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Where Are They Now: Catching up with former Cavs guard Craig Ehlo

Where Are They Now: Catching up with former Cavs guard Craig Ehlo Photo:

SPOKANE, Wash. -- It’s been more than two decades since Michael Jordan rose above Craig Ehlo’s outstretched hand to hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history but still, all these years later, Ehlo can’t escape the memory. He’s haunted by the replays, and there’s plenty of them to see: on Nike commercials, NBA highlights and a never-ending ESPN Classic loop.

Here’s the thing, Ehlo says, leaning forward, his blond hair falling into this face, his jaw set. His long, wiry frame doesn’t quite fit on this low seat, his skinny legs and spidery veins folded up almost to his chin. He extends his arms to demonstrate his point: He knows he wasn’t as athletic as Jordan, and that their verticals weren’t similar, but if they had risen at the same time, he says, maybe he could have stretched his arm a little higher and maybe The Shot doesn’t go in.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Most sports fans (and all Clevelanders) remember what occurred on May 7, 1989 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs between Cleveland and Chicago, but here is a refresher: It was Game 5 at Cleveland, and Magic Johnson had just predicted that the Cavs will become “the team of the 90s.” It was Jordan’s fifth year in the league, and the burden of never winning a playoff series began to weigh him. During the regular season, Cleveland swept the Bulls, helping them to a third-place seed. Jordan and the Bulls finished sixth. In the playoffs, Ehlo rolled his ankle, but scored 24 points off the bench, and his layup with three seconds left put Cleveland up one, 100-99.

After a timeout, Jordan took the inbounds pass, Ehlo chased, Jordan rose and let go of what would become one of the biggest shots of his career. Ehlo was a half-step and a second too late and as the Bulls upset the Cavs, Ehlo crumpled to the floor in defeat.

Twenty-five years later, Ehlo doesn’t need to see another replay to remember each detail. He insists The Shot -- which has its own Wikipedia entry and lists “Cleveland sports curse” in the related links --  does not comprise his entire NBA legacy but concedes it’s certainly a signature moment in a career that spanned 14 seasons. “It did elevate my status,” he says. “It seems like it shouldn’t have, because I lost.” The Shot follows him around wherever he goes, with basketball junkies and fans who lack a filter walking up to ask some version of, “Hey, weren’t you the guy guarding MJ when he hit The Shot?” He expects it at this point, public recognition of a weird, random moment that made him famous. It happens in Spokane and Hawaii and even in rehab, where a teenage addict dressed head to toe in Celtics gear walked up to Ehlo shook his head and started reciting stats from games Ehlo had played in. “Craig Ehlo, the guy MJ hit the shot over … what are you doing here?”

*****

Ehlo spent his first three years in the league waiting … for a chance to play, for a guaranteed contract, for someone else to walk through the door and take his spot on the team. A third round pick out of Washington State -- “I wouldn’t even exist today,” he says --  in the 1983 draft, Ehlo rode the bench during his time in Houston, happy, he says, just to be around. Worried that it would all come to an end soon, he wouldn’t buy a truck or make it official with his longtime college sweetheart, Jani. “I wasn’t sure how long (the NBA) would last,” he says. “I had to know I could make it, financially.” Ehlo comes from a long line of cotton and hog farmers in Lubbock, Texas, and used to joke that he could always fall back on the family business if basketball didn’t work out.

Cut by the Rockets during training camp in 1986, Ehlo signed a 10-day contract with Cleveland in January 1987. A starter by the fifth game, Ehlo totaled 47 minutes and 18 points, more time than he had ever played in Houston. Cleveland signed him for the rest of the year, then protected him in the 1988 expansion draft. As Ron Harper’s backup, Ehlo developed a reputation as a decent three-point shooter and gutsy defender, often matching up against the other team’s best player. In his sixth year, he earned his first guaranteed contract.

“What I always remember about Craig is he was on everybody’s poster,” says Steve Kerr, who played with Ehlo in Cleveland. “He would challenge every dunk in transition. He’d size guys up on the wing, and you know he had those long arms, he was so athletic, I always thought he could have been a great long jumper. But he’d chase guys down and go up to try to meet them above the rim. Sometimes he blocked them but very often, he would get dunked on. He enjoyed the challenge but there are lot of posters and photos of these spectacular dunks and it’s him, getting dunked on. He was fearless.”

