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Published: Monday, 7/29/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

COMMENTARY

For first-year Cavs, fate, if not success, was in the cards

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST
This 1970 Walt Wesley bubble-gum card started the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road to professional basketball. This 1970 Walt Wesley bubble-gum card started the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road to professional basketball.
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When the Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association chose Anthony Bennett with the first pick in the June 27 player draft, that decision came after long hours of watching film and video, reviewing scouting reports, poring over statistics, and applying as much scientific analysis as possible.

Back in 1970, when the expansion Cavaliers were ready to make their first pick in the “dispersal draft,” which made certain veteran players available for acquisition from existing teams, it was a lot simpler. Jim Lessig bought bubble-gum cards.

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Mr. Lessig, of Perrysburg, now the retired commissioner of the Mid-American Conference and former director of athletics at Bowling Green State University, had just joined the brand new Cavaliers franchise as assistant coach to Bill Fitch.

The expansion draft, as it is now known, was looming, and coaches Fitch and Lessig were having no luck acquiring information from the league about the players they might want to choose for the team’s first roster. Remember, this was pre-Internet.

One evening, Mr. Lessig and his son went to get milk, and the boy asked his dad for a quarter to buy bubble gum. Inside the pack were several NBA player cards, each with a color photo on the front and the player’s career statistics on the back.

“It was everything we had been looking for,” Mr. Lessig recalls. “I called Bill and he told me to go back to the store and buy every pack of bubble gum they had.”

About $20 worth of bubble gum later, the Cavaliers’ brain trust had pictures and stats on almost 100 NBA players spread out on cards on the floor. They studied. They pondered. They argued.

On draft day, they put their bubble-gum cards in a shoebox and went to New York for the draft. One card must have impressed them more than the others. They chose Walt Wesley, a four-year veteran center with the Cincinnati Royals and Chicago Bulls.

It was several years before word got out about the Cavaliers’ unconventional drafting method in Year One, which is just as well. The bubble quickly burst: The Cavs lost their first 15 games and ended up losing 67 of 82 in their inaugural season. Imagine the public scorn if people had known how the club stocked the team.

In nine seasons with the Cavaliers, Coach Fitch won 304 games but lost 434. Yet he was considered a good coach. He went on to become the eighth-winningest coach in the NBA, with 944 wins over 25 years, including nine years in Cleveland. Of course, he lost 1,106 times.

Last month, he was chosen the 2013 winner of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Basketball Coaches Association.

What Mr. Lessig enjoyed as much as anything was his boss’ sense of humor. He remembers walking with the coach to an arena in San Francisco where the Cavaliers would that night lose their 14th straight game. A security guard would not admit them.

“How do I know you’re the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers?” the guard asked incredulously.

“Bill asked the guard if he knew the Cavs’ record,” Mr. Lessig says. “He did. Then he said to the guy: ‘Do you think I would tell you I’m the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers if I’m not?’”

The guard’s response: “Go right on in.”

During yet another disastrous road trip that season, the coach approached a United Airlines ticket counter and asked: “Where do we go to surrender?”

But he also coached the 1975-76 “Miracle of Richfield” team that stunned the league and almost won it all, an outfit with two other BGSU connections: NBA great Nate Thurmond and team owner Nick Mileti.

Mr. Fitch is still well known and remembered in the Mid-American Conference and at Bowling Green, where he coached for one season. He won a MAC championship in 1968, the last time a Falcon men’s basketball team has gone to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Mr. Lessig followed Coach Fitch from BGSU to the University of Minnesota and then to the NBA.

He recalls that the Cavaliers developed something of a cult following around the country in that hapless first season, especially in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Mr. Lessig was doing a lot of advance scouting. Whenever he went to watch the Knicks at Madison Square Garden the crowd would roar when the Cavaliers’ score was announced.

Eventually, Mr. Lessig returned to Bowling Green and the MAC. But he still has a souvenir from his bizarre first season in the NBA. It’s that Walt Wesley card.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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