In the past, when the Cleveland Cavaliers were clumping around in the lower reaches of the NBA's Central Division, which was most of the time, Bill Fitch could always somehow manage to coax a twinkle from his green eyes, unleash a few hilarious one-liners and exit laughing from the Cavs' latest defeat. So that is what the world suspected he was up to again last Thanksgiving when, with the Cavs sagging at 6-11 and looking up even at New Orleans, Fitch announced that he had just traded two promising young players to Chicago for Rowland Garrett and Nate Thurmond. For old Nate Thurmond. For benched Nate Thurmond. For washed-up Nate Thurmond.
Well, at one point last week Fitch was laughing again, which is a natural reaction when your team has just won 10 of its last 11 games and is sitting just half a game off the division lead. That was Friday afternoon in Philadelphia, a few hours before the 76ers would momentarily derail the Cavs. Fitch was explaining the Thanksgiving move that seemed madness then and now appears magical. Or, as Fitch insisted, nothing more than exactly what he expected.
"I don't gamble. Not with people," said Fitch, whose proclivity for comedy has declined with his team's increasing respectability. "I'm a belt-and-suspenders man. I don't take many chances. And I can tell you there aren't many 12-year veterans I would think about adding to our kids. If you don't have high character in your people it can be a terribly long season. And Nate is a great person. He's been just great around our young people. And let me ask you—do you know what player played the most minutes for Chicago last season?"
The answer, of course, is Thurmond, and at age 33 it must have been agony. Chicago had traded expensively for his 6'11", 230-pound presence in the pivot, and when the Bulls didn't win, Thurmond was the one they blamed. "Things got kind of bad in Chicago," said Thurmond, who once—and not too long ago—was one of the game's superstars. He is still a man of character; when he arrived in Cleveland to greet his new teammates he was as shy as a rookie, hardly the disgruntled hotshot.
"The players were great," he says. "They accepted me right from the first day. And Fitch said there would be no pressure on me. Not if we won 20 or lost 20. It didn't matter. All of a sudden the game is fun again. They have given me a new life."
Nate has given the Cavaliers 16 to 20 minutes a game of 100% Thurmond. Almost the Nate Thurmond of four or five years ago, especially on defense. "That is just what we want, 16 to 20 minutes," says Fitch. With Thurmond on the floor the Cavaliers enjoy the luxury of being able to rest either starting Center Jim Chones or Forward Jim Brewer, which has resulted in improved performances from both.
"Going from starter to coming in off the bench took a big adjustment," says Thurmond, tacitly admitting that the transition—which had begun for him in Chicago—had been somewhat traumatic. "But you get to a stage in your career when you have to realize you are no longer going to be a star, when you have to forget about your averages and concentrate on contributing everything you have left for the good of the team. It helped me when I remembered a Johnny Carson show I once watched. Johnny asked this old man how it felt to be 110 years old and the old man said, 'Johnny, I am just happy to be here to answer that question.' "
At almost the same time Thurmond was arriving in Cleveland, Guard Austin Carr, the Cavs' wonder-scorer who had been sidelined by two knee operations, was discovering that his right leg was once again sound, or at least as sound as a leg can be after all the cartilage has been removed from the knee. With Carr, the dandy little Clarence (Foots) Walker and the brilliant but erratic Campy Russell, Fitch can pour in reserves as good as any in the NBA.
Russell usually replaces Forward Bobby (Bingo) Smith, who has been hampered by a painful knee bruise of late and hates to be reminded that he is the only one left from the original 1970 bunch. Smith and Guard Dick Snyder, a nine-year veteran who scored his 10,000th point Saturday night during a 104-100 loss to Detroit, are the pure shooters among the starters. Jim Cleamons, the other starting guard, handles the play-making as well as any backcourtman in the league. Cleamons' problem—if you can call it a problem—is that he is a stylist who seldom makes a mistake, and as a result his more colorful peers capture all the attention.
"The people who win in this league are the people who put the team ahead of themselves. If you don't believe that, just ask Al Attles," Fitch intones, referring to Golden State's exponent of togetherness and putting his one-liners a whole light-year behind him. "If you don't have people who will bust their butts when things are going badly, it's a tough league. And your people have to be self-motivators. If you rely on people you have to pat and kick and beg, well, there aren't enough hours in the day."
Why, then, did he trade away a No. 1 1975 draft choice to Los Angeles in 1974 for the right to negotiate with Chones? The slender 6'11" All-America center from Marquette had spent the two previous seasons in the ABA, never reaching stardom, usually sulking. Fitch says, again, that he knows people and never gambles.
"I didn't know where I was or where I was going," says Chones, who has become one of the quicker centers in the NBA. "Coach Fitch gave me a chance. We had long talks, and he told me if I played hard enough he would keep me on the floor. In the ABA I hurt myself because I didn't have what you'd call a pro attitude. Maybe the big thing now is that I'm married and I'm staying home more.
"You know what I did last summer?" he asks. "I played basketball. And when I wasn't playing, I was running. People who know me don't believe that. I want this team to improve. We had the club's best record last year and a lot of people got excited. But looking at it realistically, we didn't make the playoffs and we didn't even finish with a .500 record."
In its first five seasons the Cavaliers lost $4.6 million plus the $3.7 million it put up just to join the league. Still, last season was encouraging. Cleveland lost only $517,272, and from early February on, as the team made a good run at a playoff spot, attendance climbed dramatically. This year the Cavs opened with more than 3,000 season tickets sold, and in their last five home appearances have averaged better than 17,000 per game.
The city is starving for a winner. Cleveland has not had a champion in any sport since the NFL Browns and AHL Barons in 1964, unless you count Chet Ob-lock's Pyramid Café slow-pitch team that won a national tournament last year. Still, as Fitch says, things can always be worse. Last season the Cavs moved into their magnificent $35 million palace after playing four years in the dank old arena that Boston's John Havlicek made famous with his remark, "Every time I leave the locker room I'm afraid I've caught an incurable disease." To show this season's players how much better off they are, Fitch, with great glee, chartered a bus before the first game and took them all on a tour of the old arena.
"We made that place historic," says Fitch.
By losing so many games?
"No, by losing so many cars. Every year we played there, Cleveland led the nation in stolen cars. And half of them came out of our parking lot!"
Maybe there's hope for Fitch the comic yet.