Can the Cavs Finally Jam?

Helped by a jazzy newcomer, Cleveland hopes to end years of playoff frustration and rock Chicago from its NBA throne
March 15, 1993

This year's fish-out-of-water story belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where a guy nicknamed alter a rap star seems to have stumbled onto the set of lice Haw. You can picture the confusion: The Cavs snapping their suspenders at the sight of this citified apparition in an electric-yellow suit. "Where did you get that?" wonders a befuddled teammate watching the ever-worldly Gerald Wilkins—a guy once featured in the pages of GQ—turn himself into a walking neon sign. "Houston," says Wilkins (a.k.a. Doug E. Fresh). The Cavs, who don't quite wear bib overalls but who do favor cowboy boots over tasseled loafers, sigh in collective relief. To a man, they were afraid such togs might be available in Cleveland.

Such is the uneasy—but getting much easier—condition of the Cavs, perennial runners-up to the Chicago Bulls in the Central Division. They're the team with no flash, no bash and, after numerous playoff failures, no stash of championship rings. For years the Cavaliers have enjoyed a close-knit anonymity, winning enough games when they've been free of injuries to retain a healthy respect in the NBA but losing enough when they weren't to discourage national attention. They've been highly skilled (this year three of them were repeat All-Stars), if unspectacular, absurdly well coached by Lenny Wilkens and absolutely content in their middle-market obscurity. For seven years they've been the most-comfortable and most-unnoticed team in the league.

And here comes Wilkins, their Cousin Vinny, striding about in his gaudy fashion, Doug E. Fresh out of New York—demonstrative, athletic, a bit out of control, an urban nightmare come to the most rural team since that outfit in Hoosiers.

Has he fit in? From the day he arrived he has been a discomfiting walking headline, promising "to get in Michael Jordan's jock" and to "become one of the main men around here" and, of course, complaining about his playing time. The rest of the Cav starters, schooled together for six seasons in Wilkens's team concept, have been agog.

But if Wilkins has been an amazement to his teammates in Cleveland, they have been puzzling to him, too. "All they want to do", says Wilkins, "is fish and race cars." He shakes his impeccably groomed noggin. "I feel like Doc Hollywood."

This is not to say that the Cavs' newfound chemistry isn't working, however. As in all good fish-out-of-water stories, there are dramatic stages in this one—initial distrust, begrudging cooperation and then, almost too late, full-fledged brotherhood. We're almost to that part. The happy ending of an NBA championship remains in doubt, but a few more months like February, when the Cavs went 12-1, and the story will be screen-ready. And if Wilkins, who is now the starting forward, averaging 10.8 points as of Sunday, and who has become fairly selfless, fits in any better, he'll be singing gospel songs with teammate Mark Price, putting together dragsters with Larry Nance and helping John (Hot Rod) Williams assemble his little Styrofoam subdivisions (about which, more later). O.K., but this is a fish-out-of-water story, not science fiction. Still, at week's end, as the Cavs were completing a 3-2 road trip that left them within 2½ games of Chicago, anything seemed possible. "I'm getting so comfortable here," Wilkins says. "I may finally start spending my money."

Cleveland was plenty good before Wilkins arrived. In two of the last four seasons, they won 57 games; last season they reached the Eastern Conference finals, where they pushed the Bulls to six games. And they have always been—for Clevelanders, anyway—a pleasure to watch. General manager Wayne Embry, mindful of Cleveland's blue-collar work ethic, has been careful over the years to create a team that "signified the city—hardworking, not a lot of pizzazz." The stolid play of Nance, Price, Brad Daugherty and Craig Ehlo was greatly appreciated by the townsfolk, if not by many fans elsewhere, but the Cavs were nobody's idea of Showtime. Even they admit that.

"I'm not a great athlete like Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson," says Daugherty, Cleveland's 7-foot center. "I'm just not a running, jumping kind of player." There is nothing about his game, which the casual fan sees as a series of soft hooks and jumpers, that is terribly exciting. Yet he does lead the Cavaliers in scoring (20.3 a game) and rebounds (10). And he leads NBA centers in that all-unassuming statistic, assists (4.3). "I'm not the kind of player somebody's going to name a shoe after," says Daugherty.

He is typical of the Cavs in other ways, too. He's country, from a farm in Black Mountain, N.C. He loves—sorry, Gerald—fishing and racing. He wears number 43 in homage to Richard Petty and even used to sponsor a race car, although he gave that up three years ago when it occurred to him that his principal role in the operation was writing checks. "I had to get me a new hobby," he says, "like children." He has two. His principal role in that operation also is writing checks.

About the only time you really notice Daugherty, a five-time All-Star now in his seventh season, is when he's not in the game. During the 1989-90 season he missed 41 games, and the Cavs drifted from their 57-25 record of the season before to 42-40. Even this season, when he missed nine games in November with tendinitis in his left knee, Cleveland won on only three occasions.

Price, whom some call the best point guard in the game, explains, "We don't have a Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley to carry us. We have very good basketball players. But we need them all to win." Certainly they need Daugherty and Price to win. Just as Daugherty's absence explained the mediocrity of 1989-90, Price's year off with a knee injury explains the Cavs' sub-.500 season of '90-91. "Every team has guys that get injured," Price says. "We have key guys that get injured."

Says Daugherty, "We play pretty well together, but only when we're together. If Mark, the guy who handles the ball, is not healthy, we can be in trouble." In the last 3½ seasons, through last Sunday, Cleveland has been 140-76 with Price, 31-59 without him.

