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The Top 20 Moments in Cleveland Sports: Tremendous Tales of Heroes and Heartbreaks

The Top 20 Moments in Cleveland Sports: Tremendous Tales of Heroes and Heartbreaks

by Bob Dyer

“Documents what it means to be a Cleveland sports fan: the suffering, the joy and the hope that there is always next year . . . perfect for die-hard Cleveland fans (and really, is there any other kind?)” — News Leader

Relive the 20 most sensational events in Cleveland sports history. These are the moments Northeast Ohioans


“Documents what it means to be a Cleveland sports fan: the suffering, the joy and the hope that there is always next year . . . perfect for die-hard Cleveland fans (and really, is there any other kind?)” — News Leader

Relive the 20 most sensational events in Cleveland sports history. These are the moments Northeast Ohioans still talk about, decades later—and will probably continue to debate, bemoan, and otherwise cherish for generations to come.

Many are known by shorthand: Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. Beer Night. Game Seven. Some of these moments are almost painful to recall—like that one heart-stopping play in January 1981 that kept the “Kardiac Kids” out of the Super Bowl. Or Michael Jordan’s jaw-dropping shot to knock the Cavs out of the playoffs in May of 1989.

But we Cleveland fans have long feasted on a steady diet of sports misery without ever losing a taste for the pursuit of onfield glory. And we have sampled that glory, too. Like the Tribe’s exhilarating 1995 sprint into the playoffs. Or the upstart Cavaliers’ “Miracle of Richfield in 1976. And of course the Browns’ thrilling upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game.

Glorious or gut-wrenching, each of these memories is a highlight of the shared experience of sports fans in Northeast Ohio. They represent a seemingly unquenchable spirit—the very spirit that keeps up late into the night, honking our horns in parking garages and exchanging high-fives with total strangers on East Ninth Street, or trudging on Sundays down to the edge of Lake Erie, wearing dog masks and carrying elaborate banners drawn on bedsheets.

These stories are a great way to revive the spirit—and pass it along to the next generation of fans.

Editorial Reviews

Cleveland Scene
The Book—which places the Browns’ 1964 and the Indians’ 1948 championship titles at the top of the list—is both a history lesson and a warm look at fanatical Clevelanders.
— Michael Galucci
Cleveland Magazine
Relives the 20 biggest moments in Cleveland sports history and proves we’ve had our diehard, tailgating hearts broken even more than we care to admit.
— Jim Vickers
Reading these stories and reliving Cleveland’s most engaging sports moments, you can’t help but realize just how embedded our teams are into the collective psyche and culture of Northeast Ohio.
Half the fun of this book [is] debating which events should have made or not made the list . . .brings back memories both good and bad as [we] relive our sports history where the battle cry often seems to be “Wait till next year!”.
West Life
Dyer doesn’t just offer play-by-play analysis. He puts each sports moment in its historical and cultural context, giving readers a true sense of what it was like to be a sports fan and a Clevelander at the time of each event.
News Leader - Northfield
Documents what it means to be a Cleveland sports fan: the suffering, the joy and the hope that there is always next year . . . perfect for die-hard Cleveland fans (and really, is there any other kind?)
— S.G.
Cleveland Magazine - Jim Vickers
Relives the 20 biggest moments in Cleveland sports history and proves we’ve had our diehard, tailgating hearts broken even more than we care to admit.
Cleveland Scene - Michael Galucci
The Book—which places the Browns’ 1964 and the Indians’ 1948 championship titles at the top of the list—is both a history lesson and a warm look at fanatical Clevelanders.
News Leader - Northfield - S.G.
Documents what it means to be a Cleveland sports fan: the suffering, the joy and the hope that there is always next year . . . perfect for die-hard Cleveland fans (and really, is there any other kind?)

Product Details

Gray & Company, Publishers
Publication date:
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Only five seasons after fielding one of the worst teams in NBA history, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a strong run at the league championship. They put together a string of last-second playoff victories and captured the hearts of Northeast Ohio’s basketball fans. Perhaps never before or since have local sports fans made more noise per capita.

