Cleveland basketball fans have recently been said to be a little "spoiled," specifically by the play of LeBron James. The present era of the Cavaliers has been, without a doubt, the most sustained run of excellence that Cleveland has seen on the court: Five straight playoff appearances, six straight winning seasons, the last two years the best regular-season record in the league, two straight division championships, an NBA Finals appearance three years ago, and a perception that the NBA title is as close as it has ever been, and that, for want of a healthy elbow, Cleveland might even now be NBA champs.
Obviously it was not always this way.
The Cavaliers were born in 1970. In Ohio, there already was an NBA team, the Cincinnati Royals, who would eventually move west and become the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, then drop Omaha and play on in K.C., and then relocate to Sacramento. The league, with the addition of the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) and the Portland Trailblazers, as well as the Cavaliers, now consisted of 17 teams. Eight teams qualified for the playoffs. The present day Golden State Warriors wore a uniform that said "San Francisco," the someday-to-be Washington Wizards were the Baltimore Bullets, the present day Houston team was the San Diego Rockets, and the NBA had a home in Seattle that looked to be permanent.
Entrepreneur Nick Mileti was the first owner of the Cavaliers, Bill Fitch the first coach, and they presided over the 1970 expansion draft, where Cleveland, Buffalo and Portland all stocked their rosters for their inaugural season with 11 picks. Cleveland chose several soon-to-be-forgotten names, but did pick up notables such as Walt Wesley, John Warren, John Johnson and Butch Beard. And from the San Diego Rockets, Cleveland garnered a pivotal part of the team which would, in five years, make the franchise's first playoff appearance: Bobby "Bingo" Smith.
Cleveland bolted from the gate ... rather like a horse running the wrong way at the Kentucky Derby. The Cavaliers lost their first 15 games before, on Nov. 12, 1970, picking up their first win in a two-point victory on the road against their expansion brethren in Portland. The giddiness quickly faded, as a 12-game skid followed, before the Cavaliers earned their first home victory, at the old Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue, against their other expansion mates, the Buffalo Braves, again by two points.
The Cavaliers won just two more games during the first half of the season, both coming at the expense of the Braves. The club's 4-37 mark at the midway point of the season had them seriously threatening to set a new league standard for losses, but things improved in the second half of the season, and the first "established" team that Cleveland beat, the Philadelphia 76ers, would themselves set the all-time mark for worst record two years later at 9-73. Cleveland's 13-point win on Dec. 27, 1970 (six years to the day after Cleveland's last championship in any sport) finally gave some credibility to the fledgling team.
The Cleveland Cavaliers ended their first season with a 15-67 record. Of those 15 victories, seven came against Buffalo, while only two came against Portland, who had much the better of the expansion teams' success and closed the season with a respectable 29 victories. Buffalo also did much better than the Cavaliers in the standings, with 22 wins, but Cleveland had at least one team that they could claim, based on head-to-head meetings, to be "better than."
For the season, six Cavaliers actually finished in double figures in points per game, led by Walt Wesley at 17.7, John Johnson at 16.6 and Bingo Smith with 15.2, and the team itself averaged over 102 points. Of course, scoring was much higher in those ancient days than it is now, and the decent offensive numbers were offset by giving up over 113 a game.
The next season Cleveland improved to 23 wins, then to 32, before slipping back to 29, then leaping to 40 and, in 1975-76, to 49 wins and their first Central Division championship in the year which featured the Miracle of Richfield. But it was that first team, that first lovable group of losers, that planted the seeds of possibility in many fans' minds, and although the Cavaliers might still, to this day, not have supplanted the Indians and Browns in the hearts of Cleveland, without that struggling team, that team who once almost saw their coach denied admission to an arena for a game when a security guard did not recognize him, the present-day Cavs, who have so "spoiled" us, might not exist.
And the present-day Cavs, "spoiled" though its fans may be, still have this in common with that team of 40 years ago: Neither ever hoisted a championship trophy.