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The Original Vision

Recent Wall of Honor Inductee and Former Owner Gordon Gund's Vision Changed the Franchise Forever
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

The Original Vision

Recent Wall of Honor Inductee and Former Owner Gordon Gund's Vision Changed the Franchise Forever

It’s a great time to be a Cavs fan.

Sure, the team is watching the current Playoffs from home. But anyone who follows professional hoops knows that the Wine & Gold have one of the Association’s brightest futures. With a roster loaded with young talent, a culture-setting head coach and an aggressive front office that assembled it all basically from scratch, the Cavaliers trend line is unquestionably ascensional.

Now imagine the franchise on a downward trend at the same velocity. Imagine a lack of success nightly on the floor and no realistic hope of a better future. An empty arena. An organization in disarray.

Imagine wondering: Am I even going to have a basketball team to root for in a year or two?

That was the state of the Cleveland Cavaliers when Gordon Gund purchased the team for $20 million back in 1983.

Before gradually losing his sight to retinitis pigmentosa in the late-1960s, Gund – a Cleveland native born into one of the city’s most prominent families – played hockey for Harvard and served on two destroyers in the U.S. Navy. But lack of sight and lack of vision are two vastly different things – and being blind didn’t confine Gund’s incredible success in the business world or his philanthropic zeal.

Gund’s odyssey of purchasing the Cavaliers began with a completely different sport – professional ice hockey, or more specifically, the old Cleveland Barons.

After some up-and-down success at the Coliseum, the Barons merged with another troubled NHL franchise, the Minnesota North Stars. The Stars assumed Cleveland’s place in the Adams Division and even eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final a few years later. And not long after that, Gordon Gund – along with his brother, George – turned their attention back on their hometown, where the pro basketball team had fallen on hard times.

With the team in collapse and owner Ted Stepien threatening to move the franchise to Toronto, the Gunds intervened just in time – purchasing the Cavaliers, along with Stepien's Nationwide Advertising Service, and on May 9, 1983, took ownership of the team.

Fans know most of the Cavaliers story from there. The hiring of Wayne Embry and Lenny Wilkens. The bountiful 1986 Draft. The eventual move from Summit County to downtown Cleveland. The winning of the 2003 Lottery and the eventual selection of Akron native, LeBron James.

In 2005, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert purchased the Cavaliers from Gund, although the former owner maintained a minority ownership stake. And like the rest of his hometown, he celebrated mightily when the Wine & Gold won the World Championship in 2016.

That title might have never taken place, and there might not have been a team in Cleveland for Dan Gilbert to obtain if not for Gordon Gund – the man who was rightfully recognized just over a month ago in an arena that once bore his name.

Gund – along with the man he hired as his first head coach, Lenny Wilkens, another man who helped save basketball in Cleveland, World B. Free, and the good shepherd of Cavaliers alumni, Campy Russell – were all inducted into the Cavaliers Wall of Honor’s Class of 2022 on March 26 this past year.

As we continue to honor our Wall of Honor inductees, was able to sit with the Cavaliers former owner to talk about the early days of his tenure, how the ’86 Draft changed the course of the franchise and what changed when the franchise moved into its new downtown arena …

Maybe it's best to let Gordon Gund himself describe the smile he flashed when the Wine and Gold won the 2003 NBA Lottery.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE Getty Images

Most of us remember what the franchise was like when you sold it. What was it like when you bought it?

Gordon Gund: It’s very difficult to know what that was like for anybody who wasn’t there.

It was bankrupt, not just in a financial sense, but in a competitive sense. And in a sense of where it was headed. So, that was tough. And we knew that because we’d owned (the Coliseum) by then, for two years.

We turned the team around. John Graham did a fabulous job with that, as he did with so many things that we were involved with, as the CEO and as a great leader.

And also, when we bought it, the obvious issue was that it had no First Round Draft picks for four straight years. And in basketball, more than any other sport, a First Round pick is where you get hope and how you begin to turn it around.

So we took an option on both the franchise and on Nationwide Advertising, the parent company, because as I say, the franchise was bankrupt. And the parent, if we could turn that around, could make sense financially too.

But we said to the league, and David Stern – and this is all thanks to Dick Watson, who was such a great negotiator – where we worked it out with David, and said: ‘Look, if you want us to take this and try to turn it around, you have to give us the opportunity to do that. And the only way we can – and we’ll buy the First Round picks, we’re not looking for gifts – but we have to be able to show the fans that we have a course of action and a way to make sense out of this.

We brought Joe Tait back, and that was huge. That was very important for us.

We changed the colors and the logo – and some people might say that was not so good! (laughs) But for fans and from a community standpoint, we had to sort of disassociate ourselves with what it was and what it had become, which was something that was bringing disrespect on the city and the community.

So we did what we could, and that’s also why we kept World (B. Free). He really brought some life back to the fans and the whole area.

As we got going on the Cavs, it became clear that we needed to make a change. And that was going to happen after the 1985 and before the 1986 season.

So, there was a lot of serendipity. But also, we kept pushing to do it. We had turned around another professional sports team in Minnesota – the North Stars – so we had an idea of what it would take.

Each sport and each city are different. But I’m so glad we were able to get it turned around – with a lot of good luck and lot of good people. And that’s what made it.