A mythic barrage of sound thundered through the building even before the team came out to warm up.


The refrain quite literally shook the building. The Coliseum was a solid facility, only a year old, built with enough steel to crush the Eiffel Tower. But the place was vibrating, just as surely as if it were sitting atop a fault line that had swung into geological action.


In the visiting locker room, coach K. C. Jones asked his assistant to walk over and hold the blackboard against the wall to keep it from shaking. Jones was having a hard time drawing the plays. And this was half an hour before the tip.


Only someone who was hearing impaired could have avoided a prolonged case of the chills. No, scratch that. You didn’t even need ears. The noise was so intense you could feel it in your chest.


Perhaps never before or since has Northeast Ohio fallen harder for a sports team. During the 1975–76 playoffs, the love seemed absolutely unconditional. It was such an unlikely affair, and one so passionate, that the fling became known as “The Miracle of Richfield.”

Outsiders look at that moniker and scratch their heads. A team that failed to win the Eastern Conference championship, much less the NBA championship, is regarded as miraculous?

You betcha. For those of us who knew where the Cavaliers had been during the previous five years, this was something on the order of loaves and fishes.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were born in 1970 at 3717 Euclid Avenue, in a 33-year-old structure known as the Cleveland Arena. By that time, the place seemed less like an “arena” and more like a glorified gymnasium.

The place had been built primarily for hockey, and hockey—minor league hockey, at that—was still the driving force. The Barons were in their 35th season and had a decent following. Basketball was just another sideshow, along with wrestling, boxing, the circus, the Globetrotters, roller derby, Disney on Parade, and ice shows. You want ice shows? Both the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies were booked for extended runs. And don’t forget the TRW Christmas party, also dutifully listed on the facility’s printed schedules.

The Arena’s game program—the same one was sold for both basketball and hockey—touted “a bigger and better variety of refreshments,” such as “pizzas and hamburgers.” How adventurous.

You could buy a souvenir Cavaliers cap for $2, a T-shirt for $3, and a Cavaliers winter jacket for $15.

All else being equal, you wanted to park at the Midtown Sheraton across the street, not in the parking lot behind the Arena, because you stood a better chance of recovering your car when you came back out.

Just to the right of the main entrance was a place called the Wine & Roses. It was a strip joint. On the other side of the Arena’s entrance was Richie Vojtesek’s Sporting Goods. One door past that was a greasy spoon called the Tick-Tock.

Inside the Arena, patrons circled a ground-level concourse to get to their seats below. The place sat about 10,000, but you could jam in 11,000 on the rare occasion when that many people were interested.

The Arena’s locker rooms were only somewhat more luxurious than the facilities at a forced labor camp. They were about 12 by 20 feet, with concrete-block walls and three showerheads that dripped and rarely delivered warm water. Team owner Nick Mileti tried to spruce up the place by hanging banners over the concrete, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. Around the league, the Arena was known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The moldy facilities were so bad that the visiting players changed into their uniforms in their hotel rooms and walked across the street. After the games, they’d return to the hotel for their postgame showers.

Visiting players didn’t always take the most direct route to the game. Before their first game against the Cavaliers, for instance, three of the Los Angeles Lakers paid a brief visit to the Wine & Roses—wearing their warm-ups.

If that doesn’t sound very professional, well, it was difficult to take the Cavaliers seriously in those days. In fact, it is hard to exaggerate how truly horrible that first team was.

The first game was ugly—a 15-point loss to a fellow expansion team, Buffalo—and things went straight downhill from there. Cleveland began its maiden season with 15 consecutive losses. And most of those weren’t even close.

By the night of the home opener, they were already 0–7. Still, their debut drew a respectable crowd of 6,144. The first starting lineup looked like this:

F: McCoy McLemore, 18

F: Bingo Smith, 7

C: Luther Rackley, 45

G: Johnny Egan, 21

G: John Warren, 11

Naturally, the home team was blown out by San Diego. The next night, against the Cincinnati Royals, the crowd dropped 48 percent, to a mere 3,199.

