Most of us are not good at waiting, which may explain the success of instant breakfasts and instant loans, instant-on TV sets and screens filled thereafter with instant replays. In this country if you have to wait on it, phooey on it.
Come now the Cleveland Cavaliers, those merry misfits of yore who suddenly reached maturity last year and who this season are even daring to let themselves think they might be the best team in the NBA. The secret of their success? Instant Offense. In fact, a double portion of Instant Offense.
It works like this. Late in the first quarter or so when things start to sag, as they often do for the Cavs, Coach Bill Fitch summons from the bench his Instant Offense—listed in the program as Guard Austin Carr and Forward Campy Russell. At which time the two produce an avalanche of points with their outside shooting. Is there any particular place the coach prefers Carr and Russell to shoot from? "Inside the gym," says Fitch.
This scheme of keeping the team's two best scorers (the 6'4" Carr averages 15.8 points per game, the 6'8" Russell 15.3; both play about half the time) on the sidelines for a spell helped Cleveland open the season with eight straight wins. In 1970, says Fitch, "we won one out of our first 16 games, then went into a slump." At the end of last week, Cleveland had an 11-4 record, the second best in the NBA. Most notably, the Cavs are 5-4 on the road, including their recent seven-game trip in which they lost to Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans and beat Milwaukee, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
November 29, 1976
Most NBA coaches would welcome that sort of road record—especially this year when home teams have won 75% of their games compared to 65% last season—but Fitch will tell you how difficult it all has been. "I've already sweated through two sport coats and lost one bag," he says, "and we've only just begun."
For one of the few times in Cleveland's seven-year history, the Cavs had some luck at the beginning of the season. Six of their first eight games were at home, where the impact of the huge, bananas-going-berserk crowds at Richfield Coliseum is already legendary around the league. Too, the Cavs are almost the same group of players who knocked off Washington and made it to the Eastern Conference finals last season. And while they have had a few injuries, none of their best players has been hurt. Injuries have always been a Cav bugaboo, particularly to Carr, who during much of his career "has been a disappointment," says Fitch, "only because he couldn't seem to play quite as well with a cast on his leg as without."
Denver Nuggets Coach Larry Brown, whose team also got off to an 8-0 start this year, turned up in Detroit to watch the Cavs against the Pistons, who are coached by his brother Herb. Cleveland lost but Larry Brown gave Fitch high marks for having Carr, Russell and three or four others always ready to jump up and play. "On a lot of other teams," said the Denver coach, "I see guys sitting on the bench with their warmups on but I have the feeling there's nothing on underneath. So if the coach would tell them to get in, the players would have to say, 'Just a minute. I have to run get my gym shorts on.' "
To make the system work, Fitch has had to try to dazzle Carr and Campy with his theory that starting isn't important and that being able to come in off the bench is a precious talent. "Games in this league seldom are won in the first eight minutes." Fitch says. "Rather, it's the last five guys on the court at the end who do it." Having digested all this, both players—who often are in at the end—harmonize on that old favorite of athletes, "Yeah, but I'd rather start."
Still, they work together so well that if they were a grocery store, they'd be known as Price and Pride. Both are vegetarians (Carr especially likes almonds and cashews and eats as many as 2,000 a week; Russell loves all vegetables except okra and all fruit except purple grapes, which make him break out) and both dislike being known as Instant Offense. Fitch also loathes the term. Once this year, he sarcastically referred to the Carr/Russell contribution to a winning game as the Savior Offense.
Carr and Russell don't like the Instant idea because it implies all they can do is shoot, whereas both pride themselves on other aspects of the game, like defense. Fitch doesn't like the term because he thinks there is far too much emphasis on who starts and who scores points. After the Detroit loss, Fitch approached Russell, the ex-Michigan star who had scored a team-high 22 points. "How many tickets did you give out to friends tonight?" inquired Fitch. "I don't know," said Russell innocently. "A lot." Responded Fitch, "I thought so. There are 20 people outside wanting their money back." Which was Fitch's way of indicating that he was not swept away by Campy's performance. Nothing is worse, Fitch says, than people who want money back on complimentary tickets.
