Blast from the Past: The 1980-81 Season

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Now that the Cavaliers organization has established itself as one of the NBA’s best, it’s much easier to stomach a look back at the 1980-81 season.

We could call that year the first of some “dark days" for Cleveland basketball. Instead, let’s just describe it as “weird.”

The Cavalier entered the ‘80s with a changing of the guard. Previous owner Nick Mileti sold the team to Joe Zingale, who sold it to Nationwide Advertising founder, Ted Stepien, just one month later. And the eccentric Stepien would waste no time putting his unique stamp on the Wine and Gold.

Stepien was the son of immigrants from Poland who settled in Pittsburgh. He fought in World War II as lieutenant bombardier-navigator and, by the time he was 22 years old, had already founded his own advertising agency. Stepien got his bachelor’s degree from Case Western in 1949 and his master’s in 1959. By the time he purchased the Cavaliers, Nationwide Advertising was the largest recruitment advertising firm in the world.

The father of six daughters and a former All-City football and basketball star in Pittsburgh, Stepien was nothing if not proactive in his first season as owner.

“We’re going to be a big winner in the NBA,” he proclaimed. “And we’re going to give the fans of Northeastern Ohio the best in basketball and the best in entertainment.”

Not long after making that statement, Stepien – along with first-year GM, Don Delaney – began to remake the roster. And that facelift became part of franchise lore.

Before the season, the Cavaliers sent their 1984 first round pick to Dallas in exchange for guard Mike Bratz. They traded the team’s second-leading scorer, Campy Russell, to the Knicks for forward Bill Robinzine, who was then traded to Dallas – along with two more No. 1 draft picks – for Richard Washington and Jerome Whitehead.

And as if the Mavericks hadn’t cleaned Cleveland’s clock enough before the season began, Dallas also selected the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, Austin Carr, in the expansion draft.

Later that season, the Cavaliers brain trust completed their housecleaning, dealing Chad Kinch and Cleveland’s 1985 first rounder – to Dallas, naturally – in exchange for point guard, Geoff Houston. (Cleveland had already dealt their 1982 first rounder the previous February. That player turned out to be James Worthy. The Dallas picks turned into Roy Tarpley, Derek Harper and Detlef Schrempf.)

The one player that Stepien and Delaney had the sense to keep was former first rounder – the late, great Mike Mitchell.

Coming off a sophomore season in which the Auburn star led the team at 22.2 ppg, Mitchell upped his average to 24.5 in his third year.

As a team, the Cavaliers struggled to a 13-27 record through December, but went 9-5 in January. Mitchell was the main impetus behind their turnaround and he was selected to play in that year’s All-Star Game – to be held at the Coliseum in Richfield.

Up until that year’s midseason classic, each respective city was responsible for its All-Star festivities. But apparently some of first-year owner’s moves had convinced Commissioner Larry O’Brien that the league should take over all operation aspects of the game. (And have ever since.)

Featured among the West starters were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Gervin and Moses Malone. The East was led by Larry Bird, Tiny Archibald – (the game’s MVP) – and Julius Erving, who led that year’s All-Star balloting with 304,600 votes. (This past year’s leading vote-getter garnered 2,380,216 tallies.)

In the game itself, the East led by three at half and nine after three quarters. Paul Westphal and Dennis Johnson led both teams with 19 points apiece, but the star of the show was the hometown guy – Mike Mitchell – who netted 14 points in just 15 minutes to the approval of 20,239 fans at the raucous Richfield Coliseum. The East won, 123-120.

Unbeknownst to those fans, that would be about as good as it’d get for the Wine and Gold that year.

The previous season, the squad ran off 11 wins in their final 14 games to close out the season. First-year head coach Bill Musselman saw his squad do almost the exact opposite – going 6-22 in the season’s second half. Stepien replaced him with GM Don Delaney with 11 games remaining.

The Cavaliers did, however, manage to fill the Coliseum one more time before the season came to its merciful end.

Over 20,000 fans packed the House that Mileti Built on March 27 – the final home game of the season – to watch Philadelphia destroy the Cavaliers, 138-117. The reason for the full house was due to the departure of already-iconic announcer, Joe Tait, who had been fired by Stepien for on-air critiques of his club. The irate throng was the Coliseum’s biggest crowd in two seasons.

Overall, the new-look Cavaliers would finish with a 28-54 mark, but there were a few bright spots.

Mike Mitchell had his second straight solid campaign. Aside from his All-Star performance and gaudy scoring average, Mitchell averaged 7.2 boards per contest and played in all 82 contests, as he had the year before.

In 1980-81, veteran swingman, Randy Smith, played in all 82 games for the ninth consecutive season and finished second in scoring with a 15.2 ppg average. Rookie center Bill Laimbeer showed improvement as a starting center. And versatile forward, Kenny Carr, averaged 15.2 points and 10.3 boards per game – good for sixth in the NBA.

Finally, there was third-year guard Roger Phegley, who finished fourth on the team in scoring at 14.4 ppg – the best mark of his young career.

For Phegley’s efforts, he – along with All-Star Mike Mitchell – were … you guessed it … traded 27 games into the 1981-82 season. The duo fetched Ron Brewer, Reggie Johnson and cash from the San Antonio Spurs.

The classy Mitchell, who passed away just this past June after a two-year battle with cancer, went on to average 20.1 ppg in nine productive seasons in San Antonio.

The Cleveland team he left behind would need more than half-a-decade to get its house back in order.