After finally winning their first game—against another expansion team, Portland—they lost 12 more in a row. Their second win came against Buffalo, and was followed by seven more losses. On Christmas morning, Cleveland’s new team woke up sporting a record of 3–36.

Want to talk about ineptitude? For the season, the best free-throw shooter on the team was Walter Wesley, who posted a percentage of—get this—.687. That’s only marginally competent for a high school player. The big center, taken from Chicago in the expansion draft, also owned the team’s best field-goal percentage, an almost-as-lame .455.

What the young Cavs lacked in shooting they made up for with terrible defense. In two home games over a three-day period in November, they gave up 53 points to Milwaukee’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 43 points to Atlanta’s Lou Hudson.

By the way, Jabbar recorded his first double-bird during that game. Not a double-double, mind you, a double-bird. As his point total grew, the fans started booing him with increasing enthusiasm. Why? Hard to tell. Maybe just because he was good and our guys weren’t. Milwaukee was on track to win 51 games more than the Cavs. Anyway, near the end of the game, as Jabbar stood at the free-throw line and boos cascaded down upon him, he raised both hands above his head and unfurled both middle fingers.

You could get away with that kind of thing in those days, before ESPN was replaying every cough, every itch, every trickle of sweat. Heck, only 60 percent of the Cavaliers games were even on the radio.

The flagship station—okay, the only station—was WERE (1300 AM). Unfortunately for the Cavs, WERE was carrying every sport in town. Some nights, the new basketball team had to compete for airtime with both the Indians and the Barons. And it was no contest. Even the Barons outdrew the Cavs, and they were competing for an AHL championship. Tape-delay broadcasts weren’t happening, either. If it wasn’t on live, it wasn’t on.

The lowly Cavaliers were not Cleveland’s first crack at professional basketball, not by a long shot. Pro ball in Cleveland was already at least 0-for-5. A team called the Cleveland Rosenblums, named after owner Max Rosenblum, a department store magnate, had come and gone, despite winning the ABL title in 1928–29. So, too, had the Allmen Transfers, the Chase Brassmen, the Rebels, and, most recently, the Pipers, who won an ABL title in 1962.

Now came the attempt by Mileti, an entrepreneur who had shelled out $3.7 million to gain entry in the 25-year-old National Basketball Association. Three other teams were supposed to be added that first year—Portland, Buffalo, and Houston—but Houston dropped out because of a lack of money.

At times, the Cavaliers seemed destined for the same fate. A mere 1,737 people paid for tickets to a January 4 game against Portland. Four times that first season, the crowd numbered 2,000 or fewer. The average was a pitiful 3,518.

On November 2, the Cavs journeyed to Philadelphia and put on one of the worst performances in NBA history. They lost by 54 points. In other words, all five starters could have scored 10 more points each, and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

The new play-by-play announcer, Joe Tait, didn’t make the trip because of a broadcast schedule conflict. So he went back to Terre Haute, Indiana, to move more of his belongings to Cleveland. While he was packing, he was listening to the game over a Philadelphia station. In the middle of the second quarter, he heard one of the announcers say, “This is the worst basketball team I have ever seen. No one will want to see this. If people see them once, they will never come back. This franchise won’t make it beyond the All-Star break.”

Mind you, Tait had just quit his job as a station manager in Terre Haute to take the Cavs job alongside his old acquaintance, coach Bill Fitch, for half the pay—$100 per game. Now even that meager salary seemed to be in jeopardy.

But the Cavs managed to draw just enough attention and revenue to hang on. How they did is an enduring mystery. We’re talking about a bunch of guys who were so bad that they actually shot at the wrong basket, like little kids in a Saturday-morning peewee league.

That bizarre scene took place on a Thursday evening, December 9, during one of 12 games against Portland. Picture this: The teams come out for the fourth-quarter jump ball, and Walt Wesley taps it to Johnny Warren. Warren takes off the wrong way. He has plenty of company. Rookie John Johnson is on one side, and expansion pickup Bobby Lewis is on the other. Both of them are calling for the ball, thinking they have a better shot. But Warren takes it to the rack and scores—for Portland.

