Why the Cavs Should Retire World B. Free’s Number

Image of the book Vintage Cavs by Terry Pluto

Book Excerpt

From Vintage Cavs, by Terry Pluto


Wayne Embry just didn’t understand.

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.

I laughed.

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, Texas

Book cover image of "Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians: A Baseball Life" by Jim Ingraham

Book cover image of "Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians: A Baseball Life" by Jim Ingraham

Book Excerpt

From Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians, by Jim Ingraham


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.”

Ghosts …

Where the 20,000-seat Richfield Coliseum once stood is now a field in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This view (top) is from Rt. 303 looking north from what used to be (approximately) the east driveway entrance to the Coliseum. Top: Chris Stephens / The Plain Dealer. Bottom: Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer

Image of the book Vintage Cavs by Terry Pluto

Book Excerpt

From Vintage Cavs, by Terry Pluto


Someone once said, “You know you’ve reached a certain age when you remember a sports venue being built, and then see the same building torn down.”

I think of that when driving down Route 303 in Richfield, at the exit off Interstate 271.

Now, there is nothing but a field bumping up against some nearby farms and barns. Staring at it, there’s a sense it has been and will always be like this—a quiet spot that time forgot.

But once upon a time, a great arena rose up among the trees and squirrels and deer and prairie grass. For a while, it was a sports palace right next to a guy’s farm with sheep grazing on it.

The Richfield Coliseum.

Long gone.

But I close my eyes and I hear the booming voice of the late Howie Chizek proclaiming: ‘WORLD . . . BEE . . . FREE . . . FOR THAA . . . REE!!!”

I’m sure there have been better pro basketball public address announcers than Chizek, but I never heard one.

How about: “WHAM WITH THE RIGHT HAND!”

Maybe there have been better pro basketball radio broadcasters than Joe Tait, but I never heard one.

And while there is no denying the LeBron James teams were the best in Cleveland Cavalier history, I don’t find myself drawn to them the way I am to earlier Cavs teams.

I think of World B. Free, who averaged 23 points a game for the Cavaliers from 1982 to 1986. We became friends when I covered the Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal in 1985–86, his final season. After practice, we would play a game of 3-point H-O-R-S-E.

You had to take 3-point shots from different spots behind the arc. If Free made a shot and I missed, I got a letter. An H . . .

Every time that happened, another letter. To make it fair, Free said I only needed to hang one letter on him. In other words, if I made one shot and he missed, he had all five letters—H-O-R-S-E.

Some of our games took a half-hour, but he never lost. He could make 10 in a row from 5-to-10 feet behind the arc. This was long before the 3-pointer became the favored shot as it is today.

But that court and those baskets are long gone.

So is the time when writers could watch practice and then be invited by a player to shoot around after it was over.

All that’s left is a field. Not a field of dreams—just a memory on the edge of a national park between Cleveland and Akron.

Once, on a visit to Cleveland, Free had a cab driver take him from downtown to where the Coliseum once ruled. He stood and stared at the field. So many memories, so lost in time.

Sometimes, I’m the same way.

Staring . . .

Thinking . . .

Hearing the squeaking of the shoes over the roar of the crowd—because sports writers sat near the court in those days.

The wind blows through leaves, the prairie grass bends in the breeze . . .

Mark Price . . . Austin Carr . . . Larry Nance Sr. . . . Brad Daugherty . . . Hot Rod Williams . . . Ron Harper . . . Lenny Wilkens . . . Bingo Smith . . . Campy Russell . . . Nate Thurmond . . . Jim Chones.

They hung no title banners. Some seasons, they lost far more than they won.

But they were my Cavaliers.

I’ve been writing about sports long enough to know there never was an age of innocence. What seems like small change now, looking in the rear view mirror of life, seemed like big dollars at the time.

The love of the game and the love of money have always been in a spiritual tug-of-war for those involved in pro sports. There have always been deal makers, liars, egotists and cravers of publicity involved with the Cavaliers.

That said, it was a different game when the Cavaliers were born in 1970. They played at the smoky, dumpy old Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue for their first four years.

And it was a different game when the team moved to Richfield in 1974.

And I maintain, it was a better game—or at least more of a game than what we see now in the NBA.

