In 1970, after Bill Nichols broke the story that Cleveland had landed a professional basketball team, the Cleveland Plain Dealer held a write-in contest to name the new NBA franchise coming to town. After 11,000 possible nicknames (I.E., Presidents, the Jays…) the winner, Jay Tomko, whose son Brett would later pitch in the MLB for about twenty-six teams, came up with “Cavaliers”. The city of Cleveland did not have an existing population of Cavaliers, just like Utah does not have a famous Jazz scene, but the name stuck.
Similar to almost every professional team’s first season, the Cavaliers were profoundly awful. Led by expansion draft pick-ups Bobby ‘Bingo’ Smith, John Johnson (the Cleveland Cavaliers first All-Star), and Walt Wesley, the Cavaliers managed a 15-67 season under new coach Bill Fitch. They did their best to fit in with the rest of the big boys. The next season brought top-draft pick Austin Carr, who got injured halfway through the season, but the team still managed to get up to 23-59, and then the next season to 32-50, led by some guy named Lenny Wilkens, who averaged around twenty points and eight assists.
By 1974, the Cleveland Arena was crumbling and lacked size, so owner Nick Milleti called for the plans of a new arena, the Richfield Coliseum, which was built thirty miles south next to a farmer named Doug…or thirty miles south of Cleveland, and closer in fact to Akron. Perhaps in part to the isolated location, the Cavaliers had their best season yet, winning forty games. The following year (1975-1976) was the ‘Miracle of Richfield’…
If you’re ever fortunate enough to run into a Cavaliers fan who experienced this immortal playoff series against a stacked Washington Bullets team, you should cancel everything you’re doing and buy the fan a beer. For seven games, the two teams went at each other’s throats, with three games being decided at the buzzer. The Cavaliers prevailed 4-3, and would later lose to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics, but not after making a case for turning in one of the most unselfish basketball teams in the history of the NBA. No player on that Miracle of Richfield team (Jim Chones, Bingo Smith, Campy Russell) averaged more than sixteen points a game, and, from what I’ve been able to find, not one player made the All-Star Team. This from a team who won 49 games and took two games from Dave Cowens and the Celtics.
The Miracle of Richfield was the first great moment in Cleveland Cavaliers History. After that season, Cleveland fans thought the sky was the limit. But that heavenly series turned out to be the farthest the team would go for the next ten years.
In 1980, Ted Stepien bought the team and managed to almost systemically destroy it. In a short span of three years, Stepien attempted to rename the team the ‘Ohio Cavaliers’ (so they could play their home games in other cities to boost revenue), allegedly tried to start a polka fight song, and traded away enough first-round draft picks that a Stepien Rule was put into effect so teams would not be able to trade first-round draft picks in consecutive years. The Cavaliers ended up winning a total of 66 games in the three years Stepien owned the team, which, if you’ll recall, is the exact number the 2008-2009 Cavaliers won in one season.
Luckily for all of us, in 1983, Stepien met a man by the name of Gordon Gund, and handed over the team for twenty million dollars (after threatening to move the team to Toronto). Gordon and his brother George saved the Cleveland Cavaliers.