Think that’s bad? Portland’s center, Leroy Ellis, tried to block the shot!

As if grade-school teams needed any more bad examples, the Blazers found themselves a few minutes later with six men on the floor, drawing a technical. Once back in a traditional basketball alignment, they still had enough manpower to overpower the Cavs, 109–102. That dropped Cleveland’s home record to 1–12.

Tickets anyone?

Even with the expansion draft on top of the normal collegiate draft, Cleveland’s roster wasn’t exactly deep. One of the bench players was a fellow by the name of Gary Suiter, a six-foot-nine, 240-pound forward from that basketball powerhouse, Midwestern University, in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

Suiter may well have been the worst player in Cavaliers history. He also had some quirks. Among his odd habits was a tendency to spend quite a bit of time in the restroom shortly before game time. Most of the time, he would emerge from his stall right before the trainer locked the clubhouse for the first half. But more than once, when the trainer called out for stragglers, nobody answered, and Suiter was locked inside. Because he never played, nobody noticed until the team returned to the locker room at halftime.

Suiter’s big chance finally came late in the season at a road game against Buffalo. He was truly an awful player, shooting 35 percent from the field and 44 percent from the line, but the Cavaliers had sustained so many injuries that the coach finally wrote in his name as a starter. Just before tip-off, Fitch gathered the starters around to finalize their defensive assignments. He noticed that Suiter was missing. The trainer was dispatched to the locker room to see whether he was locked inside again. He wasn’t. The team’s starting forward was finally discovered standing in front of a concession stand, in full uniform, with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other.

After the game, Suiter was cut. (Even the Cavs had some pride.) When he came downtown the next morning to collect his travel pay, he stopped first at the Wine & Roses, which, during daylight hours, was a frequent hangout for ladies of the evening. Suiter looked around the house and asked one of them whether she wanted to make $50—not in the traditional manner, but by accompanying him to the Cavaliers offices and posing as his wife. That way he could collect extra per-diem travel money for the previous road trip.

Fitch came out of his second-floor office, looked at Suiter, looked at the woman, and promptly shoved Suiter down the stairs and back out onto Euclid Avenue.

Suiter’s replacements, though perhaps more businesslike, weren’t much better, and the team finished the season at 15–67. That’s fewer than two wins every 10 games.

As painful as the 1970–71 season was, it was not totally unexpected. Fitch and Mileti had decided—unlike the other two expansion teams, which picked up established but aging veterans in an attempt to be competitive right away—that they would assemble a collection of youngsters, give them experience, then add a couple of vets when the kids began to jell.

Most of the guys on that first team really did try. The adversity brought them together, gave them a camaraderie that most teams don’t have, and made them play even harder. And, with the exception of Suiter, they usually did what they were told. In fact, after Fitch retired three decades later, he said the maiden Cavaliers ran his offense better than any team he ever had. The problem was they simply weren’t good enough to make the shots.

During their second season, the Cavs won only eight more games but moved solidly into the realm of respectability, thanks in large measure to a first-round draft pick from Notre Dame. Austin Carr was a scoring machine, averaging nearly 35 points per game during his three years with the Irish, and he came out firing in the pros. Carr was humming along at 21.2 points per game when he blew out a knee in the season’s 43rd game.

The second-year team also benefited from the services of guard Butch Beard, who had been taken in the expansion draft but missed a year because of military duty. The frontcourt was bolstered by the draft of UCLA’s Steve Patterson and a trade for Lakers center Rick Roberson. Roberson was a beast on the backboards, averaging 12.7 rebounds per game. In addition, second-year-man Johnson really began to produce, averaging 17 points.

Carr’s midseason injury was too much to overcome, though, and the team never made a serious run at the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Mileti was creating an instant empire. First, he put together a group of investors and bought powerful WKYC radio, renaming it WWWE (1100 AM), or “3WE.” Fewer than a dozen stations in the entire nation could match its 50,000 watts. A month later, he assembled another group that bought the Cleveland Indians. A few months after that, he bought a Cleveland franchise for the World Hockey Association.