I write this knowing none of the Cavs teams playing at the old Cleveland Arena or Richfield Coliseum even reached the NBA Finals, much less won a title.

I write this knowing the Cavs did win the 2016 title—with LeBron James—at what was then called Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland.

For many Cleveland sports fans, recalling Fathers’ Day of June 19, 2016, will bring tears to their eyes as they remember dancing in the streets of downtown Cleveland after the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Golden State in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

It remains the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history. It is the most amazing sports event that I ever covered, keeping in mind the game was played at Oracle Arena in Oakland.

But I also write this knowing a lot of the details of what it took to deliver that title—the first for a major Cleveland sports franchise since the 1964 Browns.

It was a marriage of convenience between two men who couldn’t stand each other. It was like a major corporate merger, two of the most powerful people in the NBA.

No NBA player had made more money or had more influence than LeBron James, when he left the Miami Heat for the Cavaliers in the summer of 2014. And no Cleveland sports owner was willing to spend more money to win a title than Dan Gilbert.

While the two men barely spoke in those four seasons (2014–18), the Cavs went to the NBA Finals four times. It was purely a cold-hearted, bottom-line business proposition that paid off for both parties—and for Cleveland sports fans.

But that also was a different game, as I wrote in my book “The Comeback.” I used to think Michael Jordan was the greatest player I’ve ever seen—and that included Jerry West, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Now, LeBron James would get that vote from me because of all he did to win a title in Cleveland. And Dan Gilbert deserves credit for putting things in place to make that happen.

So none of what I write here is meant to diminish the accomplishments of those two men and the Cavs from 2014 to 2018. In sports, the bottom line is winning—and they won more than anyone else in Cavs history.

Yet, I’m drawn to the Cavaliers before LeBron James . . .

Before Quicken Loans Arena . . .

Before so much of basketball was about who was leaving as a free agent and where that player would land in the summer . . .

It was Lenny Wilkens drawing up beautiful in-bounds plays . . .

Bill Fitch screaming at Jim Chones . . .

Mark Price and Brad Daugherty giving a clinic on pick-and-roll plays . . .

And the memory of an arena long gone, but so alive in my mind.

Ten Years Was Enough for Randy Lerner

The Browns Blues: Two Decades of Utter Frustration: Why Everything Kept Going Wrong for the Cleveland Browns, by Terry Pluto. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

Book Excerpt

From The Browns Blues, by Terry Pluto


“If you’re the guy who fixed it, it would be so much fun.”

I can’t confirm this, but I often heard Randy Lerner had promised his mother that he’d keep the Browns for 10 years.

Randy took over as owner when Al Lerner (his father) died of cancer on October 23, 2002. The sale of the Browns to Jimmy Haslam was announced on August 2, 2012.

Pretty close to 10 years.

Furthermore, the sale closed with what former Browns CEO Joe Banner called “unprecedented speed . . . about 40 days.”

Banner also was aware of the 10-year rumor, although he didn’t know what exactly was behind it.

“Before hardly anyone heard it, I was told Randy wanted to sell the Browns,” said Banner. “He didn’t want anyone to know. He didn’t want to get involved in a long, complicated process. He wanted to quietly do it.”

Meet Joe Leccese.

He is chairman of a New York based law firm called Proskauer, “a renowned Sports Law Group,” according to its website.

Leccese has been involved in the sale or acquisition of the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Astros, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles. That’s also according to his website.

Leccese is friends with Banner.

“Sometimes, his firm represents the buyer, sometimes the seller,” said Banner. “They’ve helped teams with their stadium deals.”

Banner was looking for a new challenge after 18 years with the Philadelphia Eagles. He had spent the last 12 years as team president. But he longed to really be in charge of a franchise. He had helped hire Andy Reid as the Eagles coach in 1999, and that led to the Eagles becoming a power in the NFC.

Leccese had heard Randy was open to selling the team. Part of Leccese’s job is knowing who would be viable buyers for NFL teams. Jimmy Haslam had been a minor owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2008. He was very interested in buying his own team. He knew it would not be the Steelers. The Rooney family loved the franchise and planned to keep it.

Leccese was aware of Haslam’s desire to own a franchise.

“He called Jimmy and said the Browns could be bought, but they were not officially on the market,” said Banner. “The Browns had yet to hire an investment banker. But it seemed Randy really did want to sell. Jimmy said he was interested in Cleveland.”

