To put it nicely, the Cavaliers have not been among the world's most successful sports franchises during their nearly four-decade history. With the exceptions of a handful of all-too-brief thaws, the professional basketball landscape in this city has generally been as frigid as the February air outside the Q. The Cavaliers have been a cold-weather version of the Clippers, a farm team for superior clubs, and a punch line more than often than they've been a winner.
Nowhere has that haphazard state been more colorfully illustrated than in the number at the heart of the current renaissance - 23. Nine Cavaliers players have worn the number since the franchise first tipped off at the old Cleveland Arena in the fall of 1970. Those nine are a human map of the rougher regions of Cavaliers history - busted draft picks, questionable trades, promising futures dampened by injury, journeymen passing through town on the way to another place and another uniform, all leading to the lush pastures of redemption.
Provided this team gets healthy, of course. And picks up another big man. And stops being consumed with slights from the league and the officials. And L.A. loses to someone before the Finals...
In chronological order, the nine:
Gary Freeman (1970-71) the story of Gary Freeman's only NBA season is a classic riches-to-rags tale. The powerful Bucks took the 6'9" forward from Oregon State with the 16th overall pick in the 1970 Draft, ahead of Calvin Murphy (18th) and Tiny Archibald (19th). It took until late in his rookie season for Milwaukee to write Freeman off as a sunk cost and cut him loose. Maybe he pissed off Kareem. He wound up playing a total of 47 minutes for the ramshackle Cavaliers, who finished their inaugural season at 15-67. The Bucks went 66-16 and rolled to the World Championship. No word on whether or not Gary Freeman got a playoff share.
Jackie Ridgle (1971-72) the undersized (6'4") forward from Cal averaged 1.8 points per game in his first and only NBA season. Cleveland would have been better off drafting Ridgle's college teammate Charles Johnson, who won two championships as a solid role player for the Warriors and Bullets.
Mike Bratz (1980-81) the last Chicago Bull before MJ to wear #23, the well-traveled guard (six teams in nine years) had his best season with the Cavaliers, averaging 10.2 points per game and leading the NBA in three-pointers attempted (169) and made (57.) The Cavaliers, under the trusty stewardship of Ted Stepien, did not: they went 28-54 and drew a league-low 5,475 per night at the Coliseum.
(In contrast to Bratz's modest totals, current three-point leader Rashard Lewis has already attempted 354 three-pointers and made 147 of them. I was watching Game 7 of the classic Philadelphia-Boston Eastern Conference Finals- a kind soul put it on Youtube- and after Larry Bird hit a three-pointer in the third quarter, Dick Stockton said it was the first one the C's had converted in the entire series. The three-point shot was in its second NBA season, but the mid-range game still thrived.)
That Bratz was firing up his jumpers in Richfield was part of a larger problem. Mr. Stepien and henchman Bill Musselman had acquired the guard from the expansion Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Cleveland's first-round pick in 1984. That's a first-round pick for a player left unprotected in an expansion draft. Stepien, along with the team's previous ownership, had strip-mined the future, trading off one premium draft pick after another for the likes of Bratz, Richard Washington, Jerome Whitehead and others. Between 1979 and 1985, traded Cleveland picks were turned into James Worthy, Rodney McCray, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins (with the pick gleaned for Bratz), Detlef Schrempf, and Roy Tarpley, who was an absolute stud before being taken down by drugs. But at least the Cavaliers got that "career year" out of Mike Bratz...
Bruce Flowers (1982-83) a 6'8" banger out of Notre Dame, Flowers played one season in the NBA, averaging 4.9 points per game with the dismal 1982-83 Cavaliers.
Tyrone Corbin (1986-88) one of several good NBA players churned out by DePaul in the early ‘80s, Corbin was acquired from the Spurs midway through the 1986-87 season. He spent the next year in a Cavaliers uniform before being flipped to Phoenix as part of the care package that brought Larry Nance (and Mike Sanders) to Cleveland. The defensive-minded small forward with the nice jumper played with ten teams in a career that ended in 2001 with the Toronto Raptors, a franchise that wasn't even a twinkle in David Stern's eye when Corbin's NBA journey began.
