In an attempt to distance himself from the Stepien demolition, Gund changed the colors of the team to orange and blue, and, in honor of his muscular legs (or to be more fan-friendly) shortened the Cavaliers to Cavs on their uniform. It’s the equivalent of John Irving selling out and writing a cozy mystery novel, but the fans appreciated it. After being alienated for years, they started to come back. Plus, the Cavs had added an acrobatic player by the name of World B. Free, a consistent 22 ppg wizard with a ball.
Despite the Extreme Makeover, the Cavs punched in 83-84 with a 28-54 record. The next year they managed, out of sheer conference suckiness, to sneak into the playoffs with a 36-46 record and win a game. In 85-86, they took a step backward and won 29 games.
Gund was frustrated. The last thing he wanted was for his team to be spinning their tires, turning in 25-35 win seasons without ever taking a risk. But in 1986, Gordon Gund rolled the dice hardcore…if that’s possible.
-Consider the top 5 minute players on the 85-86 team:
World B. Free
-And then the 86-87 team:
John ‘Hot Rod’ Williams
Brad ‘Wham with the Right Hand’ Daugherty
Gund set free World B. Free (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and managed to nab a short white guy who could shoot a sweet free throw by the name of Mark Price. He played off the bench his rookie year. But by the 87-88 season, he was the leader of the Cavs, famously pulling up on fast-breaks to shoot a three, which he made at a near 50% mark. The 87-88 team would end up winning 42 games and helped push away the cloudy days of Cavs mediocrity by almost beating the Chicago Bulls and a young determined Michael Jordan. No, 87-88 was not the year of ‘The Shot’. It merely set the stage, like a play that introduced its cast of characters.
I’ll approach this horrific moment through film. Hopefully you have seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There’s a scene, where Harrison Ford cuts the rope to a flimsy bridge, and the native, voodoo tribe hangs on for dear life as they are all slammed into the side of a cliff, some falling down into water rich with alligators ready to eat your face off. Now, Harrison Ford manages to hang on, and climbs up the bridge, where he attempts to take back some funky jewel from the head voodoo guy. This intense-eyed voodoo guy is famous for plunging his hand into people’s chest and ripping their hearts out. But Harrison Ford is able to push back voodoo guy’s hand. But, tragically, the 88-89 Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t able to fight off voodoo guy (Jordan). In the Cavalier’s movie, their heart is ripped out, and for the next five years they fell from that bridge, and in 92-93 were eaten by an alligator (Jordan again…okay, I’ll stop the analogy) despite finishing with 57 wins. Watch those two clips at your own peril. I would know…
I was eight years old and absolutely obsessed with basketball during that first Shot. I remember sitting in the living room with my mother, poised on the edge of the couch. When Jordan’s shot rattled in, and Craig Ehlo tragically tumbled onto the sideline, a part of me died, even though I was busy playing Nintendo and memorizing stats most of the time. Still, that shot sent shockwaves through me, and sometimes, when I talk to other Cavalier fans around that time, I can see the sadness in their eyes when The Shot is brought up. It’s as if we were soldiers in a war together, bonded by tragedy. Perhaps you noticed it in the first Miracle of Richfield clip. Cleveland fans are basketball crack addicts.
Unfortunately, outside of Cleveland, the Price, Nance, Daugherty, Ehlo, and Hot Rod years will be remembered more for the evolution of Jordan’s superstardom than for a half-decade of selfless team basketball. By 1994, the Cavs had established a new identity: Above-average, playoff-bound team with zero chance of winning a championship. Indeed, it was a clear improvement from 1983, but for Cleveland, things would only get harder for the next ten years…