Shaping the culture of any group can be an elusive endeavor. Just as with corporate entities, athletic teams are partly defined by written and unwritten rules of how their members work with each other and outsiders.
Do you recall…
NBA commissioner David Stern’s announcement, from New York’s Madison Square Garden: “With the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Presidents select LeBron James.”
Or how about the lyrics to that catchy tune: “C’mon Jays, Gotta make it happen!”
Or announcer Joe Tait’s familiar in-game call: “…out of bounds …and the ball will go BACK… to the Foresters.”
If you do have such recollections, you would have had to have passed between various alternate realities over your lifetime. Because each of these names were passed over, in favor of the name “Cavaliers,” when Cleveland was first granted an NBA franchise.
It was owner Nick Mileti who made the choice of the team name, after fourteen thousand entries from a newspaper promotion had been received and whittled down to five, including the names used above. Mileti, a Cleveland lawyer, had already purchased the Cleveland Barons AHL hockey team as well as its Cleveland Arena home in 1968. He had headed a team of around 25 investors, which paid $3.7 million (contrast that to the $375 million price tag Dan Gilbert paid for the LeBron-led Cavs in early 2005). The process took 15 months, and the cities of Buffalo, Portland and Houston were granted franchises as well. Said Mileti1, “Here we’ve been supporting a team [the Cincinnati Royals] that wasn’t even ours. In fact, we supported them better than their own city did.”
Every sports team can be identified by its culture. Its leadership either shapes the culture, or allows the culture to twist in the wind and conform to the whim of its players (or the disparate components of its leadership).
Expansion teams in any sport face their own specific challenges. They begin with a clean slate, with no shared history or culture to build upon. Consider the Cleveland Browns. They appear to have been stuck in expansion-mode, all the way back to 1999. There has been no stability, in the front office or at key positions on the field. Current head coach Mike Pettine is the latest to attempt to re-shape the losing culture; he alludes to the culture when he refers to “playing like a Brown.”
When the Cleveland Cavaliers were begun as an expansion franchise in 1970, their home was living on borrowed time.
The owner of Cleveland Arena was Nick Mileti, who also owned Cleveland’s baseball Indians, basketball Cavaliers and hockey Barons. Mileti was about to build the 20,000-seat Coliseum in Richfield, which would open to rave reviews.
There was no denying the old downtown facility had outlived its usefulness. It was dim, damp, cold, and reeked of musty, stale beer. Parking was inadequate. Sometimes, the hockey ice created condensation on the basketball court above it. Even when dry, the floor’s ‘dead’ spots spawned complaints among players.
Through its roughly four decades of service, the 10,000-seat Arena had hosted various other events besides the aforementioned sporting events, from the mundane (like public skating parties) to the historically sublime. (Elvis performed there, in 1956. Rock n Roll pioneer Alan Freed held the first ‘rock concert’ there, in 1952. Sugar Ray Robinson defended his boxing title by knocking out Jimmy Doyle—who actually would die from his injuries—i 1947.)
However, by 1970, the condition of the Arena did not lend itself to a winning basketball culture.
As an 8-year old when the Cavaliers were born, what mostly struck me at the time was the alliterative nature of many of their names (no, I was not saying “alliterative” in the third grade). Butch Beard. Walt Wesley. John Johnson. Soon after, Dwight Davis. Beard and Wesley were among 11 players taken in a league-wide expansion draft, along with one of the fan favorites of the contending Miracle of Richfield team of a few years later, Bobby “Bingo” Smith.
