Blast from the Past: Karl's Comeback Cavs

by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

The early ‘80s were some dark days for the Cavaliers franchise.

Ted Stepien bought the team from its original owner, Nick Mileti, and almost immediately dismantled all vestiges of the “Miracle” team that nearly reached the NBA Finals a few years earlier. Stepien went through five head coaches and made a slew of trades that were so destructive that the NBA had to step in and enact a rule to stop him. Even Joe Tait was shown the door.

In the first four years of the ‘80s, the Cavaliers’ record was a combined 94-234.

And in 1984, the franchise’s 15th season of existence, it looked like fans would be in for more of the same. Little did they know that before the calendar year would turn, basketball would be reborn in Cleveland.

After two futile years at the helm, head coach Tom Nissalke was replaced by 33-year-old George Karl, who’d served as Director of Player Acquisitions the previous season. Upon his hiring, Karl became the youngest head coach in Cavaliers history as well as the youngest in the NBA.

Despite the new ownership – (George and Gordon Gund took over on April 7th of the previous season) – the Cavaliers were still ready to deal on Draft Day, sending their No. 1 pick (Tim McCormick) along with Cliff Robinson to the Washington Bullets for their top selection, Mel Turpin. The Cavaliers also tried to land free agent forward Kelly Tripucka before the season began, but the former Fighting Irish star opted to remain in Detroit.

But for Cavalier fans, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

Cleveland dropped its first nine games before finally topping Atlanta on November 15th. The Cavs didn’t win their first home contest until November 25th – then proceeded to lose their first six games in December. And after dropping a 116-99 decision to the Hawks in New Orleans, Karl saw his squad fall to 2-19.

But two moves by Karl began to turn the squad around.

The first was to insert fourth-year forward Phil Hubbard into the starting lineup. In that first game, the former Wolverine led Cleveland with 18 points in a win over the Knicks. The Cavaliers would go on to win three of their next four.

By January, the Cavaliers seemed to find their footing. In the month, the Cavaliers posted a 7-9 mark, including a victory over Michael Jordan and the Bulls. That game drew 18,074 fans to the Richfield Coliseum, the arena’s biggest crowd since March 27, 1981 – the game that fans came to say goodbye to Joe Tait (and display their distaste for the Stepien regime).

January was also a showcase for World B. Free – who had been acquired from Golden State during the previous season. In Karl’s second substantial move, he inserted the self-styled Prince of Mid-Air into the starting lineup on January 22nd. Free had been named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week a fortnight earlier after averaging 28.3 ppg. And now found himself back among the starting five.

Free was one of the club's more seasoned veterans, but not the only one. Rugged forward Lonnie Shelton had won a Championship with the Sonics. Guard Johnny Davis had averaged double-figures in the seven previous years before joining Cleveland and center Ben Poquette proved to be a skilled and durable backup all season.

Some of Karl's young guns included rising star and high-flying forward Roy Hinson – the club's second-leading scorer. Third-year guard John Bagley was one of the league's top young playmakers and Turpin, the club's top pick, found his niche among the mix.

With the squad beginning to take shape, the Cavaliers continued to turn their season around. They went 9-6 in February – just their second winning month since January 1981. For his efforts, Karl was named the NBA’s Coach of the Month for February, becoming the first Cavs coach to win that honor.

During their turnaround, fans were beginning to recognize that Karl’s Cavs had their sights set on the postseason.

On February 15th, Cleveland snapped a 21-game losing streak to the Sixers at the Spectrum that dated back to 1978. One night later, the Cavs returned home to a crowd of 18,557. The Cavaliers dropped a thrilling 122-115 decision to the Rockets, but World B. Free netted 45 points in the loss. Following the loss to Houston, however, the Cavs bounced right back to top the Sixers for the second time in 69 hours.

In March, the beat went on for Karl’s surging squad. The team went west on topped Portland, Golden State and the Clippers before falling the Lakers in L.A. – snapping a seven-game road win streak. Overall on the 15-trip out West, the Cavaliers went 5-1. They returned home and fell to the Celtics on March 15 before a sold-out Coliseum crowd of 20,900 fans. But they bounced back to beat the Mavericks the following night, 135-128.

After winning their final three contests of the month, the Cavs closed out March at 9-6 – the first time Cleveland had posted back-to-back winning months since 1979.

But as entertaining as the regular season had been through the first few months, it was an April night in Richfield that Cavs fans from that era will remember forever.

It was an April 9th matchup against New Jersey – with only four games remaining in the campaign – and the Karl’s Cavaliers needed both a win and a Bullets’ victory over the Hawks to clinch their first playoff berth in seven seasons. Once again, the Coliseum was pulsating in a way it hadn’t been
in years.

The Bullets did their part, topping the Hawks in Atlanta. But the Cavaliers found themselves down seven points with under 10 minutes to play in the fourth. But in a microcosm of the season, the Cavaliers rallied to end the game on a 30-9 run. After the inspired 114-100 win, the entire team was called back onto the court for a raucous ovation. Champagne flowed freely in the locker room.

In their first postseason appearance since 1978, the Cavaliers drew the defending World Champion Celtics in the opening round.

In Game 1 on April 18, Larry Bird led everyone with 40 points and the Celtics took the 126-123 win at the Garden. The 123 points marked a playoff record for the Cavs, but it wasn’t enough as World B. Free’s three-point attempt fell short at the buzzer.

In Game 2 – the Cavaliers first national TV appearance since 1979 – the Cavaliers and Celtics went to the wire once again. And once again, it was a duel between Bird and World. Unfortunately, Bird came out on top again – netting 30 points in the 108-106 win as Free’s 25-foot attempt just missed sending the game into overtime.

The series shifted back to the Coliseum for Game 3 and the Cavaliers didn’t disappoint. Larry Bird was a late scratch and Free filled the void – leading the way with 32 points and willing the Cavaliers to the 105-98 win. The victory snapped a 17-game losing streak to the Celtics.

But two days later, before a capacity crowd, Celtics closed out the series – 117-115. Bird returned to action and scored 34 points, negating a 30-point effort by Free. Cleveland led, 109-104, with 4:08 left, but Bird scored six points from that point forward and the Cavs missed a flurry of shots in the final seconds.

Boston took the series, 3-1, despite both teams totaling 449 points in the series. Boston would again advance to the NBA Finals, but were topped in six games by the L.A. Lakers.

The Cavaliers had finished the 1984-85 season 34-27 after beginning 2-19. It marked the starting point of George Karl’s career that continues to go strong to this day. That season, John Bagley finished fifth in the league in assists, Roy Hinson sixth in blocked shots and World B. Free seventh in three-point percentage.

As a team, it wasn’t that the Cavaliers had a particularly prolific season. They still finished ten games under .500 and won just a single playoff game. But Karl’s Comeback Cavs revived basketball in Cleveland.

The luster from the 1984-85 club wore off in the following season and George Karl would eventually move on. But one year after that, the Cavaliers would register a Draft Day for the ages – propelling them into an era of previously unseen success.

The Cavaliers would eventually grow into one of the Eastern Conference’s most powerful teams. But those seeds were planted two years earlier when they left an era of incompetence and the shell of a 2-19 start behind.