The key to how Fitch wants the game played lies in the role assigned each player. Campy and Carr are to shoot out the lights; ditto Forward Bobby (Bingo) Smith, the only remaining original Cav. Guard Jim Cleamons is to run the offense and execute a tough defensive assignment; Fitch wants Dick Snyder, Cleamons' partner in the backcourt, to keep throwing up his dead-eye jumpers; Forward Jim Brewer is supposed to clear the boards; Center Jim Chones, a onetime ABA malcontent who has found a new disposition with Cleveland, is to rebound and play rugged defense in the middle; Foots Walker should race in as a playmaker and jazz up the offense when it's hitting sour notes; rookie Guard Mo Howard, a second-round choice from Maryland, is to lug the film projector from city to city. Notice that scoring is not a major assignment for most Cavs.
Scoring goes unstressed because Fitch recognizes that the one natural instinct every basketball player has is to shoot the ball when he gets it. But Fitch admits, "We are not really an equal opportunity offense."
For all its success in the early going, Fitch is not wholly satisfied with his team's performance. "We may have to call a meeting of the family and change roles," he says. Although at one moment he talks of needing 10 good men, all playing regularly, in order to win the title, at other times he says he is considering going with just five players. What about the other seven guys on the team? "They will get new roles," says Fitch. "It will be called Boy Scout—you know, be prepared." In fact, Fitch is not likely to do anything quite that drastic. But one real possibility is that Carr, Russell or both will—hallelujah for them—become starters. At the moment, Russell usually is the first sub in, Carr the next, depending on the situation.
Indeed, there is some small cause for Fitch to fret. Chones is having trouble with his rebound-defense role (scoring remains heavy on his mind) and his backup, Nate Thurmond, 35, whom Fitch calls "Instant Defense," may finally be feeling his age. Too, Walker has been hurt and is only 5'11". Says Fitch, "We want to avoid wholesale trades, as well as sending players down to the Eastern League—if we can."
Fitch thinks of Russell as potentially an extraordinary player. Though he almost drives the coach to distraction with his gum-popping, Russell can play all positions and do everything, Fitch believes. "All I expect from Campy is that he learn all these things—before I kill him." Fitch gets lyrical when he talks of Campy's magic hands and laments only that "Russell has played so many years without having to concentrate."
Russell, a hardship case in 1974, says, "My hardship was I was tired of playing college basketball. The biggest hardship, though, was the money I'd have to do without if I didn't go that way."
Carr, a 1971 first-round draft pick from Notre Dame, has had two knee operations, but now is at full throttle. He says, "When you have an operation, 70% of the cutting is in your mind." He is playing smoothly, and smartly, and says of his role, "I just have to make sure I don't run out there and become a thorn. I have to fit in with what's going on." Carr is so mild-mannered that Fitch says, "If I ever raised my voice at A.C., I'd feel I had done something bad."
When you can start games with your two best players seated, things by and large must be going pretty good, even though Fitch laments that his team is "like the golfer who used to shoot in the 90s, finally got into the 80s, and now is going nuts trying to get into the 70s." Further, he confesses that it is difficult to keep 12 college stars happy as pros, money aside. Says Fitch, "Every one of them wants to be Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind. Somebody has to paint the scenery."
At least Fitch's situation is happier than it was in 1970 when, the coach says, several of his players threw eggs at his house. How do you know it was the players? "Because they missed the house and hit the fence." Not so this year, with six Cavs hitting in double figures (Snyder is almost the seventh with 9.4) and everyone sharing the burden.
Meanwhile, Fitch is performing his new trick (tying a stem of a maraschino cherry in a knot using only his tongue) and playing philosopher. "All your prayers will be answered in the NBA if you are willing to accept the fact that most of the time the answer is No," he says. So far, though, the answer for Cleveland has been Yes, Yes and Yes. Instantly.