Predictably, the Cavaliers’ inaugural season was pitifully awful. The team finished last in its division, at 15-67. They were bad enough to be a joke among even their hometown fans. The season began with the first seven games on the road due to a prior commitment by the Arena to the Ice Capades, a traveling ice skating show featuring celebrities from past Olympics. The Cavaliers had sold more season tickets than the other expansion franchises, but when they came home for their first game in Cleveland at 0-7, much of the excitement had waned. 7,129 fans did turn out for the home opener, however. Mileti had planned a wine toast for the “wine and gold”; he had wine glasses distributed and was going to fill each one with a wine from the vintner that also made Wild Irish Rose.2 However, there were laws on the books that prevented the wine from being shared in this manner, so Mileti was left toasting with a crowd who was hoisting glasses filled with water. The Cavaliers lost the home opener to fellow first-year team, Buffalo. Bingo Smith scored 21 points in the 107-92 decision. They did beat Portland on the road, after losing their first 15, for their first win ever. They then proceeded to lose 12 straight. They defeated Buffalo by one point for the first home win in their history, before 2,002 fans. They averaged 3,518 fans per game that first year. It was noted, however, that the fans who did attend games were loud and boisterous (although that’s as obvious as Gabe Paul’s ‘sleeping giant’ comment re: Indians fans). The low point of the season may have been when Bobby Lewis threw an inbound pass to John Warren, who was sprinting to the hoop. Warren scored, despite the efforts of Leroy Ellis of Portland, who tried to block his shot. The only problem was that it was the wrong basket- it was two points for Portland. Well, there was one other problem: Bobby Smith was calling for the ball; he was ‘open’ and would have taken a shot at the same basket.
It was NIMBY, on a decidedly small scale. Rather than a neighborhood resisting a nearby development such as a power plant or a jail, my aim was preserving the sanctity of my quiet office space.
But it had to go somewhere. The snack table where I work was getting displaced, again. Extra cubicles were being built where it had sat previously, and my exterior wall was one of the few spots left where the table would fit. The conversation grew louder as the two interns carrying it drew closer. Something about deflated footballs.
“Not. In. My. Back. Yard.” The boys had finished pushing the table against my wall, and hadn’t noticed my head above it. They smiled sheepishly, and one of them offered a shrug.
Now, normally, I’m a bookish type of worker who doesn’t require much maintenance. But it was time to draw the line, with the snack table. Of course, the table itself wasn’t the issue. Its social function represents an important part of our office culture; it’s encourages team bonding on a personal level, and it serves as proof to management that they aren’t just running a glorified sweatshop. My objection is that it becomes a magnet for items that never get put (or thrown) away, like two-month-old candy canes and half-filled two-liters of pop like the Sierra Mist nobody seems to like. Also, it is a mecca for variously distracting conversations- many times, with associates who have wandered over from other areas of the building. My pace was measured as I padded back to the oak-lined office of the boss. He’d understand.
“Oh, I told them to put it there.” Crap. The look on the boss’ face was penitent, but that table was going to remain with me.
To be clear, I do enjoy Snack Day. Especially when someone brings in a breakfast casserole. That’s just chock-full ‘o morning goodness, right there.3
The next most popular Snack Day items are the sacks of hot sandwiches. McDonalds sausage biscuits or breakfast burritos; White Castle sliders.4
I haven’t yet mentioned the baked goods; this is not to downplay their Snack Day significance. We have a couple ladies on the team who seem to love to bake, and the quality of the items they bring in make me wonder if I should give them money or something. Cookies, brownies, cakes, breads… perfect compliments during the late-morning lull, along with the coffee that’s consumed after the excitement of the casserole has passed.
The remaining Snack Day offerings would be terrific on their own, on any other day. On Snack Day, they take a back seat to the main attractions. These include bananas, apples, oranges, and bowls of grapes. Also, the dozens of donuts and bagels. And, the store-bought packages of cookies, like Oreos and Fig Newtons. Not to mention the ice cream bars, which are purchased by the coworkers who had forgotten it was Snack Day, and ran out to the store ahead of lunch time. It will take a few days, but most of this will end up getting eaten (an important factor in Snack Day planning is to hold it far enough in advance of the weekend to allow for maximum consumption).
So, the table stayed. Of no surprise: like an African watering hole, it is a center of activity throughout the day. Only, instead of tigers, zebras, and elephants, our large office building boasts its own denizens who saunter by to partake of the bounty of Snack Day. Allow me to introduce some of them to you.
Nasty Sweater Lady. She isn’t allowed to smoke anywhere on the premises, anymore. Back when the company executive roster was dotted with smokers, it was ‘smoke ‘em if you got ‘em’, even in the building. Times (and state laws) changed. The only evidence that remains from those days is the sickly-yellow cafeteria clock, which once was as white as printer paper. Well, that, and the sweater that is constantly worn by Nasty Sweater Lady. Decades of brownish tar is embedded throughout. I avert my eyes when Nasty Sweater Lady goes elbows-deep into a bag of Lays’ potato chips. Here is an axiom of Snack Day: it is never wise to eat anything from a previously-opened bag.
