The 1975-76 NBA Miracle season was a turning point for the Cavaliers, as we documented in our previous article. Led by Jim Chones, Campy Russell, Nate Thurmond and even Austin Carr off the bench, the Cavs were the talk of the NBA.
Their battle for the Central title against the Washington Bullets was a daily affair, until the Cavs were able to edge their foes and grab their first division title. And who should await them for their first playoff game? These same Bullets!
March 31, 1976#BeTheFight clinch 1st playoff spot in franchise history w/ 110-101 W vs. New Orleans Jazz. Jimmy Cleamons scores 12 of his 18 pts in 4Q. After missing playoffs previous yr in 1-pt L in final gm, Cavs set stage for a "miracle" run in '76 w/ this W. #Spiritof76 pic.twitter.com/5K2hUf3jnx
— On This Day: Cleveland Sports (@CityfanC) March 31, 2021
KC Jones coached this tough, defensive group to a second place finish in the Central. His assistant coach was Bernie Bickerstaff, whose son runs the Cavaliers now. And Bob Ferry, Danny Ferry’s dad, was the GM of this club.
Their starters included Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Dave Bing, Phil Chenier and Truck Robinson. Unseld, Hayes and Bing would find themselves enshrined in the NBA Hall of Fame long after this season.
They were one of the top defensive teams all year in terms of defensive rebounds (5th), blocked shots (2nd), and steals (12th). The Cavaliers were behind them in every one of these categories. Basketball-reference.com has a Defense Four Factor category which looks at the effective field goal percentage (low is best and WB was #1), defensive rebounds, and free throw/field goal ration (low is best and they again were #1).
The Capital Centre
Playing in the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, just east of DC, the Bullets found a state of the art home. The Centre saw the first indoor luxury boxes, a video replay screen on the scoreboard directly over the court, and a computerized turnstile.
The 1970’s saw the Bullets dominate the Central division, winning four times. They made it to four finals, finally winning in 1977-78. And coming into the 75-76 season they were the Eastern conference champions. Call it correctly…A Decade of Success!
And on April 13, 1976, the Cavaliers and Bullets began an epic seven game series Clevelanders lovingly call, “The Miracle of Richfield!”
Here is the Youtube link to Joe Tait’s radio calls on all the Cavs wins and losses that series.
Game 1 – WASH(1-0) 100 CLE(0-1) 95 @ The Coliseum
Elvin Hayes dominated the first playoff game in Cleveland history with a 28/18/3 (pts/rbs/blks) night. Dave Bing dropped 24 for the Bullets while Wes Unseld played almost the entire game!
The Cavs were led by Chones, the MVP for this club this season, with 23/8. But what a contribution by Campy Russell, who in 27 minutes scored 19 points and grabbed 11 boards. One thing Cavalier coach Bill Fitch did was give his bench some good time on the floor.
The Bench outscored Washington’s bench 36-22. Washington’s bench had a total of 51 minutes while Campy and Nate had 51 minutes themselves! AC and Footsy Walker logged 34 minutes between themselves. This would prove pivotal later.
The nervous Cavs were down after the first quarter 37-19. Down 18 after three, the Cavs dropped 35 on the reigning Eastern Champs in making the game competitive and exclaiming that we won’t give up!
Game 2 – CLE (1-1) 80 WASH 79 @ Capital Centre April 15, 1976
Jim Cleamons was a Columbus boy. He was born in North Carolina, but his family moved to Columbus very early in his life. He graduated from Linden-McKinley High School, as did another famous Columbus native, Buster Douglas!
Jim was on the McKinley team that won their first state championship in 1967. From there, Fred Taylor and Ohio State came calling for Jim. His three years on the Buckeye squad saw him average 18.5 points per game and a little more than 7 boards per contest in his 73 games.
Drafted by the Lakers, he found himself on the Cavaliers by his second year in the league as the Lakers traded him to the Cavaliers for a 2nd round draft pick.
After his playing career, you could see Jim on the bench for the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan’s heyday! He followed his friend, Phil Jackson, from Chicago to the Lakers to help Kobe and company! He always found himself in the right place at the right time!
Game two was a huge defensive struggle, and Jim was covering Dave Bing almost every second on the court! That year, Cleamons was named 2nd team all defense. He was needed in this series. Bingo Smith, the Cleveland sharpshooter, had just turned the ball over with 25 seconds left and the Cavs down by one.
