The Making of a Miracle
It’s where the Coliseum used to be. There are silos and orchards and an ice cream store. You notice these things now. If you go back now, back through Boston Mills and Black roads, you’ll find it a lot less stressful than when you were bumper-to-bumper on cold February night, itching to see World B. Free drain some threes.
To the modern LeBron-era Cavaliers fan, “the Coliseum” was an ancient place in Italy where the Lions took on the Christians. Not all Cavaliers fans remember the Richfield Coliseum. To them, it’s just an empty field.
But the Coliseum is where the Cavaliers history was forged. And no event galvanized the Wine and Gold more than an epic seven game series in April of 1976.
On Tuesday night, March 8, during halftime of the Magic game, the Cavaliers will commemorate the “Miracle of Richfield” by raising the Central Division banner. The banner will be lifted into rafters, where the numbers of three members of that team currently reside – Austin Carr (34), Bingo Smith (7) and Nate Thurmond (42).
The Cavaliers didn’t win the Eastern Conference in 1976; Jim Chones’ broken foot probably prevented them from that goal. But Cleveland did manage to knock off the powerhouse Washington Bullets in seven unforgettable games, three of which were decided at the buzzer. In fact, the legendary Bill Fitch’s men won Game 7 in equally dramatic fashion.
The Miracle ended at the Coliseum, too. Cleveland lost to Boston in six games and the Celtics eventually went on to win it all over Phoenix. But before all that, the close-knit group gave Cleveland sports fans a moment they’ll never forget.
The 1975-76 Cavaliers journey began long before that fateful evening on April 29. In fact, it started out poorly, with the Cavaliers winning only six of their first 11 games. Cleveland had made big strides from year four to year five and had missed their first-ever playoff appearance the year before by one game.
Joining all-defensive Big Ten gems Jim Brewer and Jimmy Cleamons, as well as silky smooth Bingo Smith, were the previous year’s acquisitions – Jim Chones, Campy Russell and Foots Walker. But the biggest addition to the Miracle team came 18 games into the 1975-76 season.
"We didn't have any overbearing personalities. That's just the kind of people that we were," said Campy. "It was a real good marriage of 14 guys and a coach. We all came from winning situations and we all wanted to help each other improve."
Nate Thurmond, Akron native and future Hall of Famer was already nearing 14,000 points and 14,000 points when he arrived home in a trade with Chicago that sent Steve Patterson and rookie Eric Fernsten to the Bulls for Thurmond and forward Rowland Garrett.
Referring to the pre-Thurmond days, Fitch said: “When we took Jim (Chones) off the floor we became an inferior team for 16 or 18 minutes a night. Nate gave us a full 48 minutes of solid center play.“
With the 34-year-old Thurmond, Cleveland got to the .500 mark at 14-14 and never went below that mark for the rest of the season. Later that spring, the franchise that started out losing its first 16 games was ready to tangle with the heavyweights of the Eastern Conference.
"Nate led the team with his deeds," said Campy Russell. "He wasn't a boisterous guy. It's what he did on the court, night-in an night-out. Even at his age."
Adding to the excitement of getting a hometown hero in the twilight of his brilliant career, the Cavaliers also saw the return of Austin Carr, who bounced back from knee surgery to return to wear the wine and gold.
The team that had won the Central Division for five straight years was the vaunted Washington Bullets with legends like the The Big E, Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Phil Chenier and Dave Bing. The Bullets were also very hungry to return to the Finals, where they had just been humbled 4-0 by the Golden State Warriors.
Bill Fitch’s Cavaliers got their chance to prove their mettle on March 21, when the Bullets came to Richfield with a 2 ½ game lead over Cleveland in the Central. 20,784 fans saw the Cavaliers defend their home floor with a 95-92 win.
Cleveland clinched the Central Division crown on April 10 with a win over the Knicks on the Coliseum floor. They had clinched the first playoff spot in the franchise’s history ten days earlier in New Orleans. By that point, the Cavaliers had won 41 games since December 9.
Probably the one fact about Fitch’s club that’s most indicative of its makeup is that seven players averaged double figures. Forty-nine wins and that fact will net a man Coach of the Year, an honor given to Fitch before the final game of the Boston series.
"When I first came here, it took two years to weed out all the disgruntled people, all the guys who were selfish," said Austin Carr. "Until we finally got 12 guys who wanted to share the ball and win games with a team concept."
The first game against the playoff-tested Bullets was witnessed by 19,974 fans That’s 19,974 screaming Clevelanders, bellowing their brains out where only the silo and the orchards and the ice cream store sit now.
"The fans would get rolling a half-hour before the game," recalled Carr. "By the we got to the court, they'd be stomping on the floor: 'LET'S GO CAVS! LETS GO CAVS!' It was to the point where the entire building was shaking. It was unbelievable and that's how it went every game."
Elvin Hayes’ Bullets beat the Cavaliers 100-95 in the opener of the series. The upstart Cavs chalked it up to first-time jitters and, true to their word, proved that true in a tough defensive battle in Game 2.
The Cavaliers trailed Washington by a point, 79-78, with 28 seconds remaining when Jim Cleamons forced a turnover, giving Bingo Smith the chance to provide Cleveland with its first great playoff moment when he drained a long-distance jumper in the waning seconds to give Cleveland an 80-79 win. The series was now about to step into the national spotlight.
A crowd of 21,061 were on hand at the Coliseum for the nationally-televised Game 3, Cleveland won in a fast-paced affair, 88-76.
The Cavaliers saved their best for home once again, but this time it was Ohio State star Jimmy Cleamons turn to provide the heroics. Game 5 saw a playoff-record crowd of 21,312 saw an instant classic.
With seven seconds remaining and the Bullets up by a point, Elvin Hayes missed a pair of free throws that would have cooked Cleveland’s goose. Jim Brewer grabbed the rebound and called timeout. It looked like Bingo would duplicate his heroics from Game 2, but instead fired up an airball that Cleamons grabbed in mid-air and layed-in the ball as the buzzer sounded.
The Cavaliers won 92-91 and were one win away from knocking the powerful Bullets out of the Playoffs.
But the Bullets weren’t about to go down easy and took the young Cavaliers to an extra session for a 102-98 win in the nation’s capital to send it back to Cleveland for Game 7.
Once again, Richfield set an NBA record for a playoff crowd, as 21,564 deafening fans packed the Coliseum on April 29 and the final game of the series turned out to be a classic in a classic series.
No team led by more than seven points there were 16 lead changes and eight ties. Still, the game came down to the closing seconds.
Phil Chenier tied the game at 85-85 with a jumper with 24 seconds left. After dribbling down the clock, Cleamons called timeout to give Cleveland the final shot. Cleamons in-bounded the ball to veteran guard Dick Snyder, who dribbled past Wes Unseld and threw a runner high off the glass to give the Cavaliers the 87-85 lead.
With time running out, Thurmond knocked the ball out of Hayes’ hands and Chenier’s last ditch attempt fell short.
The euphoric Coliseum fans mobbed the court to celebrate the series’ end. Cleveland’s first foray into the NBA Playoffs was already legendary.
The Cavaliers would lose to the powerful Celtics, although Dave Cowens later admitted that getting past the Cavaliers was like “running through a brick wall.”
"Every game was intense from the first jump to the last possession," beamed A.C. "That's what you live for."
Nothing can erase the prolific 1975-76 squad and on March 8 this chapter will be commemorated at the Gund. The franchise has turned the pages many times since the sleepy southern suburb once hosted a Miracle, but with the playoffs possibly back on the horizon, maybe there’s something LeBron and Co. can learn on Tuesday night.