The Wine and Gold's No. 1 Son
In Cleveland, official and unofficial Draft parties will celebrate the selection. One of the celebrities hosting the official party will be the Cavaliers’ original No. 1 pick. He’s the first No. 1 draft pick (of three) the Wine and Gold has had in their 40 years of existence. But he’s the only one known as “Mr. Cavalier.”
One of the most prolific college scorers in NCAA history, Austin Carr didn’t get flown to New York or get fitted for a $3,000 suit when he arrived. He didn’t get photographed by NBAE or get interviewed on ESPN. He didn’t saunter onto the stage at Madison Square Garden and shake hands with then-Commissioner, Walter Kennedy.
In fact, it’s more amazing what the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft didn’t get for being the best player in college basketball and the most desirable one on the next level. Of course, none of those things kept the great Austin Carr from pouring in 10,000 career points and having his number retired by the franchise that brought him into the league.
While Chris Grant and the Cavs brass work out and break down this year’s prospects for the top spot(s), here’s how it all went down four decades ago for Mr. Cavalier …
First off, how different is the Draft from the days when you went No. 1?
Austin Carr: Oh, man! That’s like night and day! I found out when I was in Art History class that I was the No. 1 player picked. I was sitting in the back of the class. It was about 3-something in the afternoon. That’s when I found out. My agent called.
I was the No. 1 pick in the NBA and the ABA. I was the territorial pick of the Virginia Squires. They offered me the exact same contract as the Cavaliers, so I knew there was collusion somewhere – but I couldn’t prove it. (Laughs) The leagues were battling for supremacy then and that’s just how it was. But like my agent said: ‘There’s something going on here.’
Did you consider the ABA over the Cavaliers?
A.C.: Yes, I was thinking about it because it was close to D.C. But my agent said we’re going for the real dollars, not the fake money. At that time the ABA was about to go under. The NBA wasn’t totally solid, but their dollars were better than ABA dollars!
How about your folks in D.C.?
A.C.: Actually, my father was NBA all the way.
So you’re sitting in class at Notre Dame when you find out you’re the No. 1 pick …
A.C.: It was toward the end of class. We kind of stopped the class and let everybody know what was going on. We were almost ready to walk out, and the professor says: ‘We’ve got Mr. Carr as the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA.” The class went nuts.
A.C.: Oh yeah! I went out and had a few beers!
What did you know about Cleveland or the Cavaliers back then?
A.C.: Nothing, really.
Some players are concerned about the Cleveland weather.
A.C.: After being South Bend, Indiana?! Cleveland was like Florida to me! So there was no problem. I could handle it. And I really like the change of seasons. Cleveland weather can be a pain in the butt sometimes, but I just like it. I know that sounds weird.
And I really like the people here. They’ve been very good to me. And they’re very genuine. You know when they hate you and you know when they like you!
Had you worked out or interviewed with Cleveland before being selected?
A.C.: I came here after I was drafted as the No. 1 pick. I came to Cleveland, they set up a press conference when I arrived. That was it. That was the first time I’d met them – at the press conference.
Before that, I was hearing that I might be the 2nd or 3rd pick, because they thought Cleveland would take Elmore Smith (who I wound up playing with down the road anyway). But I wound up being the first pick.
So you hadn’t even met Fitch before the Cavs took you No. 1 overall?
A.C.: It’s so much different now. But you have to remember: back then, everybody was a four-year player. So you knew what you had.
Now, if you stay four years, they think something’s wrong with you. You’re not as good as the guy coming one year out of high school. But actually, you’re much better. Because you know more; you’re more experienced. And you’re much more of a socialized individual. When you’re just out of high school, you don’t know anything about society or how to deal with people.
Standard question: What did you do with your first check?
A.C.: (Laughs) Right then, the Oldsmobile Toronado had just changed their model style, and they put the four lights in the back. So I fell in love with the Toronado and I bought the Toronado.
But … it was violet – with a white interior and a white top.
So I got all my stuff packed and drove it home to D.C. and parked it in front of my parents’ house. I get home, I knock on the door. My mother comes to the door and she says, ‘Where’s your car?‘ And I said, ‘It’s right there!’
She shook her head – “No.” She said, ‘You can sell that thing this week. I did not raise a pimp.’
I looked at my father and he threw his hands up like: “Well …I can’t help you on this one.”
That was the end of the violet Toronado?
A.C.: I had it one week. I ended up getting a Mercedes. My mother said: ‘Now, you got a car!’
Did being the No. 1 pick change you at all?
A.C.: Not really. Because of the way I was raised.
We didn’t have a lot, but both parents worked and they exposed me to a lot of things. So I wasn’t in awe. I mean – the money – I was in awe of that, because we had to scrap for everything we had. But it didn’t change me because that’s not my personality, and my folks didn’t raise me that way.
I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder. My parents wouldn’t allow me and my brothers to act like that.
The rest of your 1971 Class – with Bob Lanier, Jim Cleamons, Clifford Ray, Elmore Smith, Downtown Freddie Brown – was solid but not spectacular.
A.C.: If you look at it, there weren’t many superstar players from that Draft. But there’s a few guys right at the edge. To me, it was one of the most consistent classes, because there were so many guys from that class that played in the league for a long time.
To me, that’s how you determine how strong a draft class is. It’s how long those players stay in the league. A lot of people will look through a class too see how many Hall of Famers there were. But longevity is what proves your worth as a player. It’s how long you last. Unfortunately, I had injuries. But I knew the game and I knew how to play the game. That’s the value of a draft class. How many of those 10-14 top picks stay in the league for five years or more.
How did Bill Fitch treat you as the top pick?
A.C.: The one thing Fitch didn’t do was sugarcoat anything. He was always up front with me. He treated everybody the same: He dogged everybody! (Laughs)
But there was so much turnover in personnel, and you had certain guys that were lackadaisical. So he had to be stern. Some guys could take it and some guys couldn’t. And we finally got 12 guys who could take it. But by then, Fitch had mellowed out a little bit to where he started trusting us a little more.
How about the veterans?
A.C.: The veterans gave me a little grief. Until they found out what kind of person I was. Then, everything settled down. They knew I was going to come to work every day and work hard. And I want to win. I didn’t come in there with a big head. I didn’t have that attitude.
In fact, some of the guys wanted me to be more assertive. Because I came in, trying to fit in and just be part of it. But some of the guys wanted me to be more vocal, more assertive.
What are your thoughts on this year’s Draft?
A.C.: Naturally, you’ve got Kyrie Irving. And the people I talk to say he’s legitimately the best player in the Draft. I haven’t seen him much, but if that’s the truth and he’s the next Chris Paul, you snag him. And you can have Baron Davis be his tutor.
I like Derrick Williams. I don’t know about his ball-handling ability, but I know he’s a man out there and he wants to play. I like Brandon Knight from Kentucky. I like his game, I like his size and I think his upside is big. And I like (Enes) Kanter. He’s a physical guy, not afraid to mix it up. Runs the floor well. And I think he’s a true center.
Big plans for this year’s Draft Night?
A.C.: We’re going to have the draft party here. Campy, myself and Fred McLeod are going to be hosting it. It’s going to be a good time! I might even celebrate the No. 1 pick with a beer again!