Who was this guy? Most Clevelanders had never heard of him before he headed a group that bought the Arena and launched the Cavaliers. He had practiced law and, while working on a project for the Lakewood Jaycees, found a business niche in putting together funding for housing projects for the elderly. He became nationally known as an expert on the funding and maintenance of elderly housing, and worked as a well-paid consultant. Still, most of the money he was throwing around was coming from other people’s pockets. This flashy, pendant-wearing son of Sicilian immigrants could put together a deal like few others.

Mileti’s basketball team improved again during its third year, adding another nine victories, to finish at 32–50. That season Fitch began to import some experience, trading Beard for an All-Star point guard, Lenny Wilkens, and a veteran forward with a great shooting touch, Barry Clemens. The Cavs also added two more youngsters, swapping a future draft pick for a second-year Lakers guard named Jim Cleamons, and using their own first-round pick on big Dwight Davis.

Carr was healthy again, and both he and Wilkens averaged 21 points a game. For the first time, even the best teams in basketball had to pay attention or pay the price. Just ask the Celtics, Bucks, or Lakers, each of whom won 60 or more games but dropped at least one contest to the Cavaliers. The young Cavs beat Los Angeles by 15, Milwaukee by 14, and Boston by 5. Only a lousy February kept Cleveland from amassing enough wins for a late-season playoff run.

The master plan developed a rip in Year Four. In a notable regression, Cleveland won three fewer games. Part of the problem was a major personnel shakeup at the start of the season. Roberson and Johnson were sent to Portland for the rights to University of Minnesota star Jim Brewer. The new group, unaccustomed to playing with each other, began with four straight losses and dumped 15 of their first 19. Given the shaky start, the 29-win season was not a total disaster. And hope was on the horizon. On the southern horizon, to be precise.

Out in the wilds of northern Summit County, amid 33,000 untouched acres that in another few years would become a national park, Mileti—borrowing heavily—was creating his own personal dream, a massive, state-of-the-art arena in which his basketball team could finally blossom.

Just off Interstate 271, and just up the pike from Interstate 77, the location was, Mileti said, easily accessible from throughout the region. He initially envisioned hotels, restaurants, and other amenities springing up around it. Others had a harder time with his vision—namely, Cleveland’s biggest bankers. Most of them thought the plan too risky, and Mileti was forced to go out of state for the bulk of his money.

Lawsuits slowed him down too. The project not only teed off Cleveland’s power brokers, who wanted the team downtown, but plenty of people in Richfield, who had no interest in importing an additional 5,000 automobiles every night of the week.

Legal wars raged, some of them going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Mileti persevered, and eventually—two years behind schedule and almost twice the projected $17 million cost—the Cavaliers had a glorious place to play. Looking back, in 1979, a Sports Illustrated article remarked, “No arena was more beautiful than the Coliseum, a magnificent structure in Richfield, Ohio.”

Not that basketball was the only game in town. The Coliseum would provide an even bigger list of entertainment offerings than the Arena.

Never one to underplay an opening, Mileti arranged for Frank Sinatra to christen the new palace with a black-tie concert. Other than a nightmare traffic jam that resulted in dozens of people simply abandoning their cars and walking the final half-mile or so in tuxedos and evening gowns, the affair won rave reviews.

Everybody called it “the Richfield Coliseum” except for the people who worked in the corporate offices there. They were adamant: it was “the Coliseum in Richfield.” In other words, the Coliseum was gracing Richfield, not the other way around. Newspaper reporters were chastised for reversing the order—which led, of course, to even more reversals.

No matter what the place was called, emotions of the potential customers were decidedly mixed. Fans in Akron, Canton, and southeastern Cuyahoga County loved the place because it was a more convenient destination than downtown Cleveland. Folks in other areas were far less enthralled. The most vocal criticism may have come from Cleveland sportswriters, who were forced to drive out of town every night in the dark, in all kinds of weather, and no longer had the luxury of returning to their newsrooms to write their stories.

