('88 Record: 42-40)
When I graduated from high school in Michigan in '86, the way my friends and I celebrated was by driving to the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. On the way down, I found myself holding the map a lot, either because I was voted navigator or because I was the only one who didn't know how to get there. About midway through the second listening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack, I got bored and unfolded the map past the point where Sandusky was to see if there was anything else in Ohio worth seeing. Basically, there wasn't. Then I asked aloud, "Is there anything in Cleveland worth seeing?"
"Yea! The Bears!" someone hollered over the 'music'.
"The bears?" I responded with uncertainty.
"You know! The Super Bowl Champion Bears!"
"It's the Browns! The Cleveland Browns! The Bears are in Chicago! It's not football season anyway."
That wasn't a great conversation, but the point was obvious: No one either knew or cared much about Cleveland. I decided, therefore, that neither would I.
It's only been about two years since then, but things have changed quite a bit. In that time, it seems that people from the Cleveland area have invaded the West coast. I've met people from Cleveland most everywhere from Washington to Southern California. One of them told great stories about the Kent State Riots, about the mob blowing up Cleveland apartment buildings, and about swarms of cockroaches infesting some area video arcades. Now I can begin to understand why people always pick on Cleveland, but I would have to see the city to believe all I hear.
On the good side, though, Cleveland has one exciting basketball team. The Cavaliers are a group of young, energetic, talented, confident, and focused players who have a very bright future. I don't have to see these guys to believe in them.
The summer of '86 was a great one for the team as it drafted Brad Daugherty and Ron Harper, then promptly stole Mark Price from Dallas. (The Clippers' draft of '88 may be as good.) Going into the '86-87 season, the Cavaliers had five rookies to play and develop. In addition to Daugherty, Harper, and Price, they also had John Williams and Johnny Newman playing their first seasons. Of these five players, three are now starting for the Cavs, one is the first player off the bench (Williams) and one is a sometimes-starter for the New York Knicks (Newman). The Cavs looked like a college All-Star team at the beginning of the '86-87 season and probably played like one.
With all the talent they possessed, the young Cavs' first season together disappointed several people. People pointed to a low field goal percentage and a high number of turnovers and said that the Cleveland offense was probably even worse than the year before. It was worse, but that was no reason to be disappointed.
The Cavalier offense was made up of five scorers, each trying to establish himself as a certain type of offensive player, uncertain of what to expect from his teammates. Any pickup game where all the players are unfamiliar with each other will look rather sloppy at first. If you threw Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Akeem Olajuwon, Bill Laimbeer, and Wes Matthews together with none having any knowledge of the others, you'd probably get a similar situation.
"Who's the point guard?" Bird might ask.
"Looks like I'm the obvious choice," Matthews might say.
"I can handle the ball pretty well, too," Magic might point out.
"Yea, right," a sarcastic Bird might say. "You look more like a swingman or a small forward to me. You got an outside jumper, I bet."
"It's all right," Magic would reply.
"Looks like you and I are going to be posting up," Akeem might say to Laimbeer.
"No way! I'm a perimeter jump shooter," Laimbeer would say.
"I'll challenge you to some three point shooting, then. First to make ten," Matthews would say. Laimbeer would take him up on the challenge and whip him.
"Hey, you!" Magic might call to Bird, "What are you good at?"
"I'm about equally good at everything."
"OK. Well, you can get some rebounds and I'll get you the ball once in a while when you're open."
The players would start off shooting a lot to show that they can hit certain shots. Magic would try to show how well he can distribute the ball. Laimbeer would try to show that he is a reliable perimeter shooter, sometimes overlooking an easy pass. Matthews would shoot a lot at first, but would soon realize that he's surrounded by better shooters and shoot less. Olajuwon would be the best low post scoring option, but wouldn't get the ball as often as he does with the Rockets because the others would recognize that he's not the best scorer. Bird would probably not get the ball as much as he would like in the beginning and have to earn his scorers reputation. Slowly, the players would adjust to each others' styles, getting to know who were the best shooters from where and who should handle the ball or go to the boards.
Eventually, the ball would end up being controlled by Magic and Bird, the two best offensive players. Olajuwon would be the main rebounder, with Laimbeer supporting him, especially on the defensive end, which would decrease Magic's and Bird's rebounding numbers. Matthews would hang around the perimeter, hoping that the defense would forget him and that Magic or Bird would find him. The individual style of play in the beginning would be replaced by the better players running the offense and finding the best way to get a team offense going.
This sort of feeling out process is what happened with the Cavaliers in '86-87. In college, Harper, Daugherty, and Williams were the centers of their respective offenses, making the feeling out process a little slower with everyone wanting to get their points. At first, when Daugherty did his little dipsy-do move with a defender on his back and Harper open in front of him, Harper probably got upset with Daugherty for not getting him the ball. Now, after two years together, both know each other's skills and are willing to let the other make their decision on whether to shoot or pass. They work together and go to each other freely because they don't have to prove their individual skills.
At times in the playoffs last year, the Cavs were playing a great team offense, moving the ball around so well that they brought to mind the guys in green from Boston. They still have a ways to go, though, to be a real potent offense. Larry Nance didn't quite get into the flow of the offense in his 27 games there. The team still takes some foolish shots, but that should disappear before next season is over. Daugherty seems to get the ball stripped from him a lot and his passing needs some work as he had lots of turnovers. Harper's jump shot seems to drift when he gets excited and out of control. Williams appears to rush his shot too much. If Price learns how to direct this team, the individual offensive threats should make the team offense as good as any in the league. It might take three years.
Is Lenny Wilkens ever going to get any credit for the coaching job he's done throughout the years? Didn't Wilkens take over a 5-17 Seattle SuperSonic team in '77-78 and lead them into the Championship Series that same year? Didn't he take them one step farther the next year by winning it all? Didn't he do this without 'all the talent' that Pat Riley loses his Coach of the Year Award to every year? Hasn't Wilkens done a good job developing such players as Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson, Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, John Williams, and Mark Price? Haven't Wilkens' teams consistently been very good defensively? Hasn't Wilkens always had the respect and trust of his players? Has any one of Wilkens' teams played below its ability?
It seems that Lenny Wilkens doesn't talk to the press much (which, oddly, Sports Illustrated considered as a criterion for being a good baseball manager) because the press doesn't say much about him. With the press voting on the Coach of the Year Award, that's a possible, but improbable, reason he doesn't get the votes.
Wilkens is still liked in Seattle as he brought the town its only title in any of the three major sports. With the great fans now supporting the Cavaliers, I wouldn't be surprised if Wilkens becomes a local hero in Cleveland, too - and bring the town its first title in a long while.
Speaking of Cleveland fans...
Cleveland fans must be a frustrated lot. Their football team has been successful every season recently until it's reached the AFC Championship. The Browns have suffered three heart- breaking losses in the '80's in the AFC Championship Game, including the last two seasons, making Brown fans revive the old Brooklyn Dodger slogan, "We'll get 'em next year." The Cleveland Indians baseball team has been a laughing stock ever since Richard Nixon was throwing out first balls as President of the U.S. Sports Illustrated put them on the cover of their '87 baseball preview and predicted them to break out of their slump by winning the World Series. The Indians must have felt the pressure; they posted the worst record in baseball. This season, they tore up the league for a month, then rediscovered losing and decided to stay a while. The Cleveland Cavaliers haven't been much better. They have been around for 18 years and have won but one playoff series. In all, Cleveland hasn't had a champion in 24 years.
Despite all this losing, Cleveland fans don't seem to give up. They still cheer, boo, sing 'Na na na na hey hey-ey, goodbye!', wave pennants, and kiss total strangers sitting next to them. Sometimes they get even crazier, but fortunately not as bad as the ranting and raving Chicago lunatics who wear Cubs' caps, Bear jerseys, and Air Jordan shoes, making themselves look something like overgrown California Raisins.
No, Cleveland fans aren't that bad. Many of the Cleveland fans I've met have had to tame their wild nature. This is probably because I've never been to Cleveland and all the Cleveland fans I've met have been out of their natural habitat, in Washington, California, and Michigan. When the news comes out that a Cleveland team has lost, the transplanted Cleveland fan usually mutters something to himself, then turns and says something on the order of, "It happens all the time." Then he'll disappear somewhere, probably to break a chair or to throw books out a window. When a Cleveland team wins, he'll look around to be sure of the company he's in, then give off a subdued 'all right!'.
Those are transplanted Cleveland fans. When they return to Cleveland, they probably let go and have some fun, maybe blowing up an apartment or two. Cleveland football fans are the fans who throw dog biscuits onto the field and bark like dogs at their own players, presumably because it's the highest form of communication known to them. Michael Jordan has said that the Cleveland Coliseum is the loudest arena in the NBA. Cleveland fans at home are certainly not tame; they need leashes.
When the Cavaliers start winning, which should be very soon, and if the Browns do what they're predicted to do this season, the world had better watch out. The Cleveland fans are loonies and they seem to be everywhere.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver