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Cleveland Tabs the Man Who'll Eventually Be Known as "Mr. Cavalier" with Top Pick
The NBA Draft – and the NBA in general – was much, MUCH different back in the early ‘70s. We all know that.
But just for a second, try to imagine what the hype would be like if the top overall pick in this Draft came into the league having averaged 34.6 points per over a four-year college career – and coming off a SIXTY-ONE-point performance in the NCAA Tourney. What if that player averaged 41.3 points in seven Tournament games – including games of 52, 52, 47 and 45 points?
If that were the case today, the hype machine would be overheating every two hours from now until Draft day. You’d be hearing about Notre Dame’s Austin Carr throwing the hammer down all day and all night.
But that’s not how Draft day went for the man now known as “Mr. Cavalier” – the first overall pick in what was then a 10-round Draft.
The Cavaliers had just come into existence the previous season. In the 1970 Expansion Draft, Cleveland grabbed guys like Butch Beard, Walt Wesley and Bobby “Bingo” Smith. In the NBA Draft, they selected Iowa’s John Johnson with their top pick – No. 7 overall.
That team finished the 1970-71 campaign with a 15-67 mark, the league’s worst, and earned the right to that year’s top overall pick. And after his performance in the previous spring’s NCAA Tournament, tabbing the high-scoring Golden Domer became a no-brainer.
AC scored over 10,000 points with the Wine & Gold and would proceed to become a fixture with the franchise. He might not have had the hype like today’s ballplayers do, but there’s still a reason that when the Cavs traveling party is on the road, guys like Stephen King and Bruce Willis approach him in awe.
As we continue to look back on some of the Wine & Gold’s seminal Draft classes, here are some words of wisdom from the crown jewel of the 1971 Draft – a man who continues to represent the organization and the city with pride and honor a half-century later, the incomparable Austin Carr.
How different is the Draft from when you went No. 1 in 1971?
Austin Carr: Oh, man! That’s like night and day! I found out when I was in Art History class that I was the No. 1 player picked. I was sitting in the back the class.
It was about 3-something in the afternoon. That’s when I found out. My agent called.
I was the No. 1 pick in the NBA and the ABA. I was the territorial pick of the Virginia Squires. They offered me the exact same contract as the Cavaliers, so I knew there was collusion somewhere – but I couldn’t prove it. (Laughs) The leagues were battling for supremacy then and that’s just how it was.
Did you consider the ABA over the Cavaliers?
A.C.: Yeah, I was thinking about it because it was close to D.C. But my agent said we’re going for the real dollars, not the fake money. At that time the ABA was about to go under. The NBA wasn’t totally solid, but their dollars were better than ABA dollars!
How about your folks in D.C.?
A.C.: Actually, my father was NBA all the way.
So you’re sitting in class at Notre Dame when you find out you’re the No. 1 pick …
A.C.: It was toward the end of class. We kind of stopped the class and let everybody know what was going on. We were almost ready to walk out, and the professor says: 'We’ve got Mr. Carr as the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA.' The class went nuts.
Did you have a celebration on campus that night?
A.C.: Oh yeah! I went out and had a few beers!
What did you know about Cleveland or the Cavaliers back then?
A.C.: Really, nothing.
Some players are concerned about the Cleveland weather.
A.C.: After being South Bend, Indiana?! Cleveland was like Florida to me! So there was no problem. I could handle it. And I really like the change of seasons. Cleveland weather can be a pain the butt sometimes, but I just like it. I know that sounds weird.
And I really like the people here. They’ve been very good to me. And they’re very genuine. You know when they hate you and you know when they like you!
Had you worked out or interviewed with Cleveland before being selected?
A.C.: I came here after I was drafted as the No. 1 pick. I came to Cleveland, they set up a press conference when I arrived. That was it. That was the first time I’d met them – at the press conference.
Before that, I was hearing that I might be the 2nd or 3rd pick, because they thought Cleveland would take Elmore Smith (who I wound up playing with down the road anyway). But I wound up being the first pick.
So you hadn’t even met Fitch before the Cavs took you No. 1 overall?
A.C.: It’s so much different now. But you have to remember: back then, everybody was a four-year player. So you knew what you had.
Now, if you stay four years, they think something’s wrong with you. You’re not as good as the guy coming one year out of high school. But actually, you’re much better. Because you know more; you’re more experienced. And you’re much more of a socialized individual. When you’re just out of high school, you don’t know anything about society or how to deal with people.
What did you do with your first check?
A.C.: (Laughs) Right then, the Oldsmobile Toronado had just changed their model style, and they put the four lights in the back. So I fell in love the Toronado and I bought the Toronado.
But … it was violet – with a white interior and a white top.
And the first time I got it, I parked it in front of the school – in front of Notre Dame. It was the funniest thing! People must have thought that we were being invaded!
So I got all my stuff packed and drove it home to D.C. and parked it in front of my parents’ house. I get home, I knock on the door. My mother comes to the door and she says, ‘Where’s your car?‘ And I said, ‘It’s right there!’
She shook her head – “No.” She said, ‘You can sell that thing this week. I did not raise a pimp.’
I looked at my father and he threw his hands up like “Welp … I can’t help you on this one.”
That was the end of the violet Toronado?
A.C.: I had it one week. I ended up getting a Mercedes. My mother said: ‘Now, you got a car!’
The rest of your 1971 Class – with Bob Lanier, Jim Cleamons, Clifford Ray, Elmore Smith, Downtown Freddie Brown – was solid but not spectacular.
A.C.: If you look at it, there weren’t many superstar player from that Draft. But there’s a few guys right at the edge. To me, it was one of the most consistent classes, because there were so many guys from that class that played in the league for a long time.
To me, that’s how you determine how strong a draft class is. It’s how long those players stay in the league. A lot of people will look through a class too see how many Hall of Famers there were. But longevity is what proves your worth as a player. It’s how long you last. Unfortunately, I had injuries. But I knew the game and I knew how to play the game. That’s the value of a draft class. How many of those 10-14 top picks stay in the league for five years or more.
How did Bill Fitch treat you as the top pick?
A.C.: The one thing Fitch didn’t do was sugarcoat anything. He was always up front with me. He treated everybody the same: He dogged everybody! (Laughs)
That was just his personality. He thought he had to do to keep you focused on what you’re doing. And once he and I understood each other, there was no problem. But I wasn’t anybody to worry about anyway, because I was going to work hard regardless.
But there was so much turnover in personnel, and you had certain guys that were lackadaisical. So he had to be stern. Some guys could take it and some guys couldn’t. And, by the Miracle year, we finally got 12 guys who could take it.
How about the veterans?
A.C.: The veterans gave a little grief. Until they found out what kind of person I was. Then, everything settled down. They knew I was going to come to work every day and work hard. And I want to win. I didn’t come in there with a big head. I didn’t have that attitude.
In fact, some of the guys wanted me to be more assertive. Because I came in, trying to fit in and just be part of it. But some of the guys wanted me to be more vocal, more assertive.
Did being the No. 1 pick change you at all?
A.C.: Not really. Because of the way I was raised.
We didn’t have a lot, but both parents worked and they exposed me to a lot of things. So I wasn’t in awe. I mean – the money – I was in awe of that, because we had to scrap for everything we had. But it didn’t change me because that’s not my personality, and my folks didn’t raise me that way.
I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder. My parents wouldn’t allow me and my brothers to act like that.