Once inside the building, though, few people had any complaints. The sightlines were marvelous. The Coliseum had a wonderful communal feel. Unlike the future Gund Arena, whose design shepherds patrons into their one little seating area and traps them there, the Coliseum had a wide inner concourse about halfway between the floor and the top row. You could enter anywhere you pleased and truck around to your section without taking your eyes off the court. If you spotted a pal, you could walk right over and talk.

The Coliseum was one of the first arenas to offer loges, but the loges were way up out of the way, ringing the top row of seats, and took absolutely nothing away from the hardcore fans in the regular seats. Quite a contrast to the Gund, where the loges dominate the lower bowl, starting only 15 rows above the playing floor.

The first year at the Coliseum, inspired by the new digs and reinforcements from the now-defunct American Basketball Association, the Cavs won 40 games, 11 more than the previous season and only one below the once-impossible dream of a .500 season.

The key acquisition for 1974–75 was center Jim Chones, who had been playing in the rival ABA. Los Angeles held his rights, but the Cavs sent the Lakers a first-round draft choice to change that. It was a choice well spent. Chones, only 24, averaged 14.5 points a game and led the team in rebounding.

Fitch traded draft positions with Seattle to get ahold of guard Dick Snyder, and on draft day called the name of an unknown point guard from West Georgia, Foots Walker.

As the 1975–76 season opened, though, the Cavs gave every indication that they were backsliding. Losing their home opener was no big deal—hell, they’d done that six years in a row. The problem was that nothing much changed as the schedule unfolded. After 17 games, Fitch’s boys were 6–11. They had broken 100 points only four times. They were averaging barely 9,500 fans in the fancy new building, less than half the capacity. Then, something magical happened.

The Miracle of Richfield was, in many ways, the Miracle of Nate Thurmond.

Thurmond, an inch shy of seven feet tall, was a seemingly unworkable collection of spindly legs, huge hands, and massive biceps. But he somehow managed to move with uncommon elegance.

He had grown up less than 20 miles south of the Coliseum, on the rough-and-tumble streets of inner-city Akron. Among his high school teammates was Gus Johnson, who would go on to a brilliant career with the Washington Bullets.

They went to Central High (now Central-Hower) together. Afterward, Johnson, who was three years older, went off to the NBA while Thurmond was tearing up the Mid-American Conference at Bowling Green. When the two returned home during the summertime and hit the playgrounds, Thurmond couldn’t believe how rough Johnson had become. The message was unspoken but clear. That’s the way we do it in the big time, son. The NBA is a war. You gotta be tough. If you let them push you around, you won’t be there long.

Thurmond learned the message—learned it so well that he blossomed into one of the most feared defenders in NBA history, a man who made the Hall of Fame primarily on the strength of his defense and rebounding.

He was drafted by San Francisco, which many people considered an odd move, given the fact that the Warriors already had a center by the name of Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain could play a bit. And, at seven-foot-one, 275 pounds, he gave Thurmond all he could handle in practice.

Thurmond learned plenty from Wilt—both on and off the court. Like Chamberlain, Thurmond developed a little black book the size of a Michener novel.

Unlike Wilt, Thurmond didn’t keep stats on his off-the-field successes. Nor did he brag about his basketball talent. But he quickly showed he could hold his own in the pivot against anyone. He made the all-rookie team, and looked so strong that the Warriors traded Chamberlain back to Philadelphia the following season. Big Nate would spend the next decade as the unchallenged king of the paint in the City by the Bay.

But things went sour with the Warriors, as things almost always do with any team in any professional sport, and after 11 years Thurmond was sent packing. He was traded to Chicago for Clifford Ray and a tall stack of bills. The trade shocked and hurt Thurmond. The next psychological stage is anger, and by opening day of 1974, when Thurmond walked onto the home court in his new Bulls uniform, he was plenty angry. He channeled that anger into a manic performance that led to a quadruple double, a feat that has been done only four times in the history of the NBA. And it wasn’t even close: give him 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, and 12 blocked shots.

The rest of his season was far less glitzy. The big man was beginning to show his mileage. His scoring average plunged to 13 per game, on horrendous 36 percent shooting, and the Bulls had seen enough. The following year, they wanted to dump him, and the Cavs were delighted to accept him. On November 27, 1975, Cleveland sent Steve Patterson and Eric Fernsten to the Bulls for Thurmond and Rowland Garrett

The Miracle of Richfield began two days later. That was the day Nate Thurmond pulled on the wine-and-gold for the first time.