Naturally, Ehlo always asked to guard Jordan, a rising star in the league.

Whenever the Cavs played the Bulls, Ehlo would call up his father and ask him what he thought of his boy taking on one of the top young superstars in the NBA. “He’d say, ‘Aw, you’re gonna kill him, this is what you live for, this what all those years of me taking you to little league baseball and football is for: Getting to play the best,’ Ehlo says.

“He’d pump me up. I would just scratch and claw. I think he (Jordan) liked that. I didn’t rub him wrong, like other guys.”

Ehlo never talked trash -- “Oh no,” he says, holding his hands away from his body and shaking his head -- because he had too much respect for Jordan. Jordan talked plenty though, often telling Ehlo, “You’re gonna try to stop this? Are you sure you want to try to stop this?” But Ehlo didn’t keep quiet, either: When Cleveland and Chicago walked onto the floor following the final timeout in Game 5 of the ‘89 series, after Ehlo had reached around Jordan to score the go-ahead layup with three seconds left, Jordan took his place at the free throw line, with Ehlo shadowing him as respectfully as possible. “I was saying, ‘You can’t score, Mr. Jordan. I can’t let you score,’” Ehlo recalls. “The confidence was just oozing out of him.”

Yes, Ehlo called Jordan -- his junior by two years -- “Mister.”

The Shot did more than immortalize and forever link Jordan and Ehlo; it marked the beginning of Chicago’s upward swing and Cleveland’s downward spiral. Ehlo played four more seasons in Cleveland, then moved to Atlanta for three years before retiring after one season with the Sonics. He settled in Spokane after retirement, pulled to the area by his in-laws.

He has run into Jordan a few times since that 1989 game, trading autographs on posters and playing in some Jordan-sponsored charity events. Whenever Jordan was asked by the media to list his top 10 greatest shots, The Shot always seemed to be No. 1. But years ago, Jordan changed his list, and replaced The Shot with his game-winner over Bryon Russell in the ‘98 Finals that gave the Bulls their sixth NBA championship in eight years.

“I always wanted to ask him,” Ehlo says, “‘Why’d you take me off the top?’”

*****

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After retiring from the NBA, Ehlo spent the 2011 season as an assistant coach at Eastern Washington University.

Like many former professional athletes, Ehlo initially struggled at finding his way in retirement. Married with three children -- his youngest, Gavin, had just been born when he left basketball -- Ehlo tried to anchor his day around them and his wife, Jani. Always curious about the media, Ehlo got involved with broadcasting after moving to Spokane, working as a color analyst for mid-major upstart Gonzaga. Even around college kids who were barely toddlers at the time of The Shot, Ehlo found himself the brunt of jokes. Chicago native Jeremy Pargo, the Bulldogs’ point guard from 2005-09, liked to re-enact The Shot before every home game with walk-on Andrew Sorenson, and always made sure Ehlo was watching. “It got ridiculous,” Ehlo says, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “He’d come get me, narrate it … I was like, ‘Come on, man.’ But it never affected my relationship with him. It was actually pretty funny.”

In 2011 he went to work as an assistant at Eastern Washington, a small Division I school just outside Spokane. Surrounded by college kids who weren’t even alive for The Shot, he got ribbed endlessly.

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Eastern players would walk in the gym for practice and start a conversation with, “So, Coach, I was watching ESPN Classic last night and they were showing the ‘89 game …” Ehlo stayed for two seasons, walking away as the grind of college coaching wore on him. Too many hours in the film room and on the road recruiting took their toll. And he was dealing with lingering issues from a surgery in 2010 that changed his life. 

Just before he retired in 1997, Ehlo started to feel twinges of back pain. He endured it for years, and two small surgeries, in 2003 and ’07, proved to be short-term fixes. In 2010, doctors inserted two six-inch rods, three spacers and two plates, cleaning out all discs and opting to not fuse anything. The surgery left Ehlo mostly immobile for six months, and came with prescriptions for Hydrocodone and the sleep aid Ambien.