That led to a discussion between Leccese and Haslam about who’d run the franchise. The Haslam family owned Pilot Flying J—a huge chain of truck stops across the country. The corporate headquarters is in Knoxville. Haslam said he didn’t want to move to Cleveland. Leccese talked about the need to have someone in Cleveland run the team for him.

Leccese brought up Banner, who was open to leaving the Eagles for the right opportunity.

In June of 2012, the Browns issued a statement denying the team was for sale. Another time that month, team president Mike Holmgren did the same.

Also in June, Banner was meeting in Martha’s Vineyard with Jimmy Haslam and his father.

“We had confirmed the Browns were available,” said Banner. “We talked about how we’d proceed in acquiring a team. And we talked about how to keep it confidential.”

Leccese had brought Banner and Haslam together. Banner and the Haslam family had several meetings.

This is not new.

When the expansion Browns were on the market in the late 1990s, Carmen Policy was introduced to Al Lerner by Dennis Swanson of ABC Sports. Swanson was friends with Al Lerner. Policy’s daughter was looking to work in television. A casual conversation about Policy’s daughter with Swanson led to Swanson later telling Al Lerner, “If you are serious about getting the Browns, you need to call Carmen Policy.”

Policy and Al Lerner combined forces. They emerged as the group that won the bidding war for the Browns in 1999.

The price? It was $530 million.

Keep that in mind as you read this discussion of the sale to Haslam.

* * *

Banner was excited about the opportunity to help Haslam buy the Browns. He saw it as a revival of his career, an incredible professional challenge.

“I wanted to go somewhere that had been a total failure,” said Banner. “Really, I mean that. I wanted to go to a team that was awful and be the guy who fixed it. The Browns were a huge challenge, but that appealed to me.”

In 2012, no NFL team fit that description better than the Browns. They had a 53-100 record since Randy took over as owner in 2002. It was similar to Policy joining an expansion team in 1999. Cleveland was a football-crazed market with so little to cheer for.

Just some success would be greeted with loud ovations for those who could bring it to town.

“Cleveland is a great football market,” insisted Banner in 2017. “If you’re the guy who fixed it, it would be so much fun. It would be unbelievable.”

The Haslam family became very comfortable with Banner serving as CEO.

Jimmy Haslam met with Randy Lerner. The goal was to determine the price Randy had in mind.

“We’re wasting our time unless the numbers are going to begin with a ‘B’,” Randy Lerner said.

“We had been tipped off,” said Banner. “For a billion dollars, he’d sell the team.”

Something else was helping the sale along.

Randy Lerner was not interested in bringing in a high-powered investment banker to handle the deal. He was using family lawyers. Keep in mind, the Lerner family was in the banking business.

But the lack of an investment banker was a positive for both sides. Haslam also used his own legal people. Banner said this simplified the process.

“Right away, we realized we could get this deal done,” said Banner.

* * *

Al Lerner bought the Browns for $530 million, so Randy Lerner would nearly double the investment if he could secure his price of ONE BILLION DOLLARS.

In 1998, the NFL was putting the Browns expansion franchise up for an auction conducted by Goldman Sachs. I was at an NFL owners meeting at the Dallas Airport Hyatt Hotel. I talked to several owners about the Browns situation.

At one point, a few of us in the media chatted with Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers, about what should be the price of the expansion team. Remember, the higher the price, the more each team received. It was going to be divided into 30 parts—every team getting a share except Art Modell and the Baltimore Ravens.

“A billion dollars is not unfair,” said Spanos. “I know it’s worth a billion. I don’t know if anyone will pay it.”

In 1998, the NFL owners made it clear they were interested in one thing . . . the most money.

As Tampa Bay Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer said, “It will go to the highest bidder.”

Al Lerner recognized that. As he told us in the media: “The owners will see a number (bid) they like best and decide that person is brilliant.”

A few facts from the summer of 1998, when the NFL was seriously trying to build up competition between the various ownership groups bidding on the Browns:

1. In 1993, Carolina and Jacksonville had paid $140 million to become expansion teams. Five years later, the NFL realized that was too cheap.

