Well, here we are. Today is the last day of the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers season. It’s the last day Collin Sexton will be a rookie. It’s (likely) the last day Larry Drew coaches a Cavaliers game. It’s the last day Channing Frye is an NBA player.
Indeed, after a nice 13-season career, Frye is calling it a day and retiring. His four seasons with the Cavaliers match the Phoenix Suns for the most seasons with a team (although, he definitely played in way more games for the Suns due to the fact that Channing was traded to Cleveland mid-season and then also traded away from Cleveland mid-season). On Sunday, the Cavaliers declared “Channing Frye Day” and gave him an awesome send-off.
It might seem a bit odd to give a player like Channing this kind of moment, but to see it that way is to not understand the team dynamic of the Cavaliers whatsoever. To be clear, Channing was never an All-Star and never made an All-NBA Team. He won one Rookie of the Month award and was 1st-Team All-Rookie, but that’s about it as far as individual awards go. Basketball-Reference puts his Hall of Fame probability at 0.0%. So, no offense to Channing, but his elevated status among Cavaliers fans isn’t about individual achievements and accolades.
None of this is to say Channing was a bad basketball player, though. Far from it. Drafted with the 8th overall pick out of Arizona by the New York Knicks in the 2005 NBA Draft, Frye was a bit of an unknown quantity. He was projected all over the place, from the lottery to the second round. He was expected to be a traditional center with serious questions about his strength and ability to put on weight.
For his first few seasons, he tried to be a post player with the capability of stepping out a few steps for mid-range jumpers. His rookie year, he took just nine three-point attempts in 65 games. His second season he doubled that, taking 18 attempts, but hit on just 16.7% of his three-pointers. It wasn’t until his fourth season in the league, when Frye ended up with the Phoenix Suns, that he developed his game and evolved into the three-point threat that we know him as today.
Channing took 70 three-point attempts in his first four seasons combined. His first season in Phoneix he attempted a whopping 392, hitting on 43.9% of them. In his four seasons with the Suns, Frye took 1,526 threes on 38.9% shooting. He had revitalized his career and carved a competitive niche for himself. He had a unique skill set, one that would eventually attract the eye of a Cleveland team trying to win a Championship.
Channing Frye also overcame so much in his career. In 2012 he was diagnosed with a heart condition that not only threatened his career but his very life. Frye would miss the entire 2012-13 season as he recovered from heart surgery. In October 2016, Frye’s mother would lose her fight with cancer. Just a month later, his father also suddenly passed away. Despite all of this, despite how much Frye had to be hurting (and he has publicly talked about his emotions in the wake of all of this), he never seemed to let it spill into the locker room. The ultimate chemistry guy you want on your team, Frye dutifully played his role through it all.
When the Cavaliers were seeking a title in 2016, they knew midseason that they needed a little something more. The team was talented, but the team chemistry was off. There seemed to be little cliques within the locker room. Some passive agressive subtweeting was hitting social media. To be clear, when the Cavaliers traded for Frye halfway through the 2016 season, the primary reason was for what Frye could do on the floor. They liked his ability to knock down threes and figured his stature as a center could help spread the floor and open up the lane more for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to attack the rim. In every way, Frye was a perfect complimentary piece for what the Cavaliers were trying to do.
Little did anyone realize, however, that perhaps Frye’s biggest contribution to the team would be his presence in the locker room. By all accounts, it was Frye who knocked down the walls between cliques in the locker room. It was Frye who started group texts with the entire team included, not just certain groups. It was Frye who helped Kevin Love emerge from his shell. It was Frye who started organizing full team get-togethers. Once Frye got to Cleveland, the team began to gel. Eventually, this allowed the team to be in place to unite behind the Lil Kev movement and the 16-piece championship puzzle. None of this is to say the Cavs won the title because of Channing Frye, but it’s hard to imagine that team doing it without him.
When we look back at the 2016 team, obviously the stars will stand out. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love were sensational that postseason. And sure, we’ll remember James Jones’ stoic leadership, Iman Shumpert’s defense and athleticism, JR Smith’s quirky antics and gunslinger mentality (and the months-long shirtless celebration that followed), Matthew Dellavedova’s ability to get under the skin of the opponents, Dahntay Jones’ steadying minutes in Game 6 to prevent the series from getting away, etc, etc. But outside the “Big 3”, perhaps the most beloved players from that team will forever be Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.
There are a lot of reasons for this, of course, but perhaps the biggest is their transparency with the fans. The Road Trippin’ podcast that they started in the 2016-17 season gave fans an inside look at the team dynamics. It allowed fans to get to know Frye and RJ in a way otherwise perhaps not possible. And when that curtain was pulled away, many fans saw a couple of players that Cleveland fans could easily identify with.
You see, Frye and RJ didn’t come to Cleveland as Champions. Like so many Cleveland fans had experienced through the years, there were plenty of close calls, almosts, what-might-have-beens, and heartbreak. For Frye and RJ, winning the 2016 title seemed to mirror the sense of relief and accomplishment that fans felt. All of us had been waiting our entire lives for that moment in 2016.
Richard Jefferson would eventually be traded before the start of the 2017-18 season. Channing Frye would be traded midway through that season. The podcast endured, but it’s different now. RJ would eventually retire. Channing Frye, though, had one more season left in him. And he decided to come back to Cleveland to finish his career.
Fans can debate Channing’s place in all of this. Perhaps some fans liked him more than others. But there was an obvious connection between the city of Cleveland and Fyre, and it’s something that will never be forgotten. Who knows what the future holds for Channing. It’s pretty unlikely that he’ll stick around in Cleveland. He has a home in Portland, and I’d imagine he’ll have no problem getting a job on television if he wants it. It would be nice for the Cavaliers to find a role for Frye to stay involved with the franchise, but that’s rarely how these things play out. The truth is, while Frye will always be connected to Cleveland, once tonight’s game is over, life will move on.
But that connection will never go away regardless of where he goes in life. Frye will forever be a sort of cult hero in Cleveland. He contributed some amazing moments in his time in Cleveland on the floor, he was stellar as a chemistry guy in the locker room, and he gave fans one of the best gifts ever with the Road Trippin podcast.
So, wherever he goes, whatever happens, this is a thank you to Channing Frye for his time in Cleveland. His role with the Cavaliers will never be forgotten by those of us who lived through it. Cheers to a stellar NBA career, and here’s to wishing nothing but the best for him in his retirement.