Like their fellow terrible teams, lowly Cavs make losing interesting
It's fun to write about losers, whose atrociousness makes for compelling stories
The greatest losing teams have had one main character, a Scott Hastings type
As history has shown, things will change, as they did with the Mavs and Heat
This is a terrible admission, but it's fun to write about losers. While covering a bad team over the course of a season is a drag -- kind of like having a lingering sore throat and raspy cough -- stopping in to sample relentless, mind-numbing, appalling atrociousness on a temporary basis is a pleasant diversion.
Which brings us to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who haven't won since a week before Christmas, and have now matched the NBA single-season record for consecutive losses (26).
During my years on the NBA beat, I covered mostly big-time winners, but, fortunately, Sports Illustrated also liked extreme losers. The .100 teams are always interesting; it's the .500 teams that bear little journalistic fruit. It was a great contrast. Michael, Magic and Larry for the meat and potatoes with a little Mike Iuzzolino thrown in for dessert. What, you don't remember the I-Man? The 5-foot-10 guard started 23 games for the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks, who went 11-71 and whom I was sent to chronicle.
Alas, I did not bear personal journalistic witness to the NBA's all-time worst team, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who went 9-73. But I was a Philly fan at that time and spent several nights in the old Spectrum watching my personal favorite player, Manny Leaks, a forward-center who had made his bones in the old ABA before coming to the Big Show and finding ... this.
But back to the Cavs. They have been bad before, of course, their chaotic, poorly run teams of the early 1980s an emblem of how low the NBA had sunk before it caught fire in the mid-'80s. The Cavs were owned by a clueless millionaire named Ted Stepien, whom I so associated with losing that, in the worst mistake of my career, I referred to him as "the late Ted Stepien" in a 1994 story. Except that he didn't die until 2007. I recovered nicely, though, when he phoned me with the news that rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated.
"Where are you calling from?" I asked.
Some terrible teams don't have much traction in my memory, like the 1996-97 Vancouver Grizzlies who set the losing-streak standard the Cavs now have in their sights. Yes, the Grizzlies were bad, but they were in Vancouver, a beautiful city but not in any way, shape or form a basketball town. The 1997-98 Denver Nuggets, who just made it into double figures with 11 wins and who also lost 23 in a row along the way, should've had more celestial help, since a 7-4 center named Priest Lauderdale was on their roster. But I am more attuned to the two sucky Paul Westhead Nuggets teams of the early '90s, one of which, the 20-win 1990-91 edition, routinely surrendered 130 points a game and once allowed the Phoenix Suns to score 107 in a half.
At any rate, I have fond memories of three losing teams in particular. Here they are:
Every awful team should have the go-to comedian -- the 1988-89 Miami Heat had Scott Hastings, a journeyman center who played for five teams over an 11-year career. As the expansion team began to pile up losses at the beginning of its first season, and coach Ronnie Rothstein began to pull out what was left of his hair, Hastings took it all in with humor and good will, approaching the whole thing like it was an historical journey, which in a way it was. After the Heat lost a record 16th at the start of the season, Hastings went around with the game stat sheet to all his coaches and teammates and asked them to sign it.
"I'm going to frame this and put it in my bar," said Hastings, part owner of Jocks 'n' Jills in Atlanta. "People will look back on this someday."
Zen Buffman was one of the Heat's four principal owners, a man who had made his millions producing Broadway plays. "The great thing about being in the NBA," he told me, "is that you can't close on opening night."
Rothstein got off some great lines, too. He claimed -- as do all losing coaches, and many of them are right -- that they rarely got a break from the zebras. "Tell me, Jim," he said to referee Jim Capers, who had T-ed up Hastings, "would you call that technical on Magic Johnson?" Capers said yes ... then called one on Rothstein.
In the midst of all this, the coach admitted to me his biggest fear: losing every game. It seemed possible at the time, but the Heat finished 15-67. Beats the hell out of 0-82.
If a bad team doesn't have a Hastings-like comedian, it needs the weary, I've-seen-it-all veteran, a good guy who keeps his head up and takes the slings and arrows that come his way with the patience of Job. With the 1992-93 Mavericks, that was Derek Harper. In January 1993, I went with Harper to an inspirational talk he gave at a Dallas-area high school after which he opened up the floor.
"I know your question," Harper said before the students could say anything. "When are the Mavericks going to win again, right?"
They had lost 11 in a row to that point and stood 2-26 on the season. That's one of those "winning" percentages that's so bad you have to get out the calculator. Sometimes math is a cold master -- .071.
The coach of those Mavs was a wise-cracking Joisy guy named Richie Adubato, who said funny things like, "We're in a heavyweight division with flyweight fighters," funny-but-true things like, "I could get the ax before the season's over, I know that," and funny things he desperately wanted to be true like, "[Rookie Sean] Rooks' play at center is the light at the end of the tunnel."
Those Mavs actually had few egos -- "Actually, nobody says much of anything," Adubato said. "We're like a team of librarians" -- and I really felt for Harper. His only consolation, he told me, was that he was losing his hair and "then I'll finally be in style."
The Mavs finished 11-71, and, alas, shortly after my visit, Adubato did indeed get the ax.
My final favorite team is not from the NBA. Late in 1995, I was sent to the campus of Rutgers-Camden (please don't laugh at the inclusion of the word "campus" and "Camden" together; it's not a bad place) to look into a team that, to that point, had lost 69 straight games, a Division III record. I watched these guys notch No. 70, on the road in Richmond, and thought to myself: They may never win. The main reason is that their guard and best player looked like me when I was a high school player. Same body, same haircut, same average game. If your best player is me, you're in trouble.
As with the Mavs, this team never mutinied, never even seemed to get too excited, which was perhaps the problem. The student governing association had presented a petition to fire coach Greg Ackles but it never caught any traction from the team. "I love Coach Ackles," said guard Doug Dreby, the guy who reminded me of me. "This is not his fault."
My favorite quote from the story actually came from Karla Robinson, an assistant coach for a fairly strong Rutgers-Camden women's team, which usually traveled with the men's team to save funds. "We feel for them," Robinson said. "We always let them pick the videos to watch on the bus."
But, look, Cavaliers, things always turn around. Your own franchise made it to an NBA Finals. (OK, that was with a guy who left, can't remember his name ... pretty good player ...) The Heat have won a championship. The Mavs are a powerhouse franchise. The Grizzlies moved to Memphis and, well, you can get a great dry-rub rib there at Rendezvous. Heck, the Boston Celtics lost 18 straight games in 2006-07 and won the championship the next season.
As for the Rutgers-Camden Raptors, well, they, too, tasted victory. Alas, it wasn't until Jan. 3, 1997, after 117 losses. I still check their results from time to time. At this writing they were 4-15, but, from what I understand, hope remains alive.