancy restaurant, and I’d order a cheeseburger and Budweiser,” he said. “I remember being a rookie and going out to a place where they served oysters and lobster. What did I know about oysters and lobsters? How was I supposed to eat that? I asked the waiter to bring me some ketchup. The waiter looked at me and said, ’Sir, what did you say?’ I told him to forget it. That was one of those embarrassing moments when I felt like I didn’t belong with people with money. I felt so low, I could have walked out of the room without bothering to open the door.”
* * *
I didn’t cover Free and the Cavaliers until the 1985–86 season. But I saw games with Free.
“He was the only guy we had who the fans wanted to see in those years,” said Joe Tait. “You had to be here to fully understand what World meant to this franchise. He was unfairly labeled, and too many people held things against him from when he was a younger player.”
The World B. Free who showed up in Cleveland on the cold December day in 1982 was 29 years old. He was in his eighth NBA season. He made an All-Star team. The previous four years, he had been a 20-point scorer. In 1979–80, he averaged 30.2 points per game.
He was not a young, insecure second-round pick from small Guilford College outside of Greensboro, N.C., who joined the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers.
He used to call himself “The Prince of Midair” because of his leaping ability. But that changed when he arrived in Cleveland at the age of 29. He was not the World who could dunk with ease. He was a polished pro, a jump shooter from long range with 3-point accuracy (.378 with the Cavs).
One of my first conversations with Free led to him asking, “Do you know how hard it is to get 20?”
“Twenty points?” I asked.
“No, 20 shots a game,” he said.
Free was serious. He explained how defenses were set up to stop players like him, scorers on bad teams. The goal was to keep the ball out of his hands. And when he did have the ball, he often faced two defenders. It took strength, energy and ingenuity to get off 20 decent shots a game.
“It can wear you down knowing you have to carry the offense for your team,” he said. “But I did it, year after year.”
Critics of Free, such as Embry, ask, “What has World ever won?”
* * *
After three years with the Philadelphia 76ers, Free was traded from bad team to bad team. In his first full season as the starting shooting guard, those teams showed an average improvement of 15 victories.
“There was always an owner out there who knew I could help his team win,” said Free. “Maybe he liked some other players better, but he knew World could bring their team alive.”
It happened in San Diego, where the Clippers went from 27-55 to 43-39.
It happened in Golden State, where the Warriors went from 24-58 to 39-43.
It happened in Cleveland where the Cavs were 3-19 when he finally played and 20-40 after that.
In 1984–85, the Cavs started the season at 2-19 under rookie coach George Karl. He was trying to run a share-the-ball, passing game style offense. That was not going to work with a starting lineup of John Bagley, Roy Hinson, Phil Hubbard, Lonnie Shelton and Free. Those guys were more defensive-oriented players and not strong outside shooters—Free being the exception.
When Karl allowed Free to control the offense, the team began to win. The Cavs finished with a 36-46 record—34-27 once Karl turned Free loose. They made the playoffs and lost to Boston 3-1 in the best-of-5 first round series. Their three defeats were by a combined seven points.
Free averaged 26.3 points and 7.8 assists in the series against the Celtics, shooting .441 from the field.
He played well. The Cavs overachieved that season.
But the next year, GM Harry Weltman and coach George Karl went to war on a variety of fronts. Karl had two years left on his contract, but wanted a new deal as a reward for making the playoffs. Weltman did offer to change his contract a bit, but Karl wanted more.
In the 1985 draft, Weltman had a chance to pick Karl Malone. He had the future Hall of Famer in town for nearly two days. But right before the draft, Weltman instead selected Keith Lee. Karl dueled again with Free about playing more defense and having him share the ball more on offense.
It was a clash of egos.
I covered the team that year, my first on the NBA beat for the Akron Beacon Journal. Karl was 34 and immature as a coach. Free was 32 and had little respect for Karl. The two had played against each other in the late 1970s. Karl was a journeyman, a 6.5 point scorer in his career in the NBA and ABA. Free remembers having little problem scoring against the man who now was his coach.
By the end of the 1985–86 season, Karl and Weltman had been fired. The Cavs had drafted Ron Harper as shooting guard. Embry didn’t believe Free would be content to come off the bench. His career with Cleveland ended at the age of 33—despite averaging 23.4 points and shooting .455 from the field (.420 on 3-pointers) in 1985–86.
