For young Cavaliers fans, the Miracle at Richfield is just a Wikipedia page they can find when searching on the Internet. But for us older fans, it was the first time we had playoff basketball and the basketball Gods didn’t disappoint…until they did! 1975-76 would see this area’s first NBA playoff run but since it’s Cleveland with a typical Cleveland twist!
1974-75 Near Miss
On the last day of the season, Cleveland battled the then Omaha Kings. The Kings were already in the playoffs. For the young Cavs team, win and you’re in. But, Tiny Archibald dropped 33 points and the Kings’ Ron Behagen blocked Miami University’s Fred Foster’s shot with a second left to secure the win for Omaha. The Cavaliers had battled back from being down late in the game but to no avail.
Cleveland Cavaliers 1975 🏇 pic.twitter.com/4tziS0OLKW
— Yvan Montgury, The Gravedigger (@YvanMontgury) October 1, 2022
Down six at the half, the squad tried desperately to catch the Kings. The starting five all scored in double figures, led by Jim Chones’ 23, but in the end the last chance effort never made it to the basket.
1974-75 Season recap
The Cavs finished 40-42 for the year, good enough for third in the Central Division. Austin Carr missed two months due to a knee injury. The January period with Carr out saw the club go 4-12. A road trip late in the year hurt them, too. The team left for their longest away trip hitting the south and west coast on February 27th and came back March 10th, owners of a seven game losing streak.
They were able to right the ship as Bobby “Bingo” Smith and Chones continued their clutch play late in the year. Carr could only contribute off the bench, but had two games with double digits to help secure wins late in the year. But in the end, they missed out by one game.
So this team with young players like Austin Carr, Jim Chones, and their coach, Bill Fitch, had to regroup for the next season.
Little did we all know what was in store!
1975-76 Miracle at Richfield
Every season has its own vibe or path. Sometimes something magical happens and you click the harness and ride the roller coaster. Everyone of us hopes for one ride like this in our lifetime. But sometimes the beginning is slow. Like in 1975.
Key Move: Nate Thurmond Trade
The Cavs were stuck early in the season in blah mode. Fitch, also the GM, needed some protection off the bench for his center, Chones. So, in a swift move, he traded Steve Patterson and Eric Fernsten (oddly, both centers) to the Bulls for the “Chairman of the Boards,” Nate Thurmond.
Prior to his arrival, the team was 6-14. The former Warrior and Akron Central High grad brought energy, leadership, and toughness to the Cavaliers. Austin Carr said of Thurmond in 100 Things Cavaliers Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die by Bob Finnan:
“We had a good mixture of personalities and talent. Nate was our anchor.” (P. 20)
Cleveland went 43-22 the rest of the way, winning their first Central Division title over the Washington Bullets.
Player #1 Jim Chones:
Jim was the Cavaliers MVP all year. The big man from Marquette had perhaps an MVP year. He averaged 15.8 points per game, 33.8 minutes per game, 9 boards AND 2 assists per game to show his all-around ability! But it’s an injury he suffered that had the biggest impact on the Cavaliers that season and could be the first in a long line of Cleveland Crappy luck!
Jim left Marquette when they were #2 in the country to begin his professional career in the ABA, the American Basketball Association, with the New York Nets in 1972-73. The next year he found himself with the Carolina Cougars of the ABA.
The ABA-NBA had held talks about merging, and after the 1974 season, Carolina lost their team. The players were then tossed into the mix for the NBA teams to draft. Chones was grabbed by the Lakers late in round 2, only to be traded to Cleveland shortly after.
Finding a home in the NBA, Chones didn’t start his first game in 74-75 with the club until the 9th game of the season. Barring injury, he was the starter for most of the remaining ones. He averaged 14.5 points, 9.7 boards, 1.7 blocks and 1.4 assists per game. But as that season ended in a losing fashion, the work began for the Miracle year!
