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.
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.