2. By 1998, each NFL team was to receive about $75 million annually in national TV revenue.

3. Browns fans had bought more than 50,000 season tickets and 90 of 116 available luxury suites for a team with no owner, no coach, no players. And don’t forget all those fans also being forced to purchase the dreaded PSL—Personal Seat License. OK, they weren’t forced. But if you wanted a season ticket, you also paid extra for a PSL.

4. The main groups bidding on the Browns were Larry and Charles Dolan, Howard Milstein and Al Lerner. Others such as former Tribe owner Dick Jacobs and Bart Wolstein had dropped out or were eliminated by the NFL.

5. In retrospect, Al Lerner was probably the best man bidding. Larry Dolan is an honorable man and a solid owner of the Cleveland Indians. But he was connected to Charles Dolan, whose son James has been a disaster as an owner of the New York Knicks. Charles Dolan would have been the main owner of the Browns.

6. When I was writing False Start, Carmen Policy told me that Al Lerner nearly dropped out of the bidding. Lerner was appalled by the raw greed of the other owners, how they seemed to have little interest in what ownership group was best for Cleveland. In the end, Policy convinced Lerner to stay in the bidding, and bid high. Because in a few years, the franchise would be worth more.

7. The bidding became a media event. The winner was Lerner, at $530 million. The Dolan family was second at $525 million. The issue was decided on September 7, 1998. That gave the Browns one year and five days to prepare for the September 12, 1999 season opener.

8. The $530 million price tag became the highest amount paid at that time for any team in professional sports. The highest had been $350 million paid by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group for the Los Angeles Dodgers in March of 1998. The highest previous price for an NFL team was $250 million for the Minnesota Vikings.

* * *

The reason for the history lesson on the sale of the Browns was to say something nice about Randy Lerner. He could have turned the sale of the team into a circus. He could have hired Goldman Sachs to run an auction, as the NFL did for the Browns.

Not only that, when Dick Jacobs sold the Indians to Larry Dolan in 2000, guess who ran the auction? It was Goldman Sachs. My theory was Jacobs paid the NFL the $150,000 fee to bid on the Browns so he could study how best to sell a team for the most profit. He knew he would soon be putting the Indians on the market.

But Randy Lerner did it quietly. He did it quickly.

In most negotiations involving money, the seller wants more—the buyer is interested in paying less.

This was a civil and honorable negotiation in the billion dollar era of sports.

But it still was about ONE BILLION DOLLARS!

Not only was that Randy Lerner’s price for the Browns, that’s what Jimmy Haslam was willing to pay . . . sort of.

“Even though we thought that was a good price, we wanted to get the best deal we could,” said Banner. “We stayed with the price of a billion.”

Haslam knew it was important for Lerner to be able to say he sold the Browns for ONE BILLION DOLLARS!

Haslam and Banner stayed with the ONE BILLION DOLLAR price tag. That would be the announced price.

“In the end, we paid only $600 million up front,” said Banner. “Instead of negotiating down the price, we negotiated a deferred payment. We’d pay the $600 million up front and then we’d pay the $400 million in four years.”

Banner said there would be “no interest, no nothing” paid during the four years before the $400 million was due.

It was a way for the deal to move quickly. Randy Lerner could correctly say he secured ONE BILLION DOLLARS for the Browns.

“Jimmy could own the team for four years with money coming in before having to make the last $400 million balloon payment,” said Banner. “That would off-set some of the last $400 million.”

That last $400 million was paid by 2016.

“As far as I know, there were no other serious bidders,” said Banner. “Randy gave us all the documents we wanted . . . the financials, stadium lease, etc. He was great.”

Banner said he had a casual relationship with Randy Lerner for years. Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is friends with Randy Lerner.

“I liked Randy,” said Banner. “He is a bright guy, not arrogant. I sensed he cared about people and about the Browns fans. His character was good. He showed it in the deal.”

Banner said the sale took “less than 40 days to negotiate, that’s almost unheard of. For a deal this big, four months is fast.”

Banner said during the negotiations, it was obvious Randy Lerner “was absolutely ready to be done with the Browns. He wanted to move on as quickly as possible to the other things in his life.”


From the book The Browns Blues, © Terry Pluto. All rights reserved.

Gene Ditsler’s Obsession

Just One More Story . . .: A Last Batch of Stories About the Most Unusual, Eccentric and Outlandish People I’ve Known in Five Decades as a Sports Journalist, by Dan Coughlin. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.


