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Cavaliers Legends Gather to Honor Wall of Honor Inductees
For many people, Sunday is family day. And at this past Sunday’s tremendous Wall of Honor ceremony, it was more than just a celebration of the Cavaliers organization. It was a celebration of the Cavaliers family.
In a morning ceremony before Sunday’s matchup against the Sixers – and in an emotional tribute to the quintet of Cavaliers legends at halftime – perhaps the most complete collection of the franchise’s former players gathered under one roof.
The event honored five of the Cavalier family’s most influential figures: John Johnson, the Cavaliers first-ever draft pick and All-Star; Bill Fitch, the organization’s first head coach and architect of its early success; Wayne Embry, the culture-altering general manager from 1986 to 1999; John “Hot Rod” Williams, the greatest sixth man in Cavs history; and, of course, Nick Mileti, the Wine & Gold’s visionary original owner.
In attendance was a cavalcade of former players representing several generations of Cavaliers basketball – from Jim Brewer to Gerald Wilkins to Johnny Davis to Boobie Gibson to Dahntay Jones – along with legends whose uniform numbers have already been immortalized in the rafters – like Brad Daugherty, Austin Carr, Larry Nance and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
The team’s Director of Alumni Relations, Campy Russell – a Cavaliers legend in his own right – had been championing the Wall of Honor for years. And on Sunday, those years of selfless hard work paid off.
"When you look back at all those (five) guys, you’re talking about guys that were trailblazers, role models, barrier-breakers, All-Stars, Hall of Famers, great teammates, leaders and innovators," beamed Russell.
Along from Campy, A.C. and Jim Chones, several players from the "Miracle of Richfield" made the trip to Cleveland for Sunday’s ceremony – including Jim Brewer, Barry Clemens and Jimmy Cleamons.
As predicted by several of those former greats, Austin Carr – who unveiled Bill Fitch’s image on the Wall of Honor – got emotional during his speech.
"It makes my heart feel good to see all of you back here," said the man known as Mr. Cavalier. "I feel like I’m kind of the elder statesman here. I’ve been here since almost day one. And to see all of you come back, this is what an organization should be all about. And this is what makes me proud to be a part of it."
Jimmy Cleamons, one of the many heroes from that squad, was equally moved by the gathering.
"The overall event -- the idea and the thought and the purpose is wonderful," said Cleamons. "Once again, you talk about building something. A lot of the work has already been done. Now, this is a way to chronicle the history, bringing former players back – to embrace them and celebrate their memories."
Like his Miracle teammates, the former Buckeye great speaks glowingly of that squad that essentially legitimized the Cavaliers as a competitive NBA franchise.
"We weren't sympathetic, we were empathetic of what each of us had to do. And if we didn't accomplish those roles, we knew we had let each other down. And that's when the winning started. We challenged each other because we were going through the same thing at the same period of time. And we're fortunate now to look back at it and say: 'Yeah, we did this.'"
Brad Daugherty, who introduced the great Wayne Embry, talked afterward about his memories of Cleveland’s prolific former GM.
"It's funny, the first time I met Wayne, it was 1986," recalled the five-time All-Star. "I shook his hand -- and I have big hands -- he about snapped my forearm in half. He always had that impressive size, so you just assume things. But then when you talk to him, you understand his depth and the intellect."
One of the players who helped shape the culture Embry created with the Cavaliers was the late, great Hot Rod Williams – who Cleveland selected with the 45th overall pick in the 1985 Draft. He went on to become the top Sixth Man in team history and his name still dots the team’s all-time record books.
Larry Nance, in his own inimitable way, introduced his former frontcourt mate on Sunday.
"I got traded, and I knew the Cavaliers team pretty well," said Nance. "And there was one guy on that team that I could not stand – and it happened to be Hot Rod. So, I came here and obviously I got to know him – and he became my best friend ever."
Nance spoke of Hot Rod’s generosity, be it personal fouls – he would raise his hand and take credit/blame for Nance’s fouls – or men’s fashion – buying Nance a new suit on the night his number was retired.
Williams’ daughter, Johnna, unveiled her father’s spot on the Wall.
"The last thing he told us before passing – he pointed to all of us and said: Stay strong, stay a family."
That same message has applied to the Cavaliers family, which showed its strength on Sunday – connecting today’s team with its founding fathers. Two of those pioneers were honored on Sunday.
The late John Johnson was the Cavaliers first-ever Draft pick – taken with the 7th overall selection out of Iowa in 1970. Bill Fitch loved tough, versatile Big Ten players and “J.J.” fit the bill to perfection. Considered one of the league’s first “point-forwards,” Johnson – who eventually won an NBA title with the Sonics – was named an NBA All-Star in 1971 and ’72.
He was introduced by Jim Chones, who grew up playing alongside him in Milwaukee and later with the Wine and Gold.
"I’ve been here since almost day one. And to see all of you come back, this is what an organization should be all about. And this is what makes me proud to be a part of it."
Austin Carr, addressing the gathering of Cavs legends on Sunday
"In a game that was cookie cutter, John Johnson was revolutionary – he could do it all," praised Chones. “John Johnson became the standard for us moving forward. Don’t be good at just one thing – strive to be complete. He was a complete basketball player; his excellence was the standard moving forward for this franchise – and he was the first."
His place on the Wall of Honor was revealed by his son, Mitch, who made the cross-country trip for Sunday’s ceremony.
"I was born 16 years after my dad was drafted, so I got a lot of stories – which means a lot of exaggerations and positive spin," joked the younger Johnson. "He always had a way of being on top of every story he told."
Fittingly, Nick Mileti – who cobbled together all the resources at his disposal to bring professional basketball to Cleveland in 1970 – was the final honoree.
With his son, Jimmy, by his side, Mileti could barely hold back the tears as he looked around the room at some of his former players. From the dilapidated Cleveland Arena to the Richfield Coliseum to the state-of-the-art Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Mileti’s vision has come a long way over the half-century of the Cavaliers existence.
But it all began with Mileti.
Just as fittingly, it was Campy Russell who introduced him into the Wall of Honor.
"When I think of Nick Mileti, I think of a guy who had this great vision, passion, commitment," said Russell. "He’s Cleveland-tough, proud, focused, a trailblazer."
Mileti talked about those early days of the Cavaliers and came full-circle recalling the joy he felt when the franchise broke through and won its first NBA title in 2016.
"It’s been an honor to be associated with people with this much class," said the man who originally paid $3.7 million to bring the Cavaliers expansion franchise to Cleveland. "Whoever thought of this idea is one smart cookie. To get this many talented people in one room is amazing. It’s amazing!"
After the morning ceremony and a luncheon at the arena, the Wall of Honorees were again recognized at halftime. But before that ceremony wrapped up, the Cavaliers had one more big surprise: to present Nick Mileti with the 2016 Championship ring. At that moment, as they say: there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Next year and the year after that, the Cavaliers will unveil more names on their Wall of Honor. But this was the original class, and without their work, perhaps none of this would be here. Whether they were one of the franchise’s charter members or moved the team in a positive direction later down the line, their contributions have now been recognized and immortalized.
"You know, it was just overwhelming to walk into this building today and to see all these guys and their families," said Daugherty later that afternoon. "Some of these guys I haven't seen in 20 years and it's just really emotional. What an outstanding job the Cavs did putting this together.
"It's a true testament to this organization and everyone that's been a part of the fabric and culture of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball."