If you thought that 2012 was one crazy year in the world of Cleveland Sports, 2013 proved that there is rarely a dull moment. There were good times and bad, hirings and firings, wins and losses, and appearances in postseasons and courtrooms. As the year comes to a close, like we have done the last five years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the ten biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.
It was an unseasonably warm Cleveland evening on April 15, 2013. Naturally the opposing team’s nickname was the Heat. Within the balmy circumstances there was a level of discomfort or unease for everyone in the building and watching on TV that night.
The Miami Heat came into The Q to play the Cleveland Cavaliers with absolutely nothing on the line for either team. The Heat wouldn’t even bother with dressing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, or Shane Battier. Juwan Howard was making his first start in three years for goodness sake. And yet with 13 seconds left in the game, there was Norris Cole standing at the free throw line with the Heat up by one point.
The Cavaliers had led most of the first half before everything fell apart in the third quarter. A common refrain for this Cavalier team. After going 6-8 in January and actually posting a winning month in February, the rest of the season reflected the third quarter of many games, a mess of effort, identity, and purpose. It was clear this team was lost.
As Norris Cole took his first free throw, it felt like the outcome would represent the season as a whole. Perhaps it would come to define the coach as well. Losing a game against the Heat with LeBron James was embarrassing enough, but losing to this Heat team? On “Fan Appreciation” night? Forget about it.
Kyrie Irving’s season was in something of a tailspin of its own, coming off the high of All-Star Weekend, which turned into a soul-crushing final two months—a cocktail of injury, malaise, and poor shooting woes. Kyrie was trying to deliver one last gift to the Cleveland fans. Irving was able to finish a pair of drives in the final minute to close the game to within the current deficit. But now all he could do was watch in frustration as Cole attempted to require the Cavaliers to make a 3-pointer just to tie.
That first free throw missed. And then even more unbelievably, Cole missed the second free throw. The Cavaliers secured the rebound and called a time out. On Fan Appreciation night, maybe the Cavaliers would pull off one last comeback. After Byron Scott presumably drew up a play for his star PG in the time out, the inbound pass came to Kyrie at the top of the key.
Irving hesitated only a moment before making his move. As he attempted to use his quick first step to get beside the opposing Heat point guard, it was Norris Cole who was ready. Cole poked the ball away as Irving stumbled, and Cole was then able to dribble out the clock and the Heat would walk off the court inside The Q, winners once again.
There was something about the end of that game. Watching the Heat walk off the court as the Cavalier players once again had to hang their heads and console themselves, there was a very tangible and real sense of disappointment on that court. And then Kyrie Irving left the floor, abandoning his teammates to deal with the fans on Fan Appreciate Night, and leaving his coach to make excuses for why Irving had bolted.
Everything about that night—the body language of the players, the frustrating and disappointing behavior of the budding superstar, the sheepish assurances from the coach that everything was still OK—it was all a mess. In that moment, it was never more clear that the Cleveland Cavaliers simply had to change direction with their head coach. And so on April 18, Byron Scott was relieved of his duties as head coach and once again the Cavaliers were in the market fort a new head coach.
The media quickly compiled a list of replacement candidates. Some of the names were a pipe dream (Phil Jackson, Mike Krzyzewski), some were common retreads (Scott Skiles, Nate McMillan, Flip Saunders), and some were names of popular assistant coaches (Mike Malone, Brian Shaw, Mike Budenholzer). Then there was the one name that kept popping up: Mike Brown.
Mike Brown’s tenure in Cleveland couldn’t have been more different than Byron Scott’s. The end to their respective terms couldn’t have been more different either. Mike Brown’s first stop in Cleveland ended in a spectacular ball of flames. It ended with LeBron James mysteriously “quitting” in Game 5 against Boston, followed by Game 6 which left everyone with the sad realization that LeBron alone couldn’t overcome the new super teams of the NBA present. The Mike Brown era ended amidst a whirlwind of confusion, doubt, frustration, anger, betrayal, and misery.
Whereas Byron Scott’s term finished with a quiet whimper on a sad, balmy spring night, Mike Brown had been dismissed with all of his faults as a first time coach laid bare on the table for all to dissect. Some would argue that he deserved better. Others would tell you he deserved to be fired a year earlier. Consensus on Mike Brown isn’t easily achieved.
But the thing most overlooked about Mike Brown’s first term as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers is the message that Dan Gilbert delivered in getting rid of Mike Brown: It was a final attempt at appeasement, a way to crawl down on both knees one last time and beg the King to not desert his1 kingdom. Make no mistake, the direction of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the wake of the Boston letdown was set in stone by Dan Gilbert. He was happy to let Danny Ferry walk and he was finally ready to move on to a new coach as well. All said, it was an extremely unceremonious end to the reign of the most successful head coach in team history.
