Blast from the Past: The 1970-71 Season

The story of the early Cavaliers is the story of their first coach,
Bill Fitch.
The Cavaliers organization has seen some highs and lows over the four decades of the franchise. This summer, plans on recapping some of the seasons and moments that made the Wine and Gold what they are today …

In 2009-10, with injuries piling up and Byron Scott forced into an impromptu midseason youth movement, the Cavs new coach could have borrowed one of the greatest lines in the 40 years of the franchise.

That line – which actually begins his profile in the Cavaliers first media guide – belongs to Cleveland’s first head coach, who said: “Just remember, the name’s Fitch, not Houdini.”

Fitch was right. There was no amount of magic that could’ve saved the expansion Wine and Gold in 1970-71 – their first year of existence.

In their inaugural season, the Cavaliers were placed in the NBA’s Central Division – joining the Cincinnati Royals, Atlanta Hawks and Baltimore Bullets. The New York Knicks were World Champs and the reigning Rookie of the Year was Lew Alcindor. The first four picks of that year’s draft were Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich and Dave Cowens.

The Cavaliers selected high-scoring Iowa forward John Johnson with the No. 7 selection and Ohio State’s (and Findlay native) Dave Sorenson with their second pick.

The Cavaliers initial media guide – like the arena they played in – was split between them and Mileti’s Barons, an AHL team that had already been in existence for 35 years. (Buried on the corner of page 8 in said media guide, underneath the bio of guard, Joe Cooke, there’s a small section featuring a young, beardless Joe Tait and a description that reads: “An Ohio University graduate and newcomer to Cleveland, Joe Tait last year broadcast Indiana University football and Indiana Pacers (ABA) basketball. He brings you every Cavaliers game on WERE.”

As he did for the next four decades, Joe Tait would do much of the broadcasting heavy lifting. Only nine games were televised in that first year.

The Cavaliers originally played at the Cleveland Arena on the corner of 37th and Euclid Ave. – a building that held 11,000 fans and is recognized as the building that hosted the first ever rock’n’roll show – Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball. It’s also a building Joe Tait says visiting players called “the Black Hole of Calcutta.” The showers were reportedly so disgusting that players would return, in uniform, to the Sheraton across the street.

Ticket prices were $6, $5, $4 and $2.50.

Bill Fitch was a former Marines drill instructor, a fact that almost anyone who played under him mentions immediately. Fitch began his athletic career at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he starred in basketball and baseball and graduated in 1954 with a degree in Physical Education.

The Wine and Gold's first, first draft pick: John Johnson.
In 1956, Fitch was named head coach for Creighton University, where, among others, he coached Bob Gibson in both sports. (The Hall of Fame pitcher actually played one year with the Globetrotters before joining the Cardinals.)

Fitch made four more stops before becoming the Cavaliers coach. He returned to his alma mater, Coe College, where he compiled a 49-37 record in four years, but more importantly to Cavs fans, began his lifelong friendship with Joe Tait.

Fitch took North Dakota U. to a No. 3 national ranking in 1967, but left for Bowling Green in the summer of 1967. BGSU finished the previous season in last place, but won the conference championship in Fitch’s first year – later losing to Marquette by a single point in the NCAA tournament.

At Bowling Green, Fitch met Nick Mileti, a BGSU alum, one year before Mileti bought the Barons. Mileti was there to persuade school officials to move the Bowling Green-Niagara game to Cleveland. The university agreed and in that game, Fitch’s Falcons topped Calvin Murphy and Co. – convincing Mileti that basketball (and Bill Fitch) belong in Cleveland.

Fitch made one more stop, taking perennial Big 10 doormat, Minnesota, to back-to-back .500 records.

In 1970, three expansion teams – the Cavaliers, Portland Trailblazers and Buffalo Braves – joined the NBA. And in the expansion draft, Mileti and Fitch did their best to assemble a solid group of veterans. That group included Bingo Smith, who was San Diego’s No. 1 pick in 1969 and an All-American at Tulsa. John Warren was coming off an NBA Championship season with the Knicks as Clyde Frazier’s backup. Walt Wesley was a steady four-year vet as was Butch Beard – who was also drafted by the U.S. Army and had to serve a year before joining Cleveland.

Other players from that inaugural team include John Egan, the Cavs only player in his 30s (and the league’s shortest before Calvin Murphy was drafted that summer).

Egan, drafted in 1961, played in the Finals with the Lakers in the two years prior to coming to Cleveland. And, in a sign of the times, according to the 1970 Cavaliers media guide, Egan “and his wife and two children live in Hartford, where he was born. He is an offseason carpet salesman, with a desire to excel as a businessman when his NBA career ends.”

After two trips to the Finals with the Lakers, Egan might have wished he was selling carpeting during the first month of the Cavaliers first campaign.

The NBA did Cleveland no favors, of course – giving the expansion club their first seven games on the road. Home or away, the Wine and Gold were awful, dropping their first 15 games, the 11th of which was a 54-point defeat – 141-87 – in Philadelphia.

The losing streak actually attracted fans from around the NBA to see if – and when – the Cavaliers would win a game.

That suspense ended on November 12, when they edged the expansion Blazers in Portland, 105-103. The celebration didn’t last long, with the Wine and Gold dropping their next 12 games – falling to 1-27.

Luckily, the Cavaliers met another expansion franchise, Buffalo, against whom they got their first ever home win – 108-106 – on December 9.

They were 2-34 before they got their next win and 3-37 before they managed to win two straight.

The Cavaliers’ futility was illuminated the night guard John Warren scored two points for Portland by making a layup at the wrong basket. Things weren’t that much better for the expansion Blazers, either. Their center, Leroy Ellis, actually tried to block the shot. Moments later, Portland tried to outdo the Cavaliers by playing six men.

As the season wound down, the Cavaliers discovered some bright spots and finished with wins in two of their final five games. They wrapped up the 1970-71 season with an entertaining 114-112 home loss to the Blazers in which Walt Wesley scored 35 points, only to be outdone by Portland’s top draft pick that season – Geoff Petrie – who finished with 37.

Cleveland finished 15-67 in 1970-71, the worst record in team history. But they did have some bright spots.

John Johnson had a fine rookie year – averaging 16.6 points and making the All-Star Game. Bingo Smith averaged 15.2 points and John Warren handed out a team-leading 347 assists with a an 11.5 scoring average. Walt Wesley, the team’s workhorse, dropped 50 points on Cincinnati that season – a record that stood for over 34 years.

Wesley led Fitch’s first-year squad in both scoring (17.7) and rebounding (8.7).

The Cavaliers franchise that began in futility would eventually become one of the league’s top organizations, reaching the NBA Finals in 2007. But they say that every journey begins with the first step. And in the Cavaliers’ case – that first step was a doozy.