The Bullets worked the ball to Bing, but great pressure again by Cleamons forced a turnover by Bing. With roughly five seconds left, Bingo let loose a bomb from 25 feet out. As it fell through, the radio voice of the Cavaliers, Joe Tait, yelled, “BINGO!” The two ball from deep helped them to even the series coming back to the Peninsula Coliseum! The Miracle was born!
Game 3 – WASH (1-2) 76 CLE (2-1) 88 @ The Coliseum April 17, 1976
This was really a no doubter as the Cavs built a 21-15 lead after the first quarter and never looked back. Jones had to use his bench a bit more as the Bullets were in some foul trouble all game. Autin Carr and Bingo Smith lead a balanced Cleveland attack.
The best part was the rebounding edge. Cleveland won that battle 53-38 against the best rebounding team in the NBA. Clem Haskins finally found some time on the floor for Washington and his four minutes on the floor would prove the difference in game 4.
Game 4 – CLE (2-2) 98 WASH (2-2) 109 @ Capital Centre April 21, 1976
Each team received three days rest, and the national audience was ready for this one. Could the miracle continue?
The Cavs couldn’t hold the Bullets under 100 points like they had in the last two games. Clem Haskins and Campy Russell put on a shooting show when the benches were on the court and Clem carried his club to the win.
They both netted 22 points but KC’s club had five other double-digit scorers. Jones decided to use his bench even more and it paid off. The game was tied at half, but the second half was all Washington.
Washington shot a whopping 48.3% from the floor to Cleveland’s 38%. That was the difference in game four. Back to Cleveland and Jimmy Cleamons’ biggest rebound!
Game 5 – WASH (2-3) 91 CLE (3-2) 92 @ The Coliseum April 22, 1976
Where to start with this game? My father and I were there. Not sure how he did it…but he got us tickets! And I lost my ticket stub and pennant. Damn!
Dick Snyder was born in Canton and graduated from Canton Hoover HS. He was a three sport star. He was a true three sport athlete: starting QB, basketball guard and all-state baseball player. In fact, from his induction speech into the Ohio Sports hall of fame, Woody Hayes attended the North Canton Hoover football awards banquet! That’s how bad he wanted Snyder!
From there he attended Davidson College since he could play both basketball AND baseball!
“I got a call from Left Drissell at Davidson. He said, ‘I hear you’re a good football player and play basketball, too!’ He offered me a scholarship without ever seeing me play.” (From his speech)
Drafted by the St Louis Hawks of the NBA, Dick had a legendary career in the NBA. When he retired he was #17 on the all time NBA list in scoring. He had his most success with Cleveland and Seattle, winning a championship with the SuperSonics.
But on April 22, less than 24 hours from the prior loss to the Bullets, Dick was the leading scorer and was credited with four assists, two rebounds and for fun…a blocked shot! But his steady shooting was the difference. We don’t get the miracle without Snyder. But his time would come.
There had to be that miracle. And it came! From Mr Cleamons!
After an Unseld rare field goal miss, the Cavs took the ball down the court trailing by one. The ensuing play failed and Elvin Hayes was fouled with seven seconds left. The man they called “The Bionic Man” stepped to the line to basically ice the game. Free throw #1…NO GOOD. You could hear the crowd grow in excitement. Tait’s voice was perfect. “NO GOOD.”
Free throw #2…MISS! Elvin finished 9 of 14 from the charity stripe for the game, with those two misses enormous! Cleveland grabbed the rebound and called timeout.
@benmaller #instatrivia Elvin Hayes pic.twitter.com/xhGi3KUttG
— HobbyBobby (@flyhi309) February 15, 2023
The Rebound and Put back!
Having a foul to give, Unseld fouled Chones on a pass from Snyder. Looked like the Cavs had a give and go set up from the timeout. As Dick passes into Chones, Unseld wouldn’t let Jim get a quick pass back to a driving Snyder who had a step on his defender. Remember that near miss!
Bingo tried a runner with 5 ticks left on the clock, could Bobby “Bingo” Smith do it again? No, but his shot was grabbed by Cleamons who quickly tossed it between the box on the backboard and as it went through the place erupted!
“CLEAMONS GOT IT. CLEAMONS GOT A REBOUND!” (Joe Tait radio call)
My dad and I hugged each other! I couldn’t believe it. It looked like Bobby’s shot fell wide right of hitting anything and Cleamons was there for the catch and quick put back! He had to reverse layup the ball as his momentum was carrying him under the basket. There was one second left when Jim tossed it up! He was so nonchalant as he walked back to the bench. Dude, you just won one of the most important games in franchise history!
Go to 21:48 to watch!
