Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 77 vs. the Cavaliers

Celtics (58-18) vs. Cleveland (34-43)
March 22, 1980
Richfield Coliseum

The Celtics stumbled, 109-105, in front of a sellout crowd of 19,548 in Cleveland against the suddenly hot Cavaliers.

The win marked the eighth straight for the Cavs, a team facing a future of uncertainty.  The only coach and general manager the team had ever known, Bill Fitch, now coached the league-best Boston Celtics, and a new change in ownership had the NBA wondering whether professional basketball could survive in Ohio.  The Boston Globe’s Steve Marantz reported further on the sale:

Bill Fitch-Cavs

Cleveland was playing its first game under a new ownership.  On Friday, it was announced that Joe Zingale, a local entrepreneur, had purchased the shares of Louis A. Mitchell, who had taken control from Nick Mileti on Feb. 4.  Zingale is a former disc jockey and former owner of the Cleveland Nets of World Team Tennis.  Zingale reportedly holds 38 percent of the Cavalier stock, and if his track record in buying and selling radio stations is any indication, he won’t own it for too long.

The purchase by Zingale raised anew the question of whether the Cavaliers are long for Cleveland.  Their 10-year lease with the Richfield Coliseum has a clause – which Bill Fitch helped draw up – which frees them in the event their attendance falls under an 8000 average for two consecutive seasons.  It is well below that this season, but a sellout – 19,548 – turned out last night.

The loss to Cleveland allowed an idle Philadelphia to slip within three games of the Atlantic Division lead.  The Celtics were plagued all night by turnovers (Larry Bird turned the ball over eight times again) and an inability to keep up with the speed of the Cavs.  Marantz expanded on this in his post-game report:

Though it would not be far wrong to say that the Cavaliers won because the Celtics could not contain Smith’s speed – particularly with Pete Maravich matched against him – to be fair, one must consider the words of Fitch.

“I wouldn’t start a crusade against our backcourt,” said Fitch.  “I thought the turnovers our forecourt made down the stretch were crucial.”  Grabbing the final stats, Fitch noted the turnovers of Larry Bird (8), Cedric Maxwell (4) and Dave Cowens (3).

Randy Smith, the Cavs guard who burned the Celtics for 29 points, 8 assists, and 4 steals, commented on how Boston could be defeated with speed:

“I think they could have problems against the teams with quick backcourts like LA or Seattle in a long series.  I think it’s going to cause them problems.”

Or, for that matter, Philadelphia.

Even with the recent oasis of losing in the previous seasons, the Celtics were still regarded as the class of the NBA post-season.  With the playoffs looming, it was the responsibility of the coach to have this Celtics team ready.  Preparation was a strong suit of Bill Fitch, but the set of circumstances which led to Fitch’s hiring in Cleveland left him anything but prepared.  Terry Pluto, in his book Joe Tait: It’s Been a Real Ball, detailed the original hiring of Fitch in Cleveland:

Bill Fitch

[Cavs owner Nick] Mileti was a Bowling Green graduate.  Fitch was the coach there for only season, 1967-68.

“I got to know Nick when he wanted to promote a game at the [Cleveland] Arena between Bowling Green and Niagra,” said Fitch.  “Niagra had Calvin Murphy, and we upset them.  That had something to do with them hiring me.”

Fitch had only three seasons under his belt as the head coach of a Division I college (Bowling Green, 1967-68; Minnesota, 1968-1970) before taking the job with the expansion Cavs.  Pluto explored that concept in his book:

“I don’t think it was that strange,” said Fitch, about his hiring.  Of course, he was speaking 41 years after it happened.  He was speaking after a career of coaching 2,050 games with five NBA teams.  But today, some in the media would ask: “Why are you turning over the entire franchise to a guy with zero background in the NBA?  You are going to let him draft the players, make the trades and coach?”

But that question wasn’t raised in 1970.

 

Fitch

Another fascinating subplot in Fitch and the Cavs’ history was the NBA expansion draft.  Pluto explained in the book that, without the aid of the Internet or even private scouting services, the Cavaliers had no scouting reports on the available players.  They did, however, have basketball cards, which Pluto wrote, had names, records and basic statistics on the back:

Fitch’s assistant was Jim Lessig, whose son had the cards.  As they talked about preparing for the NBA, Lessig said his son had just bought five packs for a quarter, and they did have some information about the players.  Fitch sent Lessig back to the store to buy all he could.  Twenty bucks and lots of doubles later, they had about 100 different player cards.  And from there, they began picking their team.

In case you were wondering, the Cavs dropped the first fifteen games of that inaugural season.

The Celtics returned to action the following day at the Garden for a final tilt with the New Jersey Nets.

 

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.

  • GrahamMcGinty

    Bill was a character , and very underrated

  • http://twitter.com/JustinBarrasso Justin Barrasso

    Really interesting to get to know a little more about Fitch… definitely worked well with this team, though you wonder if his demanding style helped lead to the retirements of Cowens and Maravich (though who can argue with the results of the next season)…

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