I Believe in Miracles

The Miracle of Richfield team kept the franchise on a roll and set the bar of expectations high
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The Miracle Team
(top row - l. to r.) Jimmy Rodgers, Jim Brewer, John Lambert, Jim Chones, Luke Witte, Nate Thurmond, Campy Russell, Rowland Garrett, Trainer Charlie Strasser
(bottom row) Jim Cleamons, Austin Carr, Head Coach/GM Bill Fitch, President Nick Mileti, Executive VP Stephen Zayac, Bingo Smith, Dick Snyder, Foots Walker
As you cast your votes for the Cavaliers Top 35 moment in franchise history, your senses may be drowned out by the aura of King James reign as one of the best.

But if you look beyond the recent renaissance and deeper into the Cavaliers past, you’ll find what many would call the team’s crowning achievement: The Miracle of Richfield.

“There has never been more excitement and electricity for the Cavaliers down the stretch and into the playoffs than during the Miracle year,” said Joe Tait, the Cavaliers Hall-of-Fame and longtime broadcaster. “The fans rallied around the team and the team used the fans energy to propel themselves to the playoffs.”

The excitement had been built up when the Cavaliers missed the playoffs by one game the season before, winding up 40-42. Prior to the season’s start, fans hoped for, but did not expect, a playoff berth. The team had only been inception five years and had gone through the normal, yet frustrating, growing pains most expansion franchises face.

During the inaugural lean years, Head Coach Bill Fitch quietly assembled the talent that would eventually propel the Cavaliers to its Miracle season. Shrewd drafts landed John Johnson, Austin Carr, Jim Brewer, and Campy Russell; an offseason trade landed them Jim Chones in 1975.

After a 6-11 start in 1975, expectations took a sharp nosedive. The foundation for success was there, but the pieces had a hard time gelling.

“Nothing was clicking,” said Jim Chones, in Cavs: From Fitch to Fratello. “There were some petty jealousies. Players were bitching about the time they were getting. Guys were questioning Fitch. All the things that eventually can tear a team apart were being set in place.”

Cleveland will never know that version of history.

Instead, they’ll remember Bill Fitch making a trade with Chicago for aging center Nate Thurmond in late-November that not only turned the Cavaliers’ season around, but revitalized the franchise.

Thurmond became the team’s final piece, its glue, its elder statesman, and defensive stopper all rolled into one. Campy Russell says Thurmond provided locker room leadership and enabled Fitch’s nine-man rotation to finally gel on the court.

“Our starting five of [Jim] Cleamons, [Dick] Snyder, [Bingo] Smith, Brewer, and Chones, along with our second unit, of Austin, [Foots] Walker, myself, and then Nate finally knew their roles,” said Russell. “Defensively—where it’s most important—guys could defend their man one-on-one and know that if they were beat, Nate would have their back at the basket.”

From that point on during the regular season, the Cavaliers never looked back. They went on a 43-22 tear the rest of the way and met the Washington Bullets in an improbable and unforgettable playoff series.

Three key Miracle members -- Austin Carr, Bingo Smith and Nate Thurmond -- share an embrace back in 2003, the night the Cavaliers announced the return to wine and gold.
The fans will remember the close games—five of the six against the Bullets decided by five points or less. Bingo Smith’s heroics in Game2. Carr leading the charge in Game 3. A reverse layup in Game 4 by Jim Cleamons to eek out a one-point win. A dead-heat contest in the deciding game broken by Dick Snyder’s twelve-foot, high-arching jumper.

But no one—both players and fans—can forget the noise. The concrete-vibrating, shaking-the-chalkboard-in-the-locker-room noise. Fans packing the Coliseum an hour before tipoff, chanting a thunderous “Let’s go Cavs.” Record numbers driving to Richfield to cheer on the hottest team in the NBA.

“After we got Nate, I thought we were the best team in the league that year,” said Fitch. “If Jim Chones hadn’t hurt his foot in between the Washington and Boston series, I knew we would have won the title.”

Led by Walker, the Cavaliers defeated Boston twice of five times during the regular season and won three of four from Phoenix. The Cavaliers had momentum—they believed. So did the city.

The Miracle season—nearly one score ago—seems like a distant memory except to the Cleveland faithful and players, where the memories remain fresh and vivid.

“That was one special year,” says Thurmond. “We put aside our individual desires and bought into the team concept. I’ve never felt closer to that group of guys than during the season.”

And neither have we.