Player #2 AC, Mr Cavalier
After the 74-75 near miss for the playoffs, Chones and Fitch and the rest were primed for a playoff run. By this time Austin Carr had endured numerous injuries to his knees and feet and wasn’t the same player drafted as the first pick for the Cavaliers in the 1971 draft. Mr. Cavalier, as he is known by fans, spent most of the time off the bench the Miracle Season but even he knew this was a different team. Again from Finnan’s great book:
“I found a niche. We all developed a niche for ourselves.” (p. 20)
Austin Carr with Notre Dame’s jersey 🏇 pic.twitter.com/P20JqxAt3e
— BasketballinPics (@BBallinPics) December 2, 2022
Austin Carr was a dominant player in college. Playing for Notre Dame and with the iconic jersey #34, he was considered one of the top scorers in the country, second only to Pete Maravich with LSU. Carr was sitting in class at ND when he was selected #1 by the Cavaliers. (100 novel p. 47) That would never be the case now! He also was the unanimous pick for NCAA player of the year.
The shooting guard who grew up in Washington D.C., had just emerged from one of the most amazing NCAA tournament runs ever. His 61 points over Ohio University is a record that still stands today as the most points dropped in a tournament game. Check out this video from that game!
Carr and the Cavs
In the first preseason with Cleveland Carr suffered the first of many foot or knee ailments that would dominate his NBA career. Though only playing in 43 games, he was named to the NBA All Rookie Team in 1972. He did manage to start 82 and 81 games his next two seasons. His growth as a player came when the Cavs signed Lenny Wilkens. In 1972-73, the backcourt duo did something that was rare then: they both averaged over 20 points per game. Carr credits Wilkens with his development as a player.
“Lenny taught me to be a true combo guard. If it wasn’t for him, I would have had trouble with longevity…He taught me a different vision. (p. 46)
When the 73-74 season ended, there was a buzz that Cleveland was ready to compete in the NBA. But just a few months into the 74-75 season, Carr suffered a knee injury that likely kept the team from making the playoffs. The dream of postseason would have to wait.
The Key to the Miracle at Richfield Season!
The Cavs were 8-14 on December 11th with a game against the Knicks about to start. The dominating win that night and the leadership of Thurmond now on the team fueled Bill Fitch’s squad to an 18-4 run over the next month to build confidence and help them believe they could be a playoff team.
Images from https://www.nba.com/cavaliers/photogallery/cle-1975-76
That night’s win was because of players like Jim Chones, Jim Cleamons, Bingo Smith and Campy Russell, offensive rebounding, and steals, with the latter the two calling cards of this club. The team had six players in double figures. The win was even more impressive when you notice the Cavs were down six after the first quarter!
Fitch had ten men he could throw on the court in almost any combination!
The 18-4 run also included a nice winning streak of seven where the west coast was fruitful for the youthful Fitch team with three wins in four days over the likes of the Lakers, Suns, and Supersonics. The team was poised to finish first.
As the club climbed into a first place battle with the Bullets for the remainder of the season, the buzz around town was electric. In the great book, The Miracle of Richfield, the Story of the 1975-76 Cavaliers, author Roger Gordon had Thurmond pen a foreword. Here’s a great excerpt from the former Akronite and BGSU alum on the fans:
“Those fans at the Coliseum were absolutely mad! I’d never been involved with anything like that before and haven’t since…Those unbelievable fans were my motivation.” (Foreword)
The fans set records for attendance at the Richfield Coliseum and for the NBA playoffs! For example, the attendance at the Boston Garden for the Cavs/Celtics playoff games were roughly 14,000 Bostonians. Cleveland at the Coliseum? 21,564! Every Cavalier playoff game was the highest attended game in the ENTIRE postseason play!
Watch this great exchange between two dear friends and former teammates as they discuss the Miracle!
When the season ended, the Cavaliers had their first division title. Now, only waiting for them was a playoff series against those Bullets, who finished in second. And if the fates were good…the Boston Celtics. The Miracle would jump to center stage.
But we know how the Fates LOVE Cleveland…NOT! More like…how the Fates love to HATE us!
Next. The Miracle at Richfield begins! Part 2: The 7 game series with the Bullets, or why Dick Snyder should never have had to buy a drink in this town again!
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