He played two seasons after that with little success. It was almost as if the rejection by the Cavaliers broke his basketball heart. He is now a “basketball ambassador” for the Philadelphia 76ers, meeting with fans at games and other events.
He has often said Cleveland was the favorite time of his career. The attendance rose from 3,916 to 9,533 per game in his four seasons.
It’s hard to explain World B. Free. You had to experience it. And Cavalier fans had the best version of Free from 1982 to 1986. In 275 games, he averaged 23 points, shooting .454 from the field.
“It drives me crazy when I hear people take shots at World,” said Joe Tait. “Only those who followed the franchise back then understand what World meant to the team. His No. 21 should be hanging from the rafters. He was that good and that important to the Cavaliers.”
Perryton is in the Texas Panhandle, 7 miles south of the Oklahoma state line, on the other side of which is the Oklahoma Panhandle. Perryton is about as far away from professional sports as a town in Texas can be.
The Perryton High School Rangers—Hargrove’s high school, college, and first major league team were all nicknamed “Rangers”—represented the one and only high school in Perryton, with an enrollment at the time of about 450 students. None of them, including a future American League Rookie of the Year, played baseball for the school, because the school had no baseball team.
“They had football and basketball in the fall and winter, and in the spring, they had track and golf,” Hargrove said. “I was on the golf team because I hated to run.”
He also played football and basketball, and excelled at both. As an all-state football player—he played safety and was the backup quarterback—he was recruited by Texas A&M and TCU.
The Perryton Rangers went 9-1 in Hargrove’s senior year. High school football in the Panhandle in those days meant long bus rides to play teams from colorfully named high schools.
“One of the schools in our conference was in Muleshoe, Texas,” Hargrove said. “Their nickname was the Mules, but they could have been called the donkeys, because they weren’t very good at the time. They were 250 miles from Perryton, but they were in our conference.”
So, while Hargrove was starring on the gridiron in the fall and on the basketball court in the winter, when spring rolled around and high school baseball players were playing high school baseball everywhere else, Hargrove was golfing. At a younger age he played Little League ball. But that was it. The town had no American Legion team. The high school had no baseball team. So, he golfed.
He did play some organized ball as a teenager. But it wasn’t baseball.
“In Perryton we had a men’s fast-pitch softball team, sponsored by McGibbon Oil,” Hargrove said. “They traveled a lot. My dad was on the team. My dad was a really good player. He was very fast. He was a really good baseball player and softball player.”
Dudley Hargrove, Mike’s dad, stood about 6-2, 165 pounds, and in the mid-1950s he played on Perryton’s traveling hardball team. The team consisted of men, ages 25 to 40, who would play games as far away as Colorado and New Mexico. Dudley got seen by scouts and, legend has it, was invited to go to spring training with the Dodgers one year. But his father wouldn’t let him go because it was wheat harvesting time, and he had to help out on the farm. The next year he got invited to the New York Giants’ camp, but he had pneumonia and couldn’t go.
Time passed, and so did Dudley Hargrove’s unfulfilled baseball career. But then came softball, when again he was the star of his team—as was his precocious son.
“When I was 13 or 14, I was too old to play in the YMCA league, and we didn’t have an American Legion team,” Hargrove said. “So, for a couple of years I played on that fast-pitch softball team with my dad and his buddies. I hit third and Dad hit fourth. That was pretty cool. He was the third baseman and I played first.”
Hargrove the Younger became a teammate of his father’s one day when the team had a game, but didn’t have enough players because the shortstop didn’t show up.
“I just came to watch the game, and then my dad says to me, ‘Do you want to play?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ So, he said, ‘Ok, go get your glove.’ So, I played shortstop that day. A left-handed shortstop. My dad was right-handed. The only thing in life he did left-handed was golf. I’m left-handed, and the only thing in life I do right-handed is golf.”
So, there’s Hargrove the Younger, at age 13 or 14, hitting third in the lineup of a fast-pitch softball team on which all the players were in their late 20s to mid-30s—including his father. And the kid more than held his own.
“I did pretty well,” Hargrove said. “One time we were playing in Pampa, Texas, and they had this really good pitcher. I came to the plate and I hit a triple off the right-centerfield wall. I’m standing on third and I heard somebody yell at the pitcher, ‘I told you he could hit!’ And then Dad came up next and hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
At the time, travel fast-pitch softball teams were a thing in Texas.
