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Better Know a Cavs Season: 1991-92, the apogee of the orange-and-blue era (Part II)

The 1992 Cavaliers were a team in transition, in a league in transition, in a nation in transition, in a world in transition. Against this backdrop, they authored one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs Miami Heat
Terrell Brandon and the Cavs had no answer for Keith Askins and the Heat on December 11, 1991. It would be a much different story six days later.
Photo by Jim Spoontz/Allsport/Getty Images

DECEMBER 1991

The Soviet Union dissolves on Christmas Day. Desmond Howard wins the Heisman Trophy. Warner Bros. Pictures releases JFK. DaBaby is born in Cleveland and Richard Stone dies in Cambridge, England.

(Released December 3, 1991)

When the nation’s sports scribes sat down to rehash the year in sports, it became abundantly clear 1991 had belonged to one man: Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

Jordan had done it all in the past 12 months. He’d broken through to win his first NBA title, garnering Finals MVP honors as the Bulls dispatched the Lakers in five games. He’d been the MVP, an All-Star, scoring champion, first team all-NBA, first team all-Defensive.

As he began his eighth season in the league, Jordan’s fame was poised to transcend basketball. The Associated Press bestowed its Male Athlete of the Year award upon him, making him the peer of Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali (he was just the second basketball player to win the honor, joining Larry Bird). Sports Illustrated named Jordan Sportsman of the Year, trumpeting the honor with a reflection from Pulitzer-winning Vietnam War chronicler David Halberstam. The author of The Best and the Brightest declared Jordan a new kind of hero, “a hero for the wired world.”

Jordan, to Halberstam, was famous in a way few in the 20th century had been truly famous; he was cut from the cloth of Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy and Joe DiMaggio. This was a phenomenon the Cleveland Cavaliers knew all too well; to some extent, Jordan’s on-court notoriety had been won on their misfortune.

Five players who had seen minutes for Cleveland on May 7, 1989 remained on the team for the first Cavs-Bulls clash of the 1992 season (Price, Daugherty, Nance, Williams and Ehlo). The Cavs had been favored in that long-ago series; this was not the case on December 4, 1991. Chicago entered on a 12-game winning streak and ran its record to 14-2 in a businesslike fashion, dispatching the Cavs 108-102 behind a triple-double from Scottie Pippen.

“The Bulls have so many weapons that you can’t leave anyone open,” Wilkens said matter-of-factly. “If you overplay Jordan, the other guys can hurt you like Pippen, John Paxson or BJ Armstrong.”

Solving Phil Jackson’s team would have to wait for another day. In the meantime, the Cavs delivered another blow to a slumping Pistons squad, winning 110-101 in Michigan as Williams, Battle and Brandon scored in double figures off the bench.

From there, Cleveland traveled home on December 7 and dispatched the moribund Bullets 99-97. On a day replete with history — Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, while Boris Yeltsin raised eyebrows in Minsk by making reference to “the former Soviet Union” — it seemed appropriate that the son of a history scholar should deliver the Cavs’ biggest shot of the young season.

“Steve Kerr, the fellow who came to training camp knowing he might lose his job, won a game for the Cavaliers last night on a jump shot with six-tenths of a second left on the clock,” began Bob Dolgan’s game story in the Plain Dealer. Kerr found himself defended by Michael Adams, over whom he had a five-inch height advantage; he nailed the winning 15-footer and quipped it was “the first time I’ve won a game in the last second since about the third grade.”

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics
Steve Kerr, in year three with the Cavaliers, remained a valuable role player — and a self-deprecating comedian — throughout 1992.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cavs dropped the front end of a back-to-back to Miami, conceding 20 points and 24 boards to the Heat’s Rony Seikaly, but recovered to reel off a season-high 134 points against a solid Hawks team. Nance scored 26, Daugherty double-doubled, and James tallied 18 points in 18 minutes as Cleveland handed Atlanta a resounding 27-point defeat the victors seemed unlikely to replicate anytime soon...

...Until December 17, that is. The Cavs entered a Tuesday night date with the Heat smarting from their first home loss of the season, a blown 17-point lead against the Mavericks Ehlo characterized as “sad.” There was no indication early on the next game would be anything special. The Cavaliers led 36-30 in the second quarter.

And then, in one of basketball’s great single-game detonations, the Cavaliers suddenly found themselves leading 148-75 in the fourth quarter.

