Perhaps it was the new innovations of graphic design on personal computers, but the Cavs chose what many Clevelanders believe to be the ugliest uniform in the history of professional sports to start their new season. And they also chose to leave behind the backwoods of Northeast Ohio and the Richfield Coliseum to play in what would be called Gund Arena (not to be mistaken for a Godzilla nemesis). There, fans were treated to an electrically bright blue court, new pyrotechnics, and the slowest basketball team to ever crawl up and down a court.
If you’ve ever seen the beginning of the movie Office Space, where Peter is stuck in traffic and has to watch an old man with a walker pass by him at 1mph, then you might be able to grasp the speed of coach Mike Fratello’s offense. From 1994-1999, the Cleveland Cavaliers mastered the act of stalling, lulling other teams (and fans) into a 24-second hypnosis. The only way to fully prove this is to list the point total of the 47-35 1996 Cavs playoff team, who lost 3-0 to a New York Knicks team: Game 1: 83, Game 2: 80, Game 3: 76.
For years, the Cavs drank their Fratello milk and waltzed into the playoffs with a microscopic margin of error. Constantly, we’d hear the same old lines: We need to cut down on turnovers. We can’t make mistakes! For five years, Terrell Brandon and company were not allowed to have big games. They simply weren’t.
During this half-decade of fossilized memories, I watched Fratello neutralize any kind of flaunting athleticism in favor of roboticised playmaking. As I tried to make my basketball team (cut 7th, 8th, and 9th grade), I watched as even the high school coach adopted this style of defense, defense, defense. I clung to rare moments like these and thought to myself: You see, the NBA still has a place for shooters. Don’t give up. But the Fratello offense, and my high school offense refused to give in to anything resembling ‘flash’. I watched from the bench during JV games, as Cuyahoga Falls High School emulated five grandpas going up the court, making passes until their dentures fell out. Then I’d go home and watch Fratello do the same thing with men blessed with skills I could only dream of having.
Nothing seemed fair. When the 1997 All-Star game came to Cleveland, I felt as if fans had been brainwashed by this playing style. As the top players in the league came into our town, I wanted to run over to them and say Help our city! You see, it’s our coach. He’s a good coach…it’s just, well, we’ve won over 40 games the past few years, and we’ve made the playoffs a few times, but it’s all fake! You gotta believe me! Help us be exciting again.
I respect Mike Fratello. To me, he symbolized a co-worker that’s really good at never making mistakes and never draws attention to himself. He perfected the art of mediocrity, and to his credit, it kept him employed.
Following the 1999 strike, Fratello moved on, and I went to college. The Cavs entered a new kind of darkness, one filled with sub-30 win seasons. It’s as if the franchise had been paralyzed for years and were just now getting their legs back.
And in 2003, with the luck of a wind-whipped ping pong ball, the Cavs became relevant again…