The Table Muncher. For some reason, The Table Muncher chooses to ignore the stack of paper plates that are virtually a snack table fixture- Snack Day or not. The entire table is his ‘plate.’ He’ll lean his mouth over the serving dishes in case he drops crumbs, or dollops of dip or condiments. Appears to be a workable plan, for The Table Muncher.
The Cake Sliverer. It is not uncommon to find a sheet cake at a Snack Day, commemorating a birthday or an anniversary. Some who partake apparently exist in a constant state of guilt, for they cannot bring themselves to accept a normal-sized slice of the cake. Instead, they chip away at it with a knife, a half-dozen or more times during an afternoon, taking a large mouthful at a time. The OCD people amongst the office staff are left to struggle with the jagged lines that are left on the cake after dozens of slivers have been removed.
The Bogart. Another axiom of Snack Day: if you aren’t a member of the team that is sharing the food, don’t help yourself to it right away. It’s not polite, and can lead to some items becoming prematurely scarce. 10 a.m. is a time when some of the clerical staff takes a break; that seems a reasonable time to for others to begin to access the goodies.
The Bogart has no regard for any such time restraints. There is even a measure of pride in being known for prowling for breakfast every morning. Displays of balloons and crepe paper are his invitations. People chuckle and give him a hard time, but he seems unaware that the laughter is at his expense.
The coach who led the Cleveland Cavaliers at their inception was Bill Fitch. Previously, he’d been the coach at Minnesota. He also had been the coach at Bowling Green State University, Nick Mileti’s alma mater. A June 23, 2010 John Lubinger article on Cleveland.com relates how Fitch, who was both the Cavaliers’ head coach and general manager, had prepared for their expansion draft. He sent an assistant coach to the store to purchase $20 worth of basketball cards, and they studied the bios on the back.
For years, I have held the opinion that Bill Fitch wasn’t much of a public-relations asset. I has seemed I have been in the minority on that; I always thought he sold the team out for personal gain. He liked to crack one-liners, which endeared him to many in the media. Of course, the media often included sneering smart alecs from national outlets. These were guys who viewed covering the Cavaliers as a chance to write a comedic piece. Fitch’s cracks were duly noted in the press as comic relief, but personally, I always considered his comments as pretty lame. Here are some of his most humorous one-liners I could find:
“Just remember, the name is Fitch, not Houdini.”
“Mission Impossible didn’t even want us on their show.”
“I phoned Dial-a-Prayer, but when they found out who it was, they hung up.”
“War is hell, but expansion is worse.”
(After winning a badly-played game) “It looked like the gamblers got to both teams.”
OK, that last one was kind of funny. More recently, Fitch has commented that the 1970 team opened with 15 straight losses, and then went into a slump.
In 2013, I tweeted something to the effect that while I admired Bill Fitch and Joe Tait, I didn’t really trust them to ‘have our back.’ I didn’t think they really cared, or were one of ‘us,’ like Austin Carr. AC tweeted back his disagreement, stating both “have wine and gold in their veins.” OK- good enough for me. I have since also learned that Fitch took the early losing hard- he has recently commented that some nights, he locked himself in the bathroom and cried after games.
There were some highlights from that first year for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Besides Bingo Smith starting his career with the team, top draft pick John Johnson was an all-star and averaged 16.6 points per game. The team bonded, rallying around the motto, “Never surrender, no matter what the odds.” These days, Bill Fitch shares how the early Cavs teams still get together from time to time. He is able to appreciate Austin Carr and Campy Russell on Cavalier TV broadcasts.
Unlike today, the first Cavaliers had no superstar and no depth (they led many games late, but ended up losing because they could not finish). And not many fans. However, they were awful enough that the more time passes, the more endearing they become. And by the mid 1970s, they’d improve to the point of becoming an NBA title contender.
This progression was owed to the culture of optimism, perseverance, and team unity instituted by head coach and GM Bill Fitch. Now 80 years old, Fitch’s legacy includes a Hall-of-Fame NBA coaching career that spanned decades, with several teams. It also includes an NBA title with Boston, and a Western Conference title with Houston.