A Brief (Sad) History of the Cleveland Cavaliers

KIMBERLY BARTH, AFP, Getty Images
KIMBERLY BARTH, AFP, Getty Images

Where to start a post about LeBron James and renaissance except in the dark ages of the basketball town where I live.

Some context first: The last championship in our city was in 1964. Not that anyone is counting but you could sooner make money delivering ice at the Arctic Circle than you could opening a confetti store in Cleveland.

The prevailing sense of doom—did I mention the landmark in town is called the Terminal Tower and that it's not far from Deadman's Curve?—changed considerably the day in 2003 the Cleveland Cavaliers won the lottery for being a truly terrible team and got the draft pick that became James.

With James, the Cavaliers reached the 2007 NBA finals. It was a milestone moment for a franchise that had never been there, though the San Antonio Spurs treated the Cavs more like an annoyance than a true challenge. The result was a four-game sweep.

James is from Akron, not far from Cleveland. He was raised believing the sun goes on vacation in another galaxy from November through April, so the weather is no big deal to him. The top NBA free agents often shun cold-weather cities. They pick teams in states with friendly tax rates and, specifically, cities whose drug stores carry SPF 30 and above all year round.

That's why so many people here are more concerned about whether LeBron James stays or leaves when he becomes a free agent this summer than they are about the blue fingers they find at the end of their snow shovels five months a year.

Shaquille O'Neal came to Cleveland because of James. Without James, the best we can hope for is Tatum O'Neal stopping by to film a movie.

Shaq arrived to spend the winter of his sun-splashed career, validating Cleveland as a NBA destination city. Suddenly, we were Sally Field at the Oscars: "You like us, you really like us!!"

The day he signed, O'Neal announced his intentions in Ali style verse: "Win a ring for the king."

But for a true appreciation of our renaissance as a basketball city, you need to go back before James promised to light up the city "like Las Vegas" on the day he was drafted. Way back.

The Cavs are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. "Humble beginnings" doesn't begin to capture the journey.

They Looked Good on Paper (Specifically Bubblegum Cards)

As an expansion team, the Cavs lost their first 15 games, won one, then dropped their next 12.

They made it painfully apparent that a sense of humor would come in handy. So in that regard, Bill Fitch, their first head coach, was the right man at the right time and place.

He marked his introductory press conference by saying, "Just remember, the name's Fitch, not Houdini."

One day, with the losses piling up, Fitch approached the woman behind the United Airlines counter during the away portion of the schedule and said, "Where do we go to surrender?"

The Cavaliers weren't just bad, they were excruciatingly bad, book-worthy bad.

My friend Burt Graeff, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's long-time basketball writer who took a buyout a few years ago, co-authored a Cavaliers history entitled, From Fitch to Fratello back in the late 1990s.

Graeff remembers what happened in San Francisco after the Cavs lost the first 14 games of their inaugural season. Facing Golden State that night, Fitch walked to the arena from the hotel.

Upon arriving, he realized he forgot to bring his NBA pass that would get him past arena security.

"I'm the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers,'' Fitch told the guard.

"How do I know you're the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers?" the guard asked.

Fitch: "Do you know what the Cavaliers record is?"

"Yes,'' said the guard, "0-14."

"Then,'' said Fitch, "let me ask you something else. Do you think I would tell you I am coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers if I am not coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers?"

"Go right in,'' said the security guard.

When I asked Graeff to condense his experiences covering the early Cavaliers, he told me the story of a player named Gary Suiter, a 6-9 free agent from Midwestern State.

Says Graeff: "He arrived in Cleveland by airplane, but was a no-show at Hopkins Airport when trainer Ron Culp went out to get him. Airport personnel eventually found him alone—sleeping in the back of the plane.

"Before the franchise's first regular season game at Buffalo, Fitch could not find Suiter. Again, Culp was dispatched to track him down. He eventually did, finding Suiter standing in a concession stand line ordering a hot dog and coke while in full uniform and warm-ups.

"Suiter was eventually cut. Not long after, the Cavaliers received a call from a funeral home near the Cleveland Arena. The caller said a guy claiming to be a Cavaliers player came in one day saying there was a death in the family and he had to make some calls to set up funeral arrangements.

"Turned out Suiter was making calls to general managers around the league trying to get a job."

Small wonder that Fitch would soon say, "Sometimes, I wish my parents had never met."

Graeff remembered a press conference in which Fitch stopped talking, shushed everyone else and said, "Hear that drip? I think it's an ulcer."

The expansion draft "scouting" he did, along with his only assistant, Jim Lessig, amounted to reading players statistics off the back of NBA bubblegum cards.

Lessig told Graeff: "I bought $15 or $20 worth of them. One night before the draft, Bill and I laid them all out on the floor of my family room. There were about 120 or so players in the NBA at the time, and we had about 97 of their cards. We also had enough bubblegum to last for years."

Is it any wonder, Graeff said, why a team largely assembled from information gathered on the backs of bubblegum cards lost 67 games?

Fitch lasted long enough to coach the first good Cavaliers team to the playoffs and past Washington in what people in Northeast Ohio still know as the "Miracle of Richfield" (Richfield being the suburb where the team played after moving out of downtown Cleveland).

The Traveling Circus

But not long after, the Cavaliers found themselves right back in the competition for league laughingstock after Ted Stepien bought the team in 1980.

Stepien made his fortune in advertising. He also owned a pro softball team.