Price, like Daugherty, is another reluctant star. He was a second-round draft pick from Georgia Tech, admired for his shooting but, because of his size and complexion, consigned by most scouts to that awful category of one-dimensional guards. "I'm not the fastest guy," he says still, "but I kept up with all those guys in the ACC." But if Cleveland didn't like him enough to take him with their first-round pick, well, he wasn't so hot for Cleveland, either. "I said there were two places I wouldn't play—Cleveland and New York. I said it out of ignorance. When my pick was traded to Cleveland [from the Dallas Mavericks], I actually had to look it up in an encyclopedia."

In fact, until the NBA puts more teams in the Bible Belt, he probably is as good a fit in Cleveland as anywhere. It's not the gospel-music capital of the world—not like his hometown of Enid, Okla.—but Price has managed to find some fellows at his church in Cleveland to help him record an album of Christian music. "It's another way to share my faith," says the choirboy with the choirboy looks.

Until this season Price's fan club has been cultish. Although awhile back New York Knick coach Pat Riley rated him the top point guard in the league, and Bull coach Phil Jackson tabbed him his favorite, it wasn't until this year's All-Star Weekend that Price achieved national acclaim: Annually one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, he finally cemented his reputation as a long-range bomber by winning the three-point contest. "That's the most attention I've had in all this time." says the seven-year veteran. "And it had to come from a gimmick." But to prove he wasn't just a carnival act, the next day Price set an All-Star Game record by canning six more three-pointers. Nowadays when the kids come up to him in the lobby to ask for autographs, as they did in Minneapolis last week, they'll ask, "Were you nervous in the three-point contest, Mr. Price?" Mr. Price says no.

This is the kind of homespun wholesomeness that Wilkins was plunged into. Wilkins grew up in Atlanta and attended colleges in Mississippi and Tennessee. So maybe he should be able to talk about dirt tracks or croon a gospel medley. "Yeah," he cautions, "but seven years in New York, man." He dismisses his Southern heritage just like that. "You look at these guys. Am I totally different or what?"

Well, let's look at some more Cavaliers. Nance, a South Carolina native who still has as much spring in his long legs as he did in his rookie season with the Phoenix Suns, 12 years ago, is another car nut. He has spent about $120,000 to get a blue 1968 Camaro up to speed for the Pro-Modified circuit, but the catch is, he can't drive it because his Cav contract forbids him to do so. Hence, the car's name: Catch 22. When the laconic Nance talks, you get the feeling he would rather put an engine together than take a defense apart. Still, he has found the enthusiasm to average 17 points and nine rebounds a game this year for the Cavs and to lead them in blocked shots (2.7). This season, just after his 34th birthday, he made the All-Star team for the third time in his career. "We're just laid-back guys," Nance says. "Not the kind that wear pretty, bright suits."

Let's look at one more Cav—Williams, sixth man supreme. Hot Rod, unfortunately, is not into cars as much as his nickname (a holdover from childhood) suggests. His hero is not Richard Petty but Norm Abram, the second-banana carpenter on This Old House. Williams is into cabinetry, woodworking and designing and building houses. And what he most likes to do is take a set of blueprints (he even carries his architect's renderings on the road) and make model houses. He uses everything from Popsicle sticks to Styrofoam, which he prefers, for construction. It's more than a hobby; his models were used for a house he built for his mother and for one he had built for himself.

Now when he's at home he spends as many as four hours a day building a subdivision out of Styrofoam. "it's got low-cost housing, little parks...," he says. It's not at all surprising that Hot Rod does not construct skyscrapers. In fact, the idea of tiny bright lights puzzles him. "We're small-town guys," he says.

So, who would live in his Styrofoam city? Wilkins?

Actually, no. Wilkins thinks the Cavaliers are a little strange, and he continues to be surprised at the utter lack of attention Cleveland gets. But he is otherwise appreciative of his surroundings. "I'm such a high-energy person that I need a place and time to slow down. Here I don't feel that pressure to shoot the outside shot, to play at superhigh speed. I can play my game. Maybe that lack of attention and pressure is a good thing."

Wilkins can still sound out of place, as he does when he boasts that he gives "this team a little more flair." But, bright suit aside, he's looking more and more like he belongs with the Cavs. Certainly he has adapted his game to Cleveland's needs: He has stopped standing around outside and has begun driving to the basket. As he has adjusted, everyone else has adjusted to him, as well. And he does give the Cavaliers more flair.

The rest of the Cav starters, after six years together and with nothing much to show for it, seem to understand that Wilkins is necessary even if he doesn't know his way around a high-performance engine. "We were lacking that slashing, athletic player," says Price, "the one who could take it to the hole and dunk it. Gerald gives us more flexibility, can make us smaller and quicker up front. Or he can play a big guard."

Specifically Wilkins lets Cleveland match up with Chicago better. Now he and Ehlo can share time guarding Jordan. This, by the way, is no longer just theory. The Cavs have split four games with the Bulls this season and can hardly wait for the playoffs, as if their destiny is at hand.

There is a school of' thought in Cleveland that the Cavs had better not wait much longer. They are all still in their prime but are entering a period when they can no longer expect to get better, only older. "We're at the point," says Ehlo, "where maybe it's time to step it up."

And if it takes a guy in a bright-yellow suit? Maybe the Cavs have been country long enough. Bright-yellow suits for everybody.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHDaugherty is clearly the pivotal man for the Cavs, leading them in scoring and rebounds. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHNance has enough spring in his 34-year-old legs to pace Cleveland in blocked shots. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHAll-Star guard Price is a choirboy, but he didn't always sing Cleveland's praises. PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLEWilkens's team has been tested... PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLE...by the transplanted Wilkins, who has added flash to the Cavs' controlled style.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)