The Name Game

Can you imagine Mo Williams sinking a game-winning three-pointer for your “Cleveland Towers”? How about watching J.J. Hickson leading your “Cleveland Jays” in scoring, or listening to the sage advice of longtime play-by-play man, Austin Carr – better known as “Mr. Forester”?

Doesn’t quite work, does it?

Just over forty years ago, as part of a contest sponsored by the Plain Dealer, these were three of the five finalists in the search for Cleveland’s first professional basketball team’s new name.

But to borrow a term from today’s vernacular, neither those three nicknames, nor the fourth – (“Presidents”) – had the “swagger” of what eventually became the name of Nick Mileti’s new basketball franchise – the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Back in May of 1970, that masculine moniker was provided by a then-29-year-old district manager named Jerry Tomko, who wrote an essay which, in part, read: “The name Cleveland Cavaliers represents a group of daring fearless men, whose life's pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.”

(Little did he know that his words would also soon be lyrics in the Wine and Gold’s irrepressible fight song from the same era –“Come On, Cavs.” The tune, penned by local radio personality, Larry Morrow, famously exclaims: “We’ll never surrender/No matter what the odds.”)

Now retired and living in San Diego, Tomko – the father of veteran major league pitcher, Brett Tomko – keeps the winning essay from the PD in a safe box at his home.

“Actually I wrote it in about 20 minutes,” laughed Tomko. “I went to pick my wife (Donna) up and I heard about the contest on the radio. There was a napkin and a pen sitting in the car and I wrote it. Then, when I picked my wife up, I asked her to proofread it.”

(“She still corrects me if I say a word wrong,” joked the grandfather of two. “After 42 years, I guess that’s one of her jobs.”)

Tomko said he felt like “Cavaliers” had a chance when he heard the other four finalists.

“They picked five names and they had a vote on it. When the five names appeared – the other four didn’t sound that good. The odds seemed to be getting better, but it wasn’t a sure thing.”

Nearly 6,000 fans voted on the team’s new name, and over a third preferred the alliterative “Cleveland Cavaliers” – who would soon be tipping off their inaugural campaign at the Cleveland Arena.

After being selected as the winner, Tomko received a pair of season tickets for the Cavs maiden voyage in 1970, but not the autographed basketball he was promised by Mileti at the time.

But the current Cavaliers kept the organization’s original word – sending Tomko a basketball signed by the 2009-10 squad, along with a commemorative plaque.

Now, more than four decades later, the Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the most famous franchises in all of sports. Over those years, they’ve represented the gallant, swashbuckling image envisioned by Tomko quite well. And although the Eastlake native is 2400 miles and two time zones away – (not to mention living in Laker Country) – he remains a fan of the club whose name he coined.

“I’m not one of those jump-off-the-bandwagon, who’s-in-first-place type of guys,” said Tomko. “I have two sons, and one is a Lakers fan. So there’s a lot of ribbing going on back and forth.”

This year, the Wine and Gold return to a classic expression of their original look and colors. It’s been a magnificent four decades and although the franchise has changed uniforms, buildings, owners, players and coaches, two things haven’t changed from the day Jerry Tomko wrote an essay on a napkin: They’re still the Cleveland Cavaliers and they still don’t surrender, no matter what the odds.