“I don’t blame anyone but me,” he says softly. “It wasn’t the doctor’s fault, they were just trying to help me.”

Ehlo isn’t sure when he lost control of his medication, but by the summer of 2013, he was taking 15 Hydrocodone pills a day. “I think I talked myself into saying I did hurt so I could take them,” he says. “Nothing took the edge off.” His sons and wife hinted quietly that he might be taking too much, but weren’t sure what to do as Ehlo pulled away emotionally and cocooned himself in the basement.

In mid-July last summer, a family friend came over and confronted Ehlo in his home, telling him he needed to address what had become an obvious problem. Ehlo brushed him aside. As the friend left, he told Jani, Austin and Gavin that nothing would change until Craig hit rock bottom. That came on July 31.

The Ehlos were set to leave for Las Vegas for a black tie celebration involving Jani’s employer, Isagenix, a company that markets dietary supplements. Craig had his suit and tie packed when his family told him he wouldn’t be taking any medication with them on this trip. Jani told Craig point blank, “If you’re going to do this, I would rather you not go.”

“I was like, ‘You don’t understand, I have to have them,’” Ehlo says. “(The pain) wasn’t even affecting me, but if I went two days without (Hydrocodone), I was like a heroin addict going through withdrawals.”

Austin picked up his dad’s backpack -- where Ehlo had stashed his Hydrocodone -- refusing to hand it over unless Craig promised he would leave the medication behind. It wasn’t malicious or threatening, Craig says, but more of a pleading to please, stop, just for a couple days.

“When he had my backpack, it flipped a switch in me,” Ehlo says. “I was an addict protecting (my drugs) like a mother bear would protect her cub.”

While the family went to bed, Ehlo moped around the garage until something snapped. If she doesn’t want me to go, he thought, I’ll just burn the clothes. He started a fire, which woke his family, who called the cops.

Police arrived around 1 a.m. to find Craig huddled on the curb with Austin’s arms wrapped around him. “It wasn’t him restraining me,” Craig says, “it was more of a hug, like, ‘You’re not going anywhere, I’m not letting go.’”

“There comes a point where it’s like, how much worse can this get?” Austin says.

Arrested and charged with first degree reckless burning and domestic violence, Ehlo spent 24 hours in jail as his family left for Vegas.

“It was surreal,” he says. “I had never been in trouble, never been inside a cell, and now I’m wearing a jumpsuit. I’m wearing socks, because the only size shoes they have are 12s, and I’m a 15. It’s horrible being by yourself. No sunlight, no clock, no reading material … I was just wrestling with God, asking him, ‘What happened? You’ve always pulled me out of hard times, or pushed me when I needed it …’

“How did I get here?”

*****

Ehlo was released without posting bail and ordered to have no contact with his family for two weeks.

When he arrived at his mother-in-law’s house -- she had gone to be with Jani and the kids so Craig live at her place temporarily -- he was confronted, gently, by a group of nine men who Ehlo says have served as spiritual leaders in his life. Though not ordered by a judge to attend a rehab facility, Ehlo’s circle made it clear that he needed to get help immediately.

With an assist from old friend Chris Herren, another former NBA player who suffered from drug abuse, Ehlo got a bed at Gosnold, a facility in Massachusetts focused on helping individual and families through addiction that Herren did charity work with. The Ehlos had met Herren two years earlier at Hoopfest, the world’s largest 3-on-3 tournament in played annually on the streets of Spokane, when Herren spoke publicly about his struggles with addiction.

“When I met him I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is Craig Ehlo,” Herren says. “From a basketball perspective, when I think of Craig, I don’t think of The Shot. Here’s a guy who grew up in Texas and fought his way to a 14-year career in the NBA. He did more than probably 99 percent of people who play basketball. I played because of guys like him. I was on the verge of asking him to sign something for me.”

Herren reached out to Craig, he says, because he knows what it feels like for a private fight to turn public, and empathized with a family suddenly forced into the spotlight. Aware that the family had been concerned about Craig’s possible addiction, Herren called Austin to assure him that the nights spent away from family are usually the biggest wakeup calls for addicts.

