By losing their first 15 games the Cleveland Cavaliers had already assured themselves of a measure of immortality. Now Coach Bill Fitch was pacing the streets of Portland, Ore., hoping for at least a power failure that would prevent his team from losing No. 16 and thereby surpassing the record of the defunct Denver Nuggets for the worst start in National Basketball Association history. Passing an antique shop, Fitch noticed a cast-iron skull in the window and decided that perhaps voodoo could succeed where wind sprints had failed. He paid $1.95 for the skull and presented it to his players just before they left the dressing room. "This," he said, "is all that remains of the Nuggets' coach."
The Cavaliers saved Fitch's cranium—and perhaps avoided a few knots on their own—by winning 105-103 in a game so badly played that Fitch said afterward, "It looked like the gamblers got to both teams." But old devil magic faded fast. Cleveland failed to win its next 11 games, and by last week had run its record to 2-27. Next to the Cavs' .069 percentage, the achievements of the original baseball Mets were magnificent. Not since the Sabines have people been as rudely handled by the opposition. Not since Alf Landon has anyone been so badly outscored. Only the Cavaliers could sing I'm Walking Behind Yon to Eddie Fisher and mean it.
Before the season Fitch said, "War is hell, but expansion is worse," and he knew of what he spoke. The NBA graciously welcomed Cleveland by scheduling its first seven games, and 14 of its first 19, on the road. The Cavaliers had turned down the veteran journeymen that the established teams offered in the draft and intentionally selected the youngest roster among the three new clubs. The unhappy results have left Fitch with the ambivalence of the man who discovered his 16-year-old daughter staggering home from a date at 6 a.m. with a Gideon Bible under her arm. He could not decide whether he should laugh or cry, so he tried a little of both.
After the first road trip, on which the Cavaliers lost all seven by an average of 17 points, Fitch said, "I feel like a guy who has lockjaw and seasickness at the same time." He hoped that a few home games would provide a cure. He was perhaps counting on the ice under the basketball floor, which gives the Cleveland arena all the conviviality of a meat locker, an environment ideal for cooling off the NBA's hot teams. Still, the Cavaliers' trouble soon reached epidemic proportions.
December 14, 1970
Nick Mileti, the high-velocity lawyer who two years ago purchased the arena and Cleveland's minor league hockey franchise, and then last spring acquired a pro basketball franchise for the city, wanted to start off his new team with a toast. Each Cleveland customer was given a wine glass on opening night, and each was supposed to have had a goodly snort of Aquarius, a wine of unspecified vintage stomped out by Canandaigua Industries, an outfit more suggestive of a chemical combine than a vintner. Canandaigua, which also bottles those other enologists' delights, Wild Irish Rose and Virginia Dare, offers Aquarius as "the wine of the new age," but Ohio liquor authorities decided that some old laws still applied and Mileti was barred from serving his fans. The latter could only raise empty glasses in a simulated toast to the team, which may be just about as satisfying as a simulated win.
Cleveland lost to San Diego in that home opener 110-99, but it was the earlier losses away from home that really hurt. The Cavaliers had sold more season tickets than any expansion franchise ever has, but by the time the team got around to playing at home the losing streak had dampened fan interest.
In 10 home dates since then, Cleveland has not once managed to draw more than 3,575 people, although the chilly arena has otherwise been nicely refurbished by Mileti. Those who do come are remarkably uninhibited, considering their lack of companionship. Nor do they seem unduly disturbed by events beyond their ken. On their second road trip, the Cavaliers lost to the 76ers by 54 points, the biggest victory ever for a Philadelphia team. "We were behind by 48 points at the half," recalls Fitch. "I came out for the third period and gave their coach the peace sign. He returned a slightly different gesture."
The Cavaliers' persistent losses have gained them a reverse notoriety. In Boston they are called The World Famous Cavaliers, in New York The Madcap Mob, in Cincinnati The Cleveland Cadavers, and back home simply The Lovables. When Guard Johnny Egan's wife Joan took their two small children to a game, one thought they were at the circus and asked where the clowns were. Joan pointed to the Cavaliers.
For Fitch, who had never lost more than four consecutive games in 16 years as a college coach at Coe, North Dakota, Bowling Green and Minnesota, the Cavalier reverses have lent a bittersweet cast to his innate good humor. "This is the unhappiest time of my life," he said last week. "I can be funny when I have to be, but it's no fun going home at night and not being able to sleep. The players must feel they've got Polly Bergen coaching. Two years ago I was the coach of the year in Ohio and the legislature passed a resolution praising my achievements. This year they'll probably pass a law against me."
The selfish NBA expansion plan leaves new teams without the assets most needed to win—a superstar and depth. "One night we had a helluva game in Phoenix," Fitch said. "We're down a point, 104-103, with a couple of minutes to go and it looks like we have a shot at it. I call time and I'm coaching my butt off, talking it up with the players. Then I look down at the other bench and they've got four guys sitting around drinking Gatorade while their coach is talking to Connie Hawkins. What happens? Hawkins goes out and scores the next six points. Their guy is playing one-on-five and they still win it."
Cleveland's inexperience—nine of its 12 players are 25 or younger—has hurt against its fellow expansion teams (the Cavs are 2-6 against Portland and Buffalo), but it is now too late for Fitch to make changes. "We put a few guys out on waivers, and the only one who was picked up was the skull," he says. "As far as trades are concerned, my phone doesn't even ring when I'm in the bathtub."
Of the players on hand, the most promising is John Johnson, the 6'7" rookie from Iowa who plays both guard and forward. "It's tougher this way than if I was on a winner," he says. "I've got to learn the league as a rookie, and I also have to live with losing. I've never lost more than three games in a row before in my life, and it's hard to take. You have to have a chuckle now and then or else you'd go nuts. But it's not funny."
"It's embarrassing," says starting Guard Bob Lewis, who came from San Francisco in the draft and has had a rugged time over the last 56 games, considering that the Warriors lost 21 of their final 27 a year ago. "This continual losing, it's terrible. You can't talk to your friends. They're always trying to tell you what's wrong."
Since that first win over Portland, the Cavaliers have been losing by an average of only 12 points a game. Perhaps that is what has allowed Bill Fitch to retain some shreds of optimism. "Hope springs eternal," he volunteers. "Maybe we're the only team in the league that has had its flu shots."