It seems only right that a six-foot hymn singer with a Dan Quayle coif should be directing the team with the best record in the NBA. It seems right because Mark Price's success is almost as unlikely as that of the team, the 21-5 (take a deep breath) Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, the pitiable Cadavers of yore are alive beyond all recognition. As of week's end, they had won eight games in a row and 14 of their last 16 and had displayed the defense, balance and fervor of (now let it out slowly) title contenders. Price, who about now figured to be a backup in either the Continental Basketball Association or in a gospel ensemble, sublimely orchestrates this ridiculousness. "I don't think I've ever had a point guard who fills the role as well as Mark." says Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens, who in his days as an NBA player-coach once had a pretty good one at the position—himself.
There is much else about the Cavs that's unexpected. Ron Harper, their shooting guard, is their best penetrator. Brad Daugherty, their 7'1" center, is their best pure passer. Larry Nance, who often plays at small forward, is their best shot-blocker and post-up scorer. And Price, the playmaker, is their best outside shooter. As of Sunday, they were averaging between 17 and 20 points a game. They also pass with unselfishness and press with hunger. Another twist: Cleveland's bench packs defensive rather than offensive punch, which has made it possible for the Cavs to surrender a league-low 99.5 points a game. The club has a blend of thieves (an average of 10.1 steals a game, seventh in the league) and shot-blockers (7.1 a game, third in the league) that disrupts the most patient offenses and triggers the Cavs' running game. Magic Johnson has dubbed the Cavaliers "the team of the 1990s." And Utah coach Jerry Sloan says, "They're no fluke. Everyone in the NBA knows how good they are."
The Cavs showed how good in recent back-to-back games against Utah and Boston. On Dec. 20 at the Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, with Nance going scoreless for the first time since 1984, Cleveland still crushed the Jazz 110-94. The Cavs shot an ugly 38.9%, but they sprang a third-quarter trap that forced Utah into 10 quick turnovers, and Price threw in 24 points on 11 field goals. The next night in Boston, though Price missed the game with a bruised back, they held off repeated comeback charges by the Celtics for a 115-114 victory, which broke Cleveland's string of 24 regular-season losses at the Garden.
Considering the circumstances in both cases, the Cavs' poise was almost preternatural. "Last year, we probably would have panicked." said Harper, who scored 58 points in the two wins. And now? "This team has matured." Cleveland fans are enjoying the change, too. After 14 home games this season, the Cavs were averaging 16.470 compared with an attendance of 11.225 at the same point a year ago.
Cleveland started building its future in 1983, when the Gund brothers. George III and Gordon, bought the club from the mercurial Ted Stepien. in whose reign the Cavaliers made some of the worst trades involving first-round draft choices in league history. That shortsightedness ended under the Gunds. In '86, the Cavs drafted Daugherty and Harper, and they signed 6'11" Hot Rod Williams, a 1985 draft pick, then hired Wilkens as coach and Wayne Embry as general manager. Price, from Georgia Tech, was one of Dallas's second-round choices. His doubters considered him too small, too slow and too selfish—"Everyone and their dog would tell you I'd never make it," he says—but the Gunds and their front office advisers were true believers. So was Embry, then with Indiana. As the Mavericks were peddling Price to Cleveland on draft day for a second-round pick and future considerations. Embry was trying to get through to Dallas to swing a similar trade for the Pacers.
Wilkens, then the general manager in Seattle, also was a Price fan: "I knew he was quicker than people were saying, and I could see he could shoot."
The Cavs' faith in Price was tested during his rookie year, when he shot 40.8% from the floor. Hedging, the Cavs used the seventh pick in the '87 draft to take Cal point guard Kevin Johnson. But Price proved so solid in '87-88 (16.0 points on 50.6% shooting, with 6.0 assists) that Johnson—now emerging as a solid playmaker for Phoenix—could find little playing time. "He made Kevin—I hate to use the word—disposable," says Embry. Last February, Cleveland traded Johnson. Mark West. Tyrone Corbin and first-and second-round draft picks in 1988 and a second-round pick in '89 to Phoenix for Nance, forward Mike Sanders and a 1988 first-rounder. The Cavs selected forward Randolph Keys of Southern Mississippi.
Then, over the summer, after Washington signed Price to a five-year, $5 million offer sheet, Embry matched it without hesitation, even though Price had been making only $175,000 a year. "We're trying to build something stable, and we're not going to do anything to jeopardize that." says Embry.
Neither would the 24-year-old Price, who's about as straight a shooter as they come. He has firm Christian beliefs, has sung hymns with his two brothers in a church in Oklahoma and with a touring group in Atlanta, and donates 10% of his salary to The Chapel, a nondenominational church in the University Park section of Akron.
"It's an honor for me to be playing in the NBA," he says. "But I don't go out and try to prove I'm worth a million dollars every night." Price has proved himself a more-than-capable playmaker—he's averaging 9.0 assists per game this season—despite his teammates' penchant for putting the ball on the floor or passing it themselves. "Becoming a good passer and learning to see the whole court makes the game seem fresh and new," Price says. And though he's a loner, he has become a leader for the Cavs, who call him Little Bit. "I don't have to hang out to get respect." he says.
What makes Price so right for the Cavs is his jump shot, which he learned as a kid hanging around his dad, Denny, then an assistant coach with the Suns. Price's range—he was second in the league last season behind Craig Hodges, now with Chicago, in three-point field goal percentage with .486—stretches defenses to pierceable extremes. Despite launching shots from long distance, his 54.1% shooting puts him among the league leaders, who tend to be front-courtmen. His three-point average of 36.5%, however, is down from '87-88.
Price's shooting ability has made him a target for his team to shoot at as well. When Phil Hubbard returned to the locker room recently after a pregame shootaround, he told Williams, "I shot threes with Mark." Hubbard paused. "It was 10 apiece, and then I missed." Hubbard shook his head. Another would-be Price-buster, busted.
But then, like Price, many of the Cavs have doubters to silence. For starters, Daugherty was supposedly too soft to build a team around when Cleveland made him the No. 1 pick out of North Carolina. But one look at his family, where he had to do battle with two older brothers—one now 7-foot, 290, the other 6'7", 240—would have told you he could survive under duress. He has become a physical force more prone to fouling than to backing off, and he has always been a team player. "We could easily designate our offense so that one of us could score 25 or 30 every night," Daugherty says. "But with a young team and all the energy we have, that would be kind of foolish. This way, we all become better players. Everyone has the opportunity to be the man, and it's up to each of us to take it."
Harper came from Miami of Ohio, which is not exactly a hoops hotbed. After a brilliant rookie year, he was slowed at the start of last season by a sprained left ankle, then had to adjust as defenders learned to play off him in anticipation of his Michael Jordan-like assaults through the lane. "Now I'm going to take anything they give me," he says. "I'll take the jumper or go to the basket, with authority." Nance, meanwhile, had a reputation for finesse, which made some wonder whether he would be able to handle the rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference forwards. But with a dominating center to back him up for the first time, he has held his own. "I have more freedom," says Nance, 29, one of the older players on the team.
As for the 51-year-old Wilkens, he allegedly couldn't work well with young talent; in '85 he lost his coaching job with the Sonics for that reason after leading them to the championship six years before. He has loads of young players now, and he has sold them on sharing the points and helping out in his relentlessly rotating defense. Perhaps suspicion and doubt from their detractors have motivated the Cavs to achieve. Says Price, "We haven't had a lot of people singing our praises over the years." For those laggards who haven't started yet, the Cavs' hymn singer can help them find the key.