As soon as Byron Scott was let go, whispers of the Cavs’ interest in Brown was immediate. It seemed unfathomable at the time. First of all, teams re-hiring coaches they previously had fired almost never happens. But there were more factors at play here. Not only was this the same team that fired Brown, but this was the same owner that fired Brown. And on top of that, there was the common belief that the Cavaliers were going to try to woo LeBron back to Cleveland, so re-hiring Mike Brown would hardly make sense seeing as how he had been fired to appease LeBron previously.
Bringing back Mike Brown simply wouldn’t make sense to anyone who bought into some of the more widely held perceptions2 about Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers organization. A petulant, egotistical maniac of an owner would never admit he had made a mistake and go against the grain in trying to bring back LeBron. Surely once the Cavs started interviewing candidates, all of this Mike Brown nonsense would go away.
The funny thing about those other interviews, though, is that they would never happen. Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant quickly identified Brown as the coach most possessing of the qualities they were looking for in a coach. And so Gilbert and Grant met with Mike Brown in secret in Detroit. Both parties expressed their mutual interest in reuniting, and with that, an arrangement was in place. On April 23, just five days after firing Byron Scott, word leaked out that Mike Brown would be the next coach of the Cavaliers. Again.
To call this story anything other than stunning would probably not be totally honest. Not only did the Cavaliers re-hire a coach they previously fired, but they didn’t even bother interviewing anybody else. Some lip service was paid to due diligence with regard to pipe-dream candidates like Phil Jackson and Coach K, but as far as realistic candidates are concerned, Brown was the only one considered.
Once the initial shock of the hire subdued, the decision to bring back Brown actually did make a lot of sense on many levels. First of all there was already a level of comfort and compatibility between Brown, Grant, and Gilbert. Second of all, after watching apathetic levels of defense for years, the one thing Gilbert and Grant could count on Brown for was defensive improvement. Finally, after making it clear after three straight seasons in the lottery that the playoffs would be the goal, Dan Gilbert quickly pointed out on Twitter that Mike Brown and Phil Jackson are the only coaches to have never missed the playoffs:
Brown,the Coach: He & Phil are the only NBA coaches(5-years or longer)whom have never missed the playoffs in their entire coaching career.
— Dan Gilbert (@cavsdan) April 24, 2013
Gilbert would also point out that at 43 years old, Brown is still young and hasn’t yet peaked as a coach. All of these were perfectly logical reasons for hiring Brown, but they also begged the question as to why Gilbert fired Brown in the first place. At the introductory press conference, many wondered if Gilbert would say that firing Brown in 2010 was a mistake.
It didn’t take long for the question to come up, and Dan Gilbert quickly, and firmly, made an admission that few owners will make: He had made a mistake.
“Yeah, it was a mistake. Sure it was a mistake,” said Gilbert. “We have the benefit of hindsight right now, and in hindsight it was a mistake. That summer we went through three years ago was a unique time for us as a franchise and the uncertainty on a lot of levels. We are very happy that we get to rectify any position we took back then.”
And so it was, in one of the more bizarre and surreal press conferences in Cleveland sports history, Dan Gilbert publicly stated he probably shouldn’t have fired Mike Brown in 2010 and the Cavaliers re-hired a coach just three years after firing him. It was weird, sensational, slightly uncomfortable, yet strangely re-assuring.
Say what you will about Mike Brown and the degree to which LeBron James was responsible for the team’s successes, but Brown is the most successful coach in Cavalier history, he took the team to their only NBA Finals appearance, and in five years never once lost in the first round of the playoffs. Bringing Brown back was slightly akin to grasping onto a strain of a beautiful memory, and hoping that with enough belief in nostalgia, that a slice of the past could be brought to the present once more.
As December 2013 comes to a close, we know certain things today that we didn’t know the day Mike Brown was re-hired: We know the degree of early season struggles this team would experience; we know that Mike Brown is struggling to find a rotation that works; we know just how far this team has to go to get back into any kind of serious contention.
But there have been subtle improvements beneath all the heaps of early season disappointment. While still a work in progress and far from a finished product, the defense this season has mostly been vastly improved over what we saw the last three years in Cleveland. There’s a level of coaching involved with this team that has been sorely lacking in previous years. It’s not all working, and many fans (and perhaps the owner as well) are quickly losing patience.
How this ultimately ends will do little to change the significance of the story. You know a story is a big deal when people look to LeBron James to opine on another franchise hiring a coach. To which, LeBron would say, “I’m happy for him. Very happy for him. I think he’s a really good coach, very defensive-minded coach. It’ll be good for those young guys that they have.”
But beyond James or any other player’s opinion, this story was such a big deal simply because of its own inherent unique nature. A coach being re-hired just three years after being fired. An owner publicly saying that the coach shouldn’t have been fired in the first place. All of it was just strange, and yet somehow something that made total sense in the context of this franchise.
The only question that remains is whether Mike Brown can return this franchise to previous glory, or if once more he will be shown out the door. Five years from now, one can only wonder if Dan Gilbert will still say firing Mike Brown was a mistake, or if he will be forced to admit that re-hiring was a mistake, after the initial mistake of firing him in 2010.