"We worked it out with David (Stern), and said: ‘Look, if you want us to take this and try to turn it around, you have to give us the opportunity to do that. And the only way we can – and we’ll buy the First Round picks, we’re not looking for gifts – but we have to be able to show the fans that we have a course of action and a way to make sense out of this.'"

Wayne Embry was inducted into the first Wall of Honor. Lenny Wilkens is named this year along with you. How important was bringing that duo in together back in 1986?

Gund: Wayne came first. We did a lot of interviewing for that position. But we wanted the best general manager we could get. And Wayne had wonderful experience and impressed us tremendously.

And then with Wayne fully on board, we began to look at Lenny.

Back then, there was a lot of talk about the fact that we had the first African-American combination of head coach and GM, but it wasn’t planned. It was because they were the best people for the job. We knew that, and that’s what we wanted for the franchise and the city. And thankfully, it turned out right.

How did the move, relocating from the Richfield Coliseum to Gund Arena in downtown Cleveland come about and how did it change the franchise?

Gund: Well, having grown up here and being a native Clevelander, I’d always loved the Indians – growing up, going to their games in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Some great, very successful teams.

And here they were in the early ‘90s, hanging out to dry because Cleveland Municipal Stadium was such a big, cavernous place – and they weren’t drawing. And I understood why Dick Jacobs needed a new facility or he was going to have to move. It made sense to me.

We were very happy out in Richfield. We had a relatively new building, a great building. All the parking we wanted, no mortgage. We were able to run it ourselves and didn’t have to answer to any municipality or anything.

But then (former Mayor) Mike White and (former Cuyahoga County Commissioner) Tim Hagan approached us and asked if we wanted to consider moving – and they wanted to put it on a referendum. The polls showed it going down. And we did this all within a week or two within the actual date of the referendum.

So it was announced that we would come downtown, and we would bring the two million or so people that we’d drawn to our building every year to downtown. So, we got enough people to get it passed – and not by much, because it passed by a very small measure. But thank God that it did. We were very happy.

Both of those guys lived up to their word – and I had no doubt about it. That was a time of trust – and I hope we can get back to that time of trust in all walks of life, because it’s so important.

We wrote the things we were looking for on the back of an envelope: We don’t have to have more revenue sources, but we certainly don’t want less. And we also want a first class, state-of-the-art arena.

They lived up to their word. And somewhere, we still have that envelope.

"I didn’t sleep (the night of the 1986 Draft) because I knew we’d made a breakthrough that was going to turn this whole thing around. "

With such a long list of incredible moments for the team and franchise over the years – are there one or two that stand out?

Gund: One, of course, was the 1986 Draft.

In that offseason, it was time for George Karl and Harry Weltman to move on. And we had some player personnel staff still left over that were helping us with the Draft and scouting and so forth.

But going into it, what we didn’t know – and to the credit of Dick Watson, kind of a (salary) cap genius – was the fact that Philadelphia didn’t have room under the cap to sign their No. 1 pick.

Dick was a mathematician; he loved this stuff. This was in the beginning days in the existence of the salary cap, and he’d analyzed this early.

So, I called up Harold Katz, the Sixers owner, and I said: ‘Harold, my understanding is, and please check this with your people, that you’re not going to be able to sign that pick. Would you want to trade the pick? And who would you like? And we could include money in the deal too, if you want that.’

So, we had Roy Hinson, who was one of the first picks we’d negotiated with the league – in fact, the very first one – and a very good player and a wonderful guy, too. Plus, Katz thought Brad (Daugherty) was soft. I don’t know where he got that, but I’m glad he did.

They wanted someone who play center and they thought Roy could. And they wanted $800,000. And that’s what we gave them the night before the Draft.

So, we got Brad and, of course, went on to get Ron Harper with the 7th pick. Hot Rod (Williams) was exonerated from the previous year’s Draft – so he was able to join us. And we got Mark (Price) in a trade in the second round. And don’t forget Johnny Newman, who was a good player.

I didn’t sleep that night because I knew we’d made a breakthrough that was going to turn this whole thing around.

I didn’t know about the head coach just yet. I knew about Wayne, even though he had to remain with Indiana and fulfill his commitment there. We were staring to talk about coaching and fixed on Lenny – and I’m glad that we did.

So that was a wonderful turnaround time.

And another time – a very different time – was when we won the Lottery in 2003.

Who would’ve thought it? It was all chance.

Warren (Thaler) was actually in the drawing, so he knew it well before I did. He couldn’t call me, and I couldn’t talk to him. So, I was sitting there on that stage next to Jerry West, and we both had great odds, but neither of us knew. And for us to end up with that pick was tremendous for the franchise.

I remember a reporter asked me afterward who we’d take and I said: ‘We’ll have to think about that.’ laughs

And then I remember Tad (Carper) brought a briefcase with that jersey in it. And I was afraid of that! I was afraid he’d jinx it!

People tell me that when they announced the pick, I had – forgive the expression – a big sh*t-eating grin on my face! (laughs)

What did it mean to be inducted into the Cavaliers Wall of Honor with this particular group of guys?

Gund: The wonderful thing is, I know them all. I have known them and have always admired them.

World was great. He deserves very much to be here. Again, his legacy is how he helped us turn the whole franchise around. It was something that needed to be done – and he did it.

Lenny is someone I’ve always loved and admired greatly. And the same with Campy, who’s such a great example for the franchise.

So it was terrific. And I’m honored to be a part of that group.


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