One of his early publicity stunts was to toss softballs off the 52nd floor of a downtown skyscraper to raise the profile of the league.

A physics major, he wasn't. Two pedestrians were injured in the softball drop. According to legend, one ball hit a car. Another broke a woman's wrist. One grazed someone's shoulder. Finally, somebody caught one.

When attendance dwindled, he toyed with renaming the team the Ohio Cavaliers and playing home games in nearby cities. A true traveling circus.

He fired coaches as quickly as he hired them. One, Chuck Daly, who passed away this year, became a Hall of Famer for his work winning NBA championships in Detroit. Back then, though, he was 51 and wanted an NBA job. Stepien had one.

I met Stepien for the first time that season. I was working in Philadelphia. Daly had been the head coach there at the University of Pennsylvania before leaving to become an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers.

My boss sent me to Cleveland to see if it was really as bad for Daly as it sounded from afar.

I met him one cold afternoon in 1982 in the lobby of the Richfield hotel where he stayed. He was too smart to buy a house.

He handed me a stack of newspaper sports sections with paragraphs highlighted and quotes from Stepien underlined.

"You will not believe some of the stuff going on here," he said.

He was right. Stepien had Daly come one night to a lingerie show the owner was emceeing downtown. He asked Daly to resign.

Daly: "No, why don't you fire me?"

Stepien softened, ended up buying Daly a drink and saying, "This is a lot like (the movie) Patton."

Daly estimated he spent 92 nights in the Richfield hotel, learning every imaginable back door out of the place to avoid talking to anyone.

The Cavaliers record under Stepien was 66-180. He had five coaches in three seasons and lost $15 million.

The league instituted the The Stepien Rule, preventing teams from trading first-round draft picks in consecutive seasons. Long-time NBA coach Stan Albeck once told Sports Illustrated, "Goodness, Cleveland doesn't have a first-round pick for years. Whoever he is, he's a high school freshman right now."

The year I moved to Cleveland to work at The Plain Dealer, the Cavs were 57-25 but had the unfortunate timing to become a good team while Michael Jordan was becoming one of the game's greatest players. They could never get past him.

Another long valley followed. Nothing as precipitous as the first few years of expansion or the Stepien years. Just a slow deterioration and then rampant middle-of-the-pack nothingness.

Until James, the suffering didn't stop for the people who lived through the growth pains of expansion and the other miseries.

Selected Lowlights

Shawn Kemp: Desperate for a marquee player, the Cavaliers gave Kemp a long-term deal. Unfortunately, the biggest headlines he made in Cleveland came from a Sports Illustrated expose on athletes fathering children out of committed relationships. Kemp was paying child-support on seven children during his time in Cleveland.

After a labor issue sabotaged the NBA in 1998, Kemp came back looking as if he'd eaten his way through a chocolate factory. He went from weighing 260 in Seattle to 317 in Cleveland and Cavs coaches later told reporters they worried he might have a heart attack.

Vitaly Potapenko: The 12th pick in the 1996 draft became notable only because a skinny kid from Philadelphia named Kobe Bryant was the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft.

Tyrone Hill: After a death-defying flight in bad weather, Hill decided he couldn't fly to a playoff game in New York and instead took a nine-hour, 475-mile limo drive. He needed sedatives to get on the plane for the return flight to Cleveland.

Tim Kempton: Kempton played four games for the Cavaliers, three of them in the 1994 playoffs. His claim to fame? He could eat a Burger King Whopper in a single bite.

Ricky Davis: In March 2003, Davis famously and selfishly took a shot at the wrong basket late in a game against Utah thinking he could get the necessary 10th rebound for a triple double (double figures in three categories).

Jeff McInnis: Upset with the team over numerous issues, he put his practice jersey on inside out and declared himself an "independent contractor."

The Reign of King James

17-65. That was the record the year before the Cavaliers drafted James. I've seen better displays of basketball by players riding on the back of donkeys.

Seven seasons later, still no championship to make all the tribulations worthwhile.

Typically, nothing comes easy here. Now the clock is ticking on the chance to win a title with James as the chairman of the party committee.

Every night at Quicken Loans Arena is a sellout. Not at all like the old broken down Cleveland Arena where crowds were sparse and where Hall of Famer John Havlicek of Boston once said he wouldn't take a post-game shower for fear of catching an incurable disease.

In the old arena, a UPI sportswriter was once pounding out a story on a typewriter near the end of a game. One of the few fans in attendance yelled out, "Shut that damn machine up. It's making too much noise."

Now, every night is ear-splitting excitement—and not just because of the pyrotechnics.

How does this story end? That's the daily question in Cleveland.

I think James will sign on again for another three years. At the end of that contract, he'll have invested 10 years in his hometown team and still only be 28 years old. No one could reasonably find him at fault at that point if he wanted a change of scenery.

If he commits a decade of his basketball life to Cleveland and the Cavaliers don't win a single NBA trophy, Bill Fitch gave him the line to say on his way out of town.

The name's James, not Houdini.

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25

Amazon/shopDisney
Amazon/shopDisney

Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17

ZJHAI/Amazon

These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12

Aerwo/Amazon

This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16

Dazonge/Amazon

These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)

Disney

Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22

Joyin/Amazon

This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17

GeeFuun/Amazon

This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22

Joiedomi/Amazon

This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17

meiguisha/Amazon

Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18

amenon/Amazon

This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.