I've always been a little ambivalent about the trade with Phoenix. Larry Nance was a great player, but the Cavaliers gave up an awful lot to get him- Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Corbin, and the draft pick that became Dan Majerle. The loss of Dell Curry in the 1988 expansion draft and the stupid trade of Ron Harper, along with the Nance deal, hurt the depth of the team badly. The Cavaliers were left with a black hole behind Mark Price and a lack of athleticism on the wings, defects that repeatedly burned them during their early ‘90s run.
It could have been different. The Cavaliers could have run out an eleven-man rotation of Price, Ron Harper, Johnny Newman, Mark West, Brad Daugherty, KJ, Hot Rod Williams, Corbin, Dell Curry, Craig Ehlo, and Chris Dudley had they kept their pieces together. The second unit would have made the playoffs. That group, with unmatched depth and versatility- especially on the perimeter- would have given the Bulls nightmares for years. Or at least until Brad Daugherty's back gave out.
Que sera sera.
John Morton (1989-92) Wayne Embry spent the 25th pick in the first round on Morton in part because of his deadeye shooting against Michigan in the '89 NCAA Championship Game, when he poured in 35 and almost single-handedly led Seton Hall to the title. So it must have been an unpleasant surprise when Morton shot 29.8 percent from the field as a rookie, the first misfired salvo in a career that petered out after three lackluster seasons. With the pick after Cleveland's, the Los Angeles Lake Show took Vlade Divac. Legend has it that Divac's televised chain-smoking in the green room helped him slip all the way to L.A. at the bottom of the first round. Morton didn't smoke, but he also couldn't play, which was a greater hindrance.
Rod Higgins (1993-94) Higgins briefly passed through Cleveland after spending the bulk of his career with Golden State, then as now a Mecca for undersized post players.
Carl Thomas (1996-97) a key player on Eastern Michigan's 1991 Sweet 16 team, Thomas actually had two tours of duty in Cleveland. In his first, he wore #23 and logged 77 minutes for a Cavaliers team that went 42-40 and fell just short of the playoffs. A year later, after cups of coffee with the Warriors and Magic, Thomas was back, this time wearing #30. He did have one moment of glory with the Cavaliers on February 25, 1998, when he hit all five of his shots- including 3-for-3 from three-point range- and scored 13 points off the bench as Cleveland edged Vancouver, 106-101.
Derek Anderson (1997-99) Armed with slashing ability and a knack of drawing fouls and converting the free throws, the Original DA was the sixth man and one of four rookies in the rotation for a Cavaliers team that won 47 games and made the playoffs in 1998. Alas, DA spent all too many game-nights in gold lamé suits cheering for healthier teammates. After his second season he was dealt to the Clippers for Lamond Murray, a more durable player who suffered from an addiction to shooting. Like Mike Bratz and Tyrone Corbin before him, Derek Anderson was the consummate NBA journeyman, playing for nine teams in his decade-long career.
The Cavaliers did enjoy some excellent seasons pre-LeBron, but the number 23 stayed mothballed through most of them. None of the three teams that won in the playoffs pre-LBJ- 1976, 1992, and 1993- featured a player in that number. (John Morton was released early in the 1991-92 season.) It was as if the number was being subconsciously saved for a higher purpose, its use reserved for the transitory and the inconsequential, so as to be identified with none but its true wearer and the attendant glories.
Or maybe the Cavaliers have just had a lot of mediocre players, a handful of whom happened to wear a certain number. Gary Brokaw, Terry Furlow, Dave Robisch, Darren Tillis, and Ron Anderson weren't exactly tough acts to follow for Mark Price at 25, while we're at it. Either way, by fate or otherwise, LeBron has remade the Cavaliers' number 23 in his image. Along with the franchise.