Book Excerpt

From Just One More Story, by Dan Coughlin


It began as a harmless hobby which ultimately controlled Gene Ditsler’s life and the lives of his wife and three children. Even now, a good 70 years later, he remembers the moment when his heart was broken and his obsessive compulsive nature surfaced.

“It was the most disappointing day of my life,” he said. “I looked up at the board and my name wasn’t on it.”

It was the year 1949. He did not make the eighth grade basketball team at Washington-Clay High School in South Bend, Indiana, a high school that included the junior high grades. He was chunky, not willowy, the way basketball players are supposed to be sculpted, but he was quick, he could handle the ball and he could shoot. Oh, yes, he could shoot. The coach cut him anyway.

Ditsler hungered for a continuing role in the game and he found a way.

“I stayed on as the team manager,” he said. “I made myself the best team manager ever. I dedicated myself to being the best. Hal Lebovitz once wrote that student managers turn out to be more successful than players. They become lawyers, doctors, teachers.”

That was fine, but picking up socks and jocks and keeping track of the towels and uniforms was no hobby. It was work. Child labor laws come to mind. He had access, however, to a basket, a backboard and an endless supply of balls. Each day, when his duties as the student manager were completed, Ditsler practiced free throws. He vowed to become the best free throw shooter on the team, which he did. He beat the players in “horse” every day after practice. When the players were showered and on their way home, young Ditsler was still at the free throw line. Swish, swish, swish. Each shot was identical. Form and rhythm never varied. He shot at the very least 100 free throws every day. Then he turned out the lights in the empty gym and walked home alone in the dark.

Don Schlundt, one of Indiana University’s basketball greats, an All-American in 1953, also went to Washington-Clay High School and would come home in the summers for pick-up scrimmages against other college players. The appearance of the 6-10 All-American Schlundt attracted some of the region’s top college players to South Bend in the summers and also created an opportunity for Ditsler to slip into games.

In one of those scrimmages Ditsler, who was still in high school, hit five outside shots in a row. Even then, if you left a shooter uncovered, you got burned.

“Who the hell has the fat guy?” one of the older college players yelled at his teammates.

In the spring he played baseball rather well, which led him to Western Michigan University. After baseball games and practices, however, he still shot 100 free throws.

Ditsler was lured to Cleveland by recruiters from the Cleveland Public Schools in 1959 and he did not intend to stay.

“My plan was to go to a small town after three years,” he said.

Ditsler longed to return to his roots, to a small town like the fictional one later memorialized in the high school basketball movie Hoosiers. In real life, the stars such as Jimmy Rayl and Oscar Robertson came from towns such as Kokomo and city schools such as Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis.

He never got there. He spent his entire teaching career in Cleveland at junior high schools such as Wilbur Wright and Mooney and at John Marshall High School.

Along the way, he set free throw shooting records at every school. In my files I discovered my story on him in The Plain Dealer in 1973. He had hit 72 in a row in the gym at Mooney Junior High School, where he was the assistant principal.

“My goal is 100,” he said at the time.

He obliterated that mark in 1976 when he made 174 in a row in the school gym. A secretary was called away from her desk to rebound for him. What choice did she have? He was the assistant principal.

He reached his personal high of 228 in a row on Dec. 4, 2003, in a gym in Coshocton, Ohio. He started to think of reaching 300. But it never got past the thinking stage.

Don’t take his word for any of this. There were witnesses who rebounded his shots and verified his records. Actually, they didn’t rebound, since he rarely missed. They caught the balls when they dropped through the nets and passed them back to Ditsler at the free throw line. Sometimes he recruited school secretaries, as he did when he made 174 in a row. Other times his wife and three children pulled rebounding duties—none of them happily.

“There was a certain amount of complaining and whining, but they had to do that for the old man,” Ditsler admitted.

There was no joy when Ditsler had an outdoor backboard erected in the driveway of his house at 4328 Wooster Road in Fairview Park, Ohio. His hobby was now coming home with him.