Gradually, Thurmond had worked his way back home, from the ancient Cow Palace in San Francisco, 2,200 miles from his childhood playgrounds, to the aging Chicago Stadium, 325 miles from home, to the new Richfield Coliseum—a mere 18 miles from where his parents now lived in West Akron.

The hometown fans knew the hometown team was not getting the original equipment. The new guy wearing No. 42 had lost most of his hair and wore a big pad on his aching right knee. He was 34 years old. A generation of basketball players later, Michael Jordan would average 20 points at the age of 40. But this was the mid-1970s, when training methods and equipment were nowhere near as good. Few people trained year round. In those days, it was not unheard of for a professional player to light up a cigarette at halftime.

Thurmond didn’t smoke, but he was no longer the same physical specimen who could fly up and down the court for as long as it took to get the job done. He had undergone two knee operations in an era when there was no such thing as arthroscopic surgery. Before the ’scope, a surgeon would have to slice open the whole knee to repair the damage, then close it with 30 stitches.

Now, as Thurmond’s career was winding down, his coach had to keep an eye on the clock. But that was fine. The Cavaliers didn’t need a young buck in the post. They already had one—Jim Chones, six feet, eleven inches of energy and flash. What the Cavaliers needed was somebody to spell Chones, preferably a big, intimidating boulder in the middle of the lane.

They came to the right place. Nobody got an offensive rebound over the back of Nate Thurmond. Nobody cruised down the lane for an easy layup. Bring that weak stuff into the paint and Big Nate would swat it away like a horse shooing insects with his tail.

The Cavs needed about 18 minutes of intimidation per night, just enough to keep Chones well rested—and just enough to rub off on the guy who was resting.

After initially being threatened by Thurmond’s arrival, Chones soon realized that Thurmond wanted nothing more than victories. Fitch appreciated Thurmond’s incredible work ethic, as well as his full-fledged support, something that was not always present early in the season.

Thurmond knew all about hard work. His father, Andrew, had labored for 31 years at Firestone. If Dad could put up with that, Nate figured, he could certainly give it everything he had when he was playing a game.

In addition to his toughness, Thurmond brought a hunger that had been lacking. He knew his days were numbered, and after 12 seasons of banging against monsters from Boston to Los Angeles, he had never gotten a championship ring. He felt like a winner, he burned to be a winner, but the basketball world had not officially acknowledged that designation with jewelry.

Thurmond thought he was good enough to play for a champion, and he was troubled that the rest of the Cavaliers didn’t seem as certain of themselves. A couple of games after he arrived, he called them together in the locker room and told them they were good enough to win it all, but they had to start believing in themselves.

Off the court, Thurmond was a good example too. He had developed into a mannerly, refined, well-spoken man. He liked the good things in life—in San Francisco he had tooled around in a classic Rolls, and he knew his way around a menu and a wine list—but he was far more than just show. He was bright, and he treated people with respect. He was an easy guy for a basketball fan to love.

Thurmond completely transformed the team. Probably never before or since has a man playing only 18 minutes a night had such a huge impact.

Before he arrived, the Cavaliers were 6–11. As soon as Nate came on board, they went on a 12–4 run. They had a .352 winning percentage without him; the rest of the season, they were .662.

Thurmond didn’t blow holes in the record books, scoring 4.6 points per game, but he was a monster in the middle. Oppon...

Meet the Author

Since joining the Akron Beacon Journal in 1984, Bob Dyer has earned 51 regional and national writing awards. He was voted Best Columnist in the Nation (2008) and Best Humor Columnist in the Nation (2013) by the National Society of Professional Journalists. He was named Best Columnist in Ohio by at least one professional journalism organization for six consecutive years. A native of suburban Cleveland, Dyer was one of the lead writers for A Question of Color, a yearlong examination of racial attitudes in Akron that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. In addition, he has written two books.

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