A few years later, NC State won the NCAA Basketball Tournament on almost the exact same play! Only Jimmy’s was harder with the reverse piece!
Just another ho-hum miracle at the junction of Route 303 and I-271!
Game 6 – CLE (3-3) 98 WASH (3-3) 102 OT @ Capital Centre April 26, 1976
Chalk this up as a game the Cavs should have lost, could have won it, tied it up somehow, and then lost it OT.
Hayes was out to atone for his missed bunnies and almost had a triple double with 28/13/8 blocks! AC was the man for the Cavs. In the NBA Hardwood video, he told Mike Reghi that he struggled coming off the bench later in the season that year.
I was too anxious!
But this day every one of his game high 27 points was needed. The Cavs battled back, wanting that win. How they got to a tie game at the end is still a mystery to me. But OT was all Bullets.
That’s ok. Give them their game 6. We’ll take Game 7. And please, anyone who sees Dick Snyder or a member of his family around ANY town in the US…buy them whatever they are drinking!
Game 7 – WASH (3-4) 85 CLE (4-3) 85 @ The Coliseum April 29, 1976
Game 7’s are a different animal. Heck, we as Cleveland fans know all about the highs and lows of game 7’s. (See 2016 and the Cavaliers and Indians!) Many an athlete have said the best two words of the English language are “game seven.”
NBC Sports put together a great history of Game 7’s all-time in the NBA. Cleveland/Washington was one of 142 in the entire history of the league up to 2021.
Here’s a great, in-depth piece on the game in Fan Nation for the Cavaliers, by Colton Jones. Have a read. But I will move to the game’s end.
As was stated earlier, in game five, the Cavs probably had a give and go planned off the inbound from Snyder to Chones, who was trying to give him the ball back as the defenders crashed to Chones. Snyder’s run was there but Chenier doubled over to Chones quickly, cutting off the chance. This set up the game winner by Cleamons.
The Kiss…The Winner!
This play was about matchups. Carr in an interview with Reghi and Tait said they got the match up they wanted. Here, the ball is inbounded to Snyder, who found not Chenier on him but Unseld, a better match. In the play leading up to the inbounds, Austin Carr shared what the team was thinking.
We wanted to run the time down. We knew that they were switching anything in the front court. The key was could we get a mismatch.
The Bullets may have been surprised with Cleamons inbounding and not Snyder, like Game 5. If Chenier wasn’t picked by Chones, possibly Cleamons would run alongside Snyder ready for a quick dish if Unseld blocked Dick’s path. Go back and watch at 45:53.
Unseld forced Snyder to his left. But Snyder had him beat. Chenier was picked away from the inbounds and Jones for Washington ran with Bingo, leaving the left side open. As Chenier finally moved to Snyder, Snyder had to pick up his dribble further from the basket. Snyder later told Josh Weir of the Canton Repository:
So I’m going through the air and I can remember the thought going through my head: ‘OK, you better lay this up fairly high and soft.’ That’s all I thought about.”
The ball arched high, kissed high off the glass, and dropped through with four seconds left. Pandemonium Palace erupted! The Miracle complete!
The Bullets made the last gasp interesting. Unseld tossed the inbounds to the basket where Nate tipped it away. Chenier ran it down in the corner and put up his shot. As it came down, Witherspoon almost pulled a Cleamons and grabbed the miss and put it in. He didn’t and the Cavs and fans celebrated.
Phil Chenier ended with 31 points. Jimmy Jones was again fantastic for Washington. His defense caused problems for the Cavs in games six and seven.
Every Cavalier starter hit double figures, and Dick Snyder led all Cleveland hoopsters with 23 points. Brewer’s 16 rebounds were desperately needed. And the Cavs finally moved on to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Boston Celtics.
The Lord giveth…
And as giving as the basketball gods were in this series, the gods quickly took away from the Cleveland players and fans.
Yep, Virginia, just when you think it’s our time, a force outside of nature looks at Cleveland’s teams and screams, “No soup for you!” We should have wrapped Chones up in bubble wrap!
Part Three-I hate the Celtics!
Much of the videos and conversations with Austin Carr and Michael Reghi and Joe Tait come from NBA hardwood classics. Thanks to the many YouTube subscribed channels for sharing!
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February 19, 2023 at 1:54 pm
I went to the last game at Richfield of the Miracle Season vs the Celtics – Game 6.
I can still see the Campy long bounce pass with less than a minute left that got intercepted.
Depression set in. The Miracle was over, and very hard to accept that.
Nice detailed post Bill.