After retiring from the Cleveland schools, Ditsler and his wife, Marge, moved to Coshocton County where they bought 40 wooded acres for harvesting timber, mostly white oak, hickory, maple and wild cherry. On this land is a house and a barn which Ditsler converted into an indoor basketball court. Yes, he still shoots 100 free throws a day, even though he is now in his 80s and his shoulder is killing him. A lifetime at the free throw line has wrecked his right shoulder. His rotator cuff has the texture of shredded cabbage.

His wife is still there, but his children have fled as far away from him as possible. His daughter Jennifer lives in Paris, France. His son Mark lives in Columbus and son Andy lives in Westlake.

“My daughter in Paris has a 13-year-old daughter. She rebounds for me when she visits us,” he said not long ago.

She will probably learn to complain about this in two languages.

The greatest influence on Ditsler’s free throw shooting was all-time star Oscar Robertson—not for the many he made, but for one he missed.

“It was an NCAA tournament game when Oscar was playing for Cincinnati,” Ditsler said. “Cincinnati trailed by one point. There was no time left. When Oscar went to the line he always bounced the ball once and then shot. This time, before taking his second shot, which would have won the game, he bounced the ball twice. He missed. What a lesson. Cincinnati lost in overtime. Consistency is the key.”

Ditsler recalls a shooting guru named Mike Scudder from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who traveled around the Midwest giving clinics.

“He guaranteed that he could make 95 percent from the line. He thought that was pretty good, like the best ever. I once made 977 out of 1,000. That’s 97 percent.”

As someone once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”


From the book Just One More Story, © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

The Cop House

Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News: A Cleveland Reporter’s Journey Through the 1960s, by Michael D. Roberts. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

Book Excerpt

From Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News, by Michael D. Roberts


Years later mature men, and some women, would talk about the police beat with the fondness of matriculation, a rite of passage through the thickets of journalism. A ritual in the golden days of newspapers, they would say at Nighttown over wine or at a Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame dinner where the past was painted with romance.

As for me, I wanted to get the hell off the police beat before I ever got there. There were few bylines to be had out of that shabby carbuncle of an office in Central Station on Payne Avenue, where everything smelled of urine, disinfectant and stale tobacco. You were afraid to touch anything for fear of contracting a disease. In those days the police liked to show rookie reporters the black homosexuals jailed for the mere fact they were gay.

The police beat was where you learned that journalism was an unnatural act. You were called upon to abuse any civility you possessed, to thrust yourself into uncomfortable if not dangerous situations, to work ungodly hours—and all this for modest wages. Here you learned to argue with the Plain Dealer’s front office over cleaning bills for a suit that reeked of smoke after you covered a fire. You learned to be insensitive and brash. You also learned a distaste for editors. Most importantly, you learned whether this was what you wanted to do with your life.

And presiding over all this was a grinning bulldog of a man with a bald head and a lascivious laugh that almost always made you uneasy. This was the legendary Bob Tidyman, a combat veteran of the fierce battles waged to recapture France in World War II and the most jaded man I’ve ever met. He was the chief police reporter. His father, Ben, had held the same job for nearly a quarter of a century and had trained Bob and his brother, Ernest, in the vagaries of the beat when they were in their teens. Ernest, a seventh-grade dropout, became a novelist and screenwriter, creating the black detective John Shaft and winning an Academy Award for his French Connection screenplay.

All those years on the police beat can do things to a man, and Bob Tidyman was the recipient of every lesson the street could teach, maybe each a dozen times. The environment was enough to erode even the most virtuous soul. Tidyman had overseen the basic training of a generation of Plain Dealer reporters, making some and breaking others.

He liked to tell of the time he and his brother had witnessed a prisoner using knotted sheets to escape via a window in the Cuyahoga County Jail, visible from the police beat office. When they excitedly called the scene to the attention of their father, Ben Tidyman smiled and said, “Let him get away, boys, and then call the desk. It’s a better story if he escapes.”

The key to getting along and understanding how the beat operated was to know that Bob Tidyman did not work; he was an overseer. If you understood that, and accepted it the way you would the Gospels or the Constitution, things would be fine. If you did not, Tidyman would make your life so miserable you would pray for deliverance from the darkness of the place and become a librarian.

I received my draft notice the same day I received a memo that I was to report to the police beat. I was able to skirt the draft because of my childhood bout with polio, but there was nothing I could do about Tidyman except show up at the appointed hour and accept my fate.

