As pro basketball winds up winter training in preparation for the grueling season ahead, let us now praise famous men: Walt Frazier reclining in his llama-skin Manhattan apartment; Dick Motta dangling fish bait as the lakes thaw near his Idaho home; Pete Maravich hanging up his pistols in the courtyards off Bourbon Street; and, finally, the supreme Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing penance on the slopes of Nepal for being so good he was forced to play with the most inept supporting cast since the Nixon gang.
Besides celebrity, what these gentlemen have in common is time on their hands. They are fittingly—in some cases, shockingly—idle because their teams did not qualify for that terrific April...and May...and maybe June, too...madness known as the NBA playoffs.
As the 1975-76 pro basketball season began, we had just recovered from the World Series. Before it ends, we will have seen the Russian hockey team, the Super Bowl, the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Winter Olympics, Opening Day, Love Doubles, Indiana, Jean-Pierre Coopman and about 26 presidential primaries. At different times during the pros' interminable run, Patty Hearst was tried and Cher was true, Howard Hughes was alive and Hubert Humphrey dead, Cuckoo's Nest was just another film and Margaret just another princess. What more could be asked of a sports season than that while it went on a whole society seemed to change before our very eyes?
Well, we could ask what price New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—the nation's media-market titans—being eliminated from the television showcase that is the playoffs? And CBS-TV executives might answer with razors at their throats. The NBA Sunday ratings are down a disastrous 28% from last year, hardly a peak season. But be that as it may, the folks who do watch the 1976 rendition of the playoffs will be in for a rare treat. New faces are everywhere, at least in the early going. The Philadelphia 76ers haven't been involved in this type of competition for five years, the Phoenix Suns for six years, Cleveland never.
Cleveland? The Cleveland of Bob Feller and Early Wynn? Otto Graham throwing to Mac Speedie and Dante Lavelli? Jimmy Brown running over people? Are they back again?
Not really. These are the Cleveland Cavaliers of bantering Bill Fitch, a team that came out of nowhere, firing from the perimeters, to wrest the Central Division away from the Washington Bullets. Not really nowhere, either. The Cavs came awfully close to the playoffs last spring when they lost out on the final day of the season. As Fitch said then, "Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and drive-in movies."
The Cavaliers have old Nate Thurmond, young Jim Chones, a cast of thousands scoring in double figures and two of the league's best shooters coming off the bench in Campy Russell and Austin Carr. Besides winning 49 games during the regular season, the team accomplished the fairly amazing feat of drawing nearly 5,000 people more per game than last year. That these average crowds of almost 13,000 Ohioans managed to find the Coliseum in the cornfields of Richfield is satisfying enough. But the Cavs are worth the drive.
"The Cavs right now look as good as anybody," says Laker Coach Bill Sharman. "There is no reason they can't win it all."
In reality, Cleveland is one of four teams with a legitimate shot at the championship. The reasons the Cavs can't win it all are basically Washington, Boston and Golden State—mainly the latter two.
Though Cleveland's inside power is suspect and the team has no real star to go to in the crunch—a useful asset in the playoffs—Fitch gets full mileage out of seven men who average between 10 and 16 points. And this does not include the veteran center, Thurmond, or the whippet guard, Foots Walker, both of whom will be key figures in the first series against Washington.