“We had to travel a lot, because Perryton is up there by itself” in the Panhandle, Hargrove said. “The closest town of any size is Amarillo, which was 120 miles away and at the time had about 110,000 people. Pampa was 60 miles away and there were about 60,000 people there. So, you had to travel.”
Hargrove went into the experience as a wide-eyed teenager. He came out of it as a teenager with not-so-wide eyes.
“I learned a lot playing on that team with my dad,” he said. “A lot of it I wished I hadn’t learned. But he kind of prepared me for the clubhouses in the big leagues. I enjoyed playing with him.”
It was about that time that Hargrove, then in the eighth grade, attended a Perryton High School football game as a spectator. Also at the game was Sharon Rupprecht, a seventh grader.
“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘Mike Hargrove wants you to sit by him.’ And I said, ‘Mike Hargrove? Who’s that? I wish it was Don Williams, because I know he’s good looking.’ Then I looked down and saw Mike, and he was good looking, too. So, I said, ‘He’ll do.’ ”
That marked the founding of the Hargrove/Rupprecht baseball alliance. They married in 1970, when he was 20 and she was 19. To this day, almost half a century later, she’ll bust his chops by occasionally, mockingly, calling him, “He’ll do.”
But it began for both of them in Perryton.
“When Sharon and I lived there, it was a town of 10,000. They’re down to 8,000 now,” Hargrove said. “Back then, you knew everybody. Between Sharon and me, we were related to 65 to 70 percent of the town.”
The same small-town principles applied years later, when they raised their family in Perryton during the off-season, and throughout the many places they lived during Hargrove’s career.
“Mike used to say when we lived in Perryton that if the kids don’t come home when they’re supposed to, he could make three phone calls and find them,” Sharon said. “But if they didn’t come home in Cleveland, he didn’t even know where to start looking for them.”
In the 1960s, Hargrove became the big man on a small high school campus, and had a distinguished career in every sport he played, except for the sport at which he would make his living for 35 years as a professional. As a high school senior, with his fast-pitch softball career over and his hardball career, as far as he knew at the time, also over, Hargrove was recruited by Texas A&M and TCU to play football. Instead, he accepted a full scholarship from an NAIA school, Northwestern Oklahoma State University, to play basketball.
“I liked basketball better then, even though my favorite sport, to this day, is football,” he said.
“When he was playing for the Rangers,” said Sharon, “we would go to Dallas Cowboys games and he’d sit there and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d made it in football.’ ”
Another reason Hargrove chose basketball in college was his experience playing for his high school basketball coach, Roy Pennington. “He was one of the most influential persons in my life,” Hargrove said. “He was the guy, if I had problems with anything or needed some advice, I’d go to him. And I really enjoyed my basketball experience in high school.”
Northwestern Oklahoma State University is located in Alva, Oklahoma, about 150 miles east of Perryton.
“I had a friend from high school who went there, so I had kind of an in there,” said Hargrove, who in 1993 was inducted into the Northwestern Oklahoma State Sports Hall of Fame.
“I went there on a full ride to play basketball. I had no thoughts of playing baseball at all,” Hargrove said. “My freshman year we started basketball in late August and didn’t get through until late February. When we got through, I was tired. And all my buddies were getting to go out and have fun. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Then Hargrove the Elder contacted Hargrove the Younger.
It was a life-changing conversation:
“Are you going to go out for the baseball team?” his father asked.
“No, probably not.”
“Why don’t you just try it?”
“Dad, I’m tired, and these guys are good. I can’t play with these guys. I can’t compete with them.”
“How do you know?”
“I guess I don’t. But basketball was tough enough.”
“Do me a favor. Go out for the team. Walk on, and see how it works. If you don’t like it, then let it go. But just give it a shot.”
So, Hargrove the Younger did.
“And I’m glad I did,” he said. “It almost makes you sick to your stomach, thinking about it now. Because if I hadn’t done that, Sharon and I, our goal when we got married was to get our teaching degrees and I was going to coach football and she was going to teach. We would have been retired by now, and it wouldn’t have been in Cleveland, Ohio. Looking back on it now, especially in the last couple of years, I’ve come to the realization about how God’s hand has been in my life, without me even being conscious of it.”
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