I had spent most of my first few months at the paper on the rewrite desk, essentially writing shorts and taking notes from the police reporters and turning them into two-paragraph stories. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated I manned the phones, taking calls from a mournful public seeking information. There was no cable news in those days.

The city room was in chaos as the bells on the Associated Press teletype machines announced bulletin after bulletin. Everyone labored in a strange slow motion, trying to contemplate the enormity of the event. There was so much discombobulation that the city desk had to hang a huge sign with the word A-S-S-A-S-S-I-N-A-T-I-O-N because so few of the staff could spell it.

That night I asked the city desk if I could have a byline in the paper for history’s sake. I was embarrassed to do so, but I could not let the moment pass. An editor simply nodded yes.

Death was a strange but vital part of the paper. I learned about that from the obituary writer, G. David Vormelker, a thin man with wireless glasses, a string tie and a pleasant smile, who would softly express condolences to a bereaved family and then slam down the phone and mutter about his lunch hour. “People who die on my lunch hour get shorter obits,” he told me one day. Vormelker had utter contempt for people who died on Cleveland Press time. He hated death on deadline, too. He advised me not to die on a Thursday, when space was always short because of the food pages. For the record, Vormelker died on our time and the afternoon rival gave him a good obit just to stick it to us.

There was a lot of death on the police beat, too. Shootings, stabbings, house fires, drownings, car crashes, suicides, airplane crashes and any number of other bizarre exits from this life were in the beat’s purview. One afternoon Hil Black, the chief police reporter for the Press and a man known for his dignity and skill, grabbed me and said that a respected federal judge had just died. Black was going to phone the widow; he wanted me there so that the bereaved woman wouldn’t be bothered by another call from the media. It was an uncommon and thoughtful gesture, one I never forgot.

There were plenty of those calls as well as visits to homes to collect pictures of the recently passed. If you got there before the Press, you tried to get all the pictures of the deceased, leaving the afternoon guys with nothing. They would do the same to us.

If you were truly unlucky, you would be the bearer of the ultimate bad news, announcing to a wife that she was a newly made widow because her husband had just been killed in some drunken accident on a nearby highway. Then there were calls to the coroner’s office, where an indifferent voice would yawn and give you the cause of death or tell you to call back because the body was still on the slab and they hadn’t finished counting entry and exit wounds.

Often we would go into the night and visit scenes of mayhem. I remember a shooting on the East Side where the victim lay dead on a tree lawn and a homicide detective bent over to examine the body, dripping mustard from his bologna sandwich. These stories helped fill awkward silences while out on a date, but the paper’s editors couldn’t have cared less about them.

In those days reporters could roam hospital emergency rooms like tourists, talking to police and doctors while patients were treated for their wounds. One night at Mount Sinai an ambulance brought in a man who had been shot five times in the back of his head. Not one bullet had penetrated the skull, and the man lived. It was a good story but a bad address—which was code for “black”—and it received scant attention deep in the paper.

I first set foot in the police beat office early in February at 6 p.m. I was wearing a blue blazer and a rep tie, pretty much standard dress for junior reporters. Studying me, Tidyman asked in a quiet but scary voice who the fuck I was.

I introduced myself and explained that I had been told by the city desk to report to the police beat. “Those assholes never told me they were sending another college boy down here,” Tidyman growled. “We already have a guy from Princeton who can’t find his way to the crapper and washes his hands every time he picks up a phone. He’s worried about picking up some disease from all this filth. This place is too sick for that.”

Oh, man, I thought, this is going to be joyful.

The beat was all about phones and we were on them constantly, calling rounds of all the suburban police departments every hour before deadline. Sometimes one department would cover for another and provide misleading information about a late-night episode. Other times, when there were bad feelings between suburbs, they would rat out the other department.

The first thing Bob Tidyman told new guys was never to answer a certain phone in the corner. This was the direct line from the city desk, and Tidyman did not want anyone but himself talking with editors. If that phone rang, you were to track down Tidyman as fast as you could and tell him. He could generally be found in one of the many bars across the street on Payne Avenue. Tidyman would call the desk back, explaining he was up in homicide—a place he never went, because the detectives there generally despised him for a decades-old story he had written on police brutality or some other injustice.