“I just thought, if it were me, I would want someone to reach out to my kid,” Herren says.

After a judge granted Craig out-of-state travel to attend Gosnold, Ehlo arrived determined to shed the weight he had carried for the last three years.

“The first few days, it was all about surrender, but I had pretty much done that in the cell,” Ehlo says. “I was done taking these drugs, done with all the emotional stuff trailing me, just done. I had to get it away from me.”

In rehab, Ehlo heard startling stories of addicts who started with prescription medication from doctors, then bought them on the street and then, when they weren’t available, turned to heroin to get a fix.

“There’s that stereotype, that labeling, that addicts are on the street, but at Gosnold, there were CEOs, housewives, me … There were people in their 40s and 50s, and 18-year-old kids,” he says. “It was eye-opening, to see what it could have become. It’s a horrible epidemic. We’re losing a generation to addiction.”

Gosnold’s rehab process typically takes 90 days: 30 days in the facility on Cape Cod, 30 days in a halfway house and 30 days back home, commuting to Gosnold for meetings and counseling. But after the first third of treatment, Ehlo got called back to Spokane for arraignment.

On Sept. 11, 2013, Ehlo pleaded guilty to second degree reckless burning. He was given credit for his day served in jail, and the rest of his 363 day sentence was suspended, per an agreement between prosecutor John Love and Ehlo’s attorney. After another week, the no contact order was lifted, and Ehlo returned home to his family.

“I don’t fault her at all,” Ehlo says of Jani’s decision to obtain the no-contact order. “When I first got home, it was like walking on eggshells. It took some time.”

Slowly, Ehlo has rebuilt relationships with Jani and their three children. In June, he and Jani celebrated 29 years of marriage. Gavin, a rising high school senior, likes to tease his dad about never having a real job. Austin, who will play football at Eastern Washington this fall, relishes the attention his dad’s past gives his family, but can be protective, shielding him from nosy strangers. He’s OK with being identified as the son of the guy on the losing end of one of the most iconic moments of NBA history. Friends often introduce him by saying, “Hey, you know when MJ hit that shot? It was on his dad.” If you’re going to have a game-winner hit on you, Austin says, why not have it be by the greatest of all time?

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Ehlo is still in good playing shape and recently came in second place in the 3-on-3 Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash.

Now his dad’s biggest cheerleader, it was Austin who rushed the court after his dad’s 18-16 consolation victory at Hoopfest last month. Craig’s still got it, though he's a little slower and not as smooth as before. It took overtime to fend off a group of fellow fiftysomethings, but like often before, Craig’s defensive mastery led his team to a win.

“It used to be his way or the highway, but now that his brain isn’t run by a drug, he has that sparkle back, the one we all knew growing up,” Austin says. “Everyone loves our dad, and he’s so nice, he’ll always shake someone’s hand, ask them about their day, talk to them like they’ve been friends for years. That’s who he is. I think that night (July 31), there were three other domestic violence arrests, but were any of those in the paper? No. You can walk into any house and there are disagreements, but he gets put on a pedestal because of basketball. That night doesn’t define him. People need to understand it was something that happened, but it’s not who he is.

Craig continues to attend multiple meetings per week, gobbling up literature on addiction. He’s not in a hurry to rush back to work; Gosnold preaches nothing but recovery for at least six months, maybe a year. And because of some frugal spending -- “In my day we had one credit card, and it had a very low limit,” Craig says -- his family is financially secure. He understands how easy it is to relapse, and remains leery of what he calls “the little guy on your shoulder,” the one who whispers about how harmless just one pill would be. “That guy’s always waiting, and he’s patient. I have to make sure he’s not going to sneak up on me,” Ehlo says. “You have to listen to the angel on the other side.”

When he played, Ehlo spent whole summers in the gym, obsessed with improving his game. “I always had that thought that someone was gonna come take my job,” he says. “I never really attained status. I never felt safe … There’s no telling what the addiction would have done to me in another year or two. I would have withered away and blown away with the wind, I was that desperate. Now I hope I grab hold of my recovery just like I played the game.”

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