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.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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Double Play: The Curious Life and Career of Ozzie Canseco

Otto Gruele, Allsport/Getty Images
Otto Gruele, Allsport/Getty Images

“Jose, we love you! Jose, you suck!” It’s 1992 in Louisville, Kentucky, and a man who bears a striking resemblance to major league home run king Jose Canseco is smashing baseballs out of Triple-A ballparks for the Louisville Redbirds, the minor league sibling of the St. Louis Cardinals.

A screen erected specifically for home runs at Pilot Field in Buffalo, New York, fails to contain one 550-foot drive. The ball goes over the screen and past the highway.

“Good job, Jose!”

Before and after games, the six-foot-two, 220-pound slugger will be asked about dating Madonna (he didn’t), antagonized into fights (he avoids them, mostly), and begged for autographs. When he signs his name, fans appear confused. They tell him to stop joking around. Doesn’t he know he’s Jose Canseco, perpetual All-Star and prolific masher of baseballs? Who ever heard of Ozzie Canseco, Jose’s identical twin, born two minutes earlier to Jose Canseco Sr. and his wife, Barbara? And if they are identical, why is it that Jose was earning millions as a member of the Oakland Athletics while Ozzie only made sporadic appearances in the majors?

Ozzie tried to explain all of these things over and over again. Every time he thought people got the message, he would head back out into the world, hearing his brother’s name. Once, a car veered and tried to run him off the road. When Ozzie hit the shoulder, the other driver laughed, as if it were a joke, and then referred to him as Jose.

 

There are relatively few examples of twins who excelled equally in sports. Ronde and Tiki Barber were both selected in the 1997 NFL Draft and had successful careers; Karyne and Sarah Steben, both accomplished gymnasts, toured with Cirque du Soleil and credited their psychological connection with helping them perform difficult aerial feats.

More often, siblings of star athletes idle in the shadows cast by their high-achieving counterparts.

Hank Aaron’s brother Tommie joined him in professional baseball. Hank hit 755 home runs during his career; Tommie connected with 13. There were three DiMaggio brothers, though it was Joe—the onetime husband of Marilyn Monroe—who stood out both on and off the field. Had any of these men looked identical to their famous brother, it would have compounded the comparisons. It’s unlikely anyone ever tried to run Tommie Aaron off the road.

Ozzie Canseco plays for the Oakland Athletics in a Major League Baseball game
Otto Gruele Jr, Getty Images

Born on July 2, 1964, Osvaldo “Ozzie” Capas Canseco and Jose Canseco would soon be another sports sibling story.

The two were barely a year old when their parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba. Both grew up learning to play "the great American pastime." Jose, an outfielder who could wallop a ball out of sight, was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 1982 straight out of high school. After polishing his skills in the minor leagues for three years, he briefly debuted as a late-season call-up for the Athletics in 1985. His official rookie season came in 1986, when he went on to hit 33 home runs and knock in 117 RBIs, resulting in Rookie of the Year honors.

Ozzie, who had played as much baseball as his brother, decided to take a year for college. Instead of being a power hitter, Ozzie had gravitated toward pitching. The New York Yankees drafted him in 1983. After four largely unimpressive years on the mound in the minor leagues, he was released by the Yankees and picked up by the Oakland Athletics organization in 1986 to further develop his skills.

It amounted to a genetic experiment in sports: Two men, nearly identical in build—Jose was an inch taller and perhaps 10 pounds heavier—who played the same game for the same amount of time. In 1989, the two even suffered the exact same injury to the hamate bone in the hand. Yet it was Jose who became a sensation, earning exponentially increasing millions and stats for the Athletics and the Texas Rangers, while Ozzie struggled to get called up.

The problem, according to Ozzie, was that he had pitched for too long, refining a skill that wouldn’t pay the same dividends as an outfielder and star hitter. All those years pitching put him behind Jose and behind the game. When he was finally called up to the Athletics as an outfielder in 1990, the difference in ability when compared to Jose was obvious. After 20 homers and 67 RBIs with the Huntsville Stars farm team, he managed only a .105 batting average in nine MLB games during his first season, striking out in 10 of his 19 at-bats. Meanwhile, in 1988, Jose became the first MLB player in history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season—a feat only three players have replicated since. When Ozzie struck out in his first Athletics game, Jose hit two home runs.

 

Pundits tried to break down Ozzie’s deficiencies. Superficially, he had everything Jose had, including a powerful build that was likely bolstered by steroids. (Jose admitted to using performance-enhancing substances in his 2005 tell-all book, Juiced; Ozzie was arrested for driving in a car that contained vials of steroids during a traffic stop in 2003. Jose later told VICE that Ozzie "used the same type of steroids I used and in equal amounts.") But experts pointed out that Jose was more flexible, with a better range of motion in his swing and a faster sprint. He seemed to be more aggressive during play, too. These were subtle differences, but enough for Jose to make three World Series appearances while Ozzie toiled in the minors.

Ozzie Canseco bats for the Oakland Athletics during a Major League Baseball game
Otto Gruele Jr, Getty Images

Dejected, Ozzie headed for Japan to play for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes to sharpen his game against different kinds of pitches. Playing for the Japanese equivalent of a farm team in Osaka, he quit midway through the season to return to the U.S. minors, joining the Louisville Redbirds, the Cardinals Triple-A team. In 1993, he got a chance to jump on the Cardinals for six uneventful games. When Bernard Gilkey came off the disabled list, Ozzie was bumped back down. In frustration, he briefly quit baseball before signing a contract with the Triple-A arm of the Milwaukee Brewers and, later, the Florida Marlins.

After being released by the Marlins in 1996, he remarked it was the first summer he had not played baseball since he was a kid. While other people may have confused him for Jose, baseball’s management did not.

 

If Ozzie was never quite his brother’s equal on the field, he found parity in other ways. For years, rumors circulated that Ozzie would show up in place of Jose for autograph signings. The two also got in nearly equivalent legal trouble for a 2001 nightclub brawl in Miami Beach that ended in probation and a civil lawsuit against both.

In what was probably their most audacious attempt to fool people, Ozzie reportedly showed up for a 2011 celebrity boxing match claiming he was Jose, who had performed in prizefights against the likes of Danny Bonaduce. Promoter Damon Feldman claimed he had paid Jose $5000 and that he was confused when Ozzie finally removed his shirt. (He lacks the bicep tattoo sported by his brother). Feldman had him escorted out and filed a complaint for breach of contract, winning a default judgment against Jose for the $5000 advance and travel expenses. Feldman later expressed doubt he had ever actually met Jose. (On Twitter, Jose Canseco denied Feldman’s claim that he had sent Ozzie in his place.)

In 2015, Ozzie was named the hitting coach for the Sioux Falls Canaries, a Double-A team in South Dakota. Not long after, he and his brother once again confused onlookers when Ozzie fooled his on-air correspondents into thinking “Jose” had arrived to film a segment for his role as an analyst for an NBC broadcast. It was a bit of levity that may have indicated that the years removed from the field had allowed Ozzie to feel more comfortable—both in his own skin and his brother’s.

It was a long time coming. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1994, Ozzie lamented the peculiar reality of resembling his brother in every aspect but the one that mattered to him most. “It’s difficult to explain my existence as Ozzie Canseco on a daily basis,” he said.