Where now stands Cleveland State University’s manicured soccer field sat a row of shabby bars that served us late and often, providing respite from nonstop telephone rounds and endless patrols of Central Station. Tidyman held court in Lubeck’s Casino and other bars along the street. Cops drank there, homeless persons from the street would cadge drinks, and a few tired whores would take a nightcap at the joints. Tourists from the city room would stop by to catch some grit and a beer after deadline.

One night near closing, a cop shot the clock off the wall when the bartender announced last call. The scene was surreal: the smell of cordite, the ringing in the ears, the floating dust backlit by neon beer signs. Across the street, the police station remained indifferent to the noise. Another night someone fired a pistol into a phone book just for laughs. Again, the loud report brought no response from Central Station.

At the beat you learned to assemble greasy facts like a crossword puzzle. You phoned these facts to a rewrite person who sat in the comfort of the Plain Dealer office and who had the authority to question your very existence. If you missed a fact, rewrite would tell you not to call back until you had them all.

Getting the facts often meant dealing with the homicide squad and being pinballed back and forth between the cops and the city desk. What was the victim’s middle initial? What was the caliber of the gun? The model of the car? Sometimes detective Carl Roberts would clean his pistol and look at me through the barrel while I tried to pry information from him on a two-paragraph murder that the city desk was obsessing over. Running up the stairs to homicide and back down to the phone on deadline over and over again turned the perspiration pouring down your spine into a stream of tension that knotted every muscle. After a while, neophytes learned to ask the right questions quickly and effectively.

The relationship between the police and the Plain Dealer in those days was rocky. One summer afternoon Tidyman was across the street drinking with a detective who was supposedly on duty when a squirrel ran through the open door, leaped onto the bar, and bit the cop on the hand. Fearing rabies, the detective went to the emergency room at St. Vincent Charity Hospital and reported the incident as a dog bite obtained while investigating a break-in. Meanwhile, Tidyman turned in the story about the squirrel and it appeared in the next morning’s paper. In return, all the police reporters’ cars were ticketed.

Tidyman offered up plenty of other reasons for police animosity. One night, a brand-new police car was stolen. The car had been parked beneath the window of our beat room at Central Station. We often exited the building through the window, down onto a parking lot. The atmosphere on the beat that night felt strangely electric. And then Tidyman walked in and announced he had just got a tip that a new squad car was missing, maybe stolen.

While the police began a frantic search for the vehicle, several of us began to make calls. We received an anonymous tip as to where the car had been abandoned. The cops could see tomorrow’s headline. They were furious and embarrassed by our story.

The number two man on the beat was Donald Leander Bean, a rumpled reporter who squinted through thick glasses. The mentor of many aspiring Cleveland journalists, he also loved practical jokes. One of his favorites involved sending young reporters to the war memorial on the Mall to interview the mother of the Unknown Soldier.

Bean would go to great lengths to create hoaxes that would draw a Press reporter to the scene of a crime that never took place. A veteran of the defunct INS news service, Bean was the one reporter that you wanted on deadline in a late-breaking story. He was respected by the police and had a certain tenacity that endeared him to editors. He complained from time to time about his lack of promotion, but the desk dared not elevate him. Without Bean’s presence, the police beat would have been a mere shadow of itself.

Bean came up with a suspect in the case of the stolen police car. The suspect was Tidyman, and Bean swore us to secrecy. I suppose the police suspected too, but there was always that lingering doubt. Years later when I learned that during the war Tidyman had once stolen a jeep for a joyride (and was later punished for it), I couldn’t help but remember that night.

One Christmas Eve, the town silent and the police beat slow, we got a tip from a suburban police department on the West Side. A widow with four children reported that the utility company had shut off the gas and her kids were freezing.

It so happened Tidyman was just passing through on his way home from a quick stop at Lubeck’s when the call came in. Standard practice was to phone the utility company’s public relations man and get a comment. Instead, Tidyman ordered me to call the company president at his home and disturb the family dinner.

“Wish him a Merry Christmas,” Tidyman said.

I made the call and, of course, the president was angered, referring the call to his PR person. The day after Christmas all hell broke loose. Executive editor Phil Porter, who knew that the idea had been to embarrass the gas company for going Scrooge on Christmas, demanded a memo. I sweated over writing one. Tidyman just shrugged.


From the book Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News, © Michael D. Roberts All rights reserved.