Top Row: Coach Bill Fitch, Asst. Coach Jim Lessig, Dave Sorenson, Luther Rackley, Walt Wesley, Gary Suiter, McCoy McLemore, Larry Mikan, Cliff Anderson, Trainer Ron Culp
Bottom Row: Joe Cooke, John Warren, Bob Lewis, President Nick Mileti, John Egan, John Johnson, Bingo Smith
For years, the dark cloud of expansion basketball hung over the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland after the team began play in 1970.
There’s no sugarcoating what the experience is like. Usually, there are low expectations, lots of losing, and a constant struggle to develop some sort of chemistry with a hodgepodge of players thrown together only months before the opening tip. All of this is done over the grueling haul of an 82-game season in front of fans who, for the most part, have never heard of you.
In other words, expansion stinks.
The Cavaliers had it especially tough in 1970 when two other teams, the Buffalo Braves (now the L.A. Clippers) and Portland Trailblazers, joined the league. At that time, there was a 10-round amateur draft and the three teams were fighting over the castaways from the existing 14 teams to build their rosters in the expansion draft. Bill Fitch, who coached the team for its first nine seasons, remembers trying to scrounge up talent.
“We had to do the best we could at assembling a team with what was out there and based on what the other teams selected [in the two drafts],” said Fitch. “In some ways, Charlotte [Bobcats] had it easier because there were already 29 teams and they were the only team coming into the league last year,” he said.
Whether it’s 1970 or 2004, expansion franchises rarely produce winning records. The Cavaliers’ 15-67 record ranks tied for worst of all expansion franchises. Overall, that record is tied for seventh worst of all teams in NBA history and there have been seven teams who’ve tied the Cavaliers record since then.
“I couldn’t complain about how well the city and fans treated us during that season,” said Johnson. “But losing as much as we did became hard for us, I think. We were competitors, so I think naturally it would be hard for any player.”
It’s easy to understand the frustration: The early Cavaliers were inexperienced and fielded a roster averaging 24.5 years, in a time when most kids stayed in college until they were 22. (Even the Charlotte Bobcats roster averages to 25.1 years.) Their 13-man roster had five rookies and the vets had an average of 4.5 years of playing experience and an underwhelming career scoring average of 6.4 points per game. And despite a strong collegiate coaching track, it was Bill Fitch’s first NBA assignment.
“Aside from the losing on the floor, I had all positive experiences with that expansion team” said Fitch, who ranks second in victories by an NBA head coach (944) behind Lenny Wilkens. “Every time you came to a bump in the road, you had to solve a problem which would help later on. If you came on good fortune, it was that much better.”
First and foremost, the franchise found its backbone—Bobby “Bingo” Smith—in the expansion draft from the San Diego Rockets. Smith, whose jersey hangs in the rafters at Gund Arena, played 10 seasons with the team, averaged double digit scoring in eight of those seasons, and guided the Cavaliers to the playoffs three times, including the Miracle of Richfield team in 1976.
The team also found its coach in Fitch and players, such as Walt Wesley, John Warren, Dave Sorenson, and John Johnson, who not only got the franchise off the ground, but who endeared themselves to the fans and city of Cleveland.
With the city firmly behind them, the Cavaliers formed strong bonds with each other as well. Smith said that despite the adversity during the expansion season, he would repeat the experience all over again.
“Yes, the losses were tough, but it wasn’t the only thing,” said Smith. “Guys had strong ties to each other—we lived by each other, hung out together, went to dinner together. And because of the bond, guys made their home in Cleveland. That was special.”
Special to them and special to us. The inaugural Cavaliers not only weathered the storm in 1970, they provided sunny days and the silver lining the city of Cleveland would enjoy then and years to come.