The final was 148-80, a record for margin of victory in the NBA that still stands. The Cavs outshot a shell-shocked Miami team — which at one point made a hockey-style five-man substitution in an ill-fated effort to turn the tide — .573 to .355. The Heat could muster just 14 points in the third quarter, and followed up with a 13-point effort in the fourth.

Cleveland, for its part, seemed unsure how to react to the accomplishment. Daugherty called the game “a lot of fun;” Battle told reporters sincerely he was “sorry we won by 68.” despite the fact his 18 led five bench players who hit double figures.

Predictably, the Cavs lost the second game of the back-to-back to the Nets, 102-93. Derrick Coleman scored 22 points, and budding star Drazen Petrovic added 20. It looked like a one-off upset loss on paper — New Jersey improved to 7-16 with the win — but a change of fortunes was in store for Cavs coaching great Bill Fitch’s team.

With that, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost for the final time in 1991. The orange and blue tore through a pre-Christmas back-to-back against the Central Division’s southern delegation. Brandon dropped 19 off the bench in a 122-99 win over Atlanta, spelling Price on a 1 for 8 off-night for the star point guard. The destitute Hornets were slew next in a contest where every Cavalier scored. Wilkens’ assessment after the first game spoke to the Cavs’ newfound potency: “Every guy I used played really well.”

Coming home for the holidays, the Cavs then swiped a zany game from an excellent Jazz team on an Ehlo three at the buzzer.

“If Henry James and Larry Nance haven’t thought about doing some late Christmas shopping today for Craig Ehlo, they should,” began Burt Graeff’s Plain Dealer game story.

The wild finish unfolded thusly: John Stockton drained a 10-footer to tie the game at 110 with :02.8 left. James threw the ensuing inbound pass out of bounds on the fly. Blue Edwards shook Nance for the go-ahead layup. Finally, Ehlo etched his name in team history.

Further immortalizing the shot was another Cavaliers icon in radio announcer Joe Tait, whose call became instant legend.

“My favorite Joe Tait radio call was somewhere around 1990,” Kerr tweeted upon Tait’s death in March 2021, “when my Cavs teammate Craig Ehlo made a game winning shot the day before Christmas: ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he comes from Lubbock, Texas!!!’”

A changed world greeted the Cavs after they broke for Christmas; in the three days between their bouts with Utah and Milwaukee, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had formally passed into history. Unlike the other three Big Four leagues, the NBA had no conception of life outside the Cold War era. Even though the Soviets had been a force in international basketball for decades, winning Olympic gold in Munich in 1972 and Seoul in 1988, a Soviet presence in American pro hoops had been nonexistent for much of the league’s lifespan.

That was about to change, and the Cavs would be among many teams to reap the benefits. In 1996, Cleveland would take Wright State’s Vitaly Potapenko in the first round; he’d play 11 seasons as the NBA’s first Ukrainian-born player. Russians Timofey Mozgov and Sasha Kaun would both see minutes for the 2016 NBA champions, with the former famously earning colorful plaudits from LeBron at the victory parade. And then there would be Lithuanian big man Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a two-time All-Star and fan favorite whose No. 11 would come to hang in the future Gund Arena’s rafters.

“Cavaliers Gaining Recognition,” read a Plain Dealer headline after the Cavs welcomed the post-Cold War world by dismissing the Bucks 111-94. On a national Bulls-Celtics telecast, Graeff wrote, Bob Costas asked his partner Steve Jones if anyone could challenge Chicago in the Eastern Conference.

“The Cavaliers could give them some trouble,” Jones responded, signaling how far Cleveland had come in a matter of months.

The Cavs closed the book on 1991 by scoring a pair of wins at home over Texas teams. In the first game against the Spurs, Daugherty dominated David Robinson, pouring in 31 points on 12 shots while holding the Admiral to a 3 for 9 outing from the field. In the second, Cleveland flexed its depth as every Cavalier scored in a 121-89 beatdown of a fatigued Rockets team.

A 1991 to remember at the Richfield Coliseum, for better or worse, was in the books. Between Daugherty, Nance, Price, Ehlo and the bench (described by Daugherty after the Houston game as “super”), all the pieces were in place for 1992 to be a year like no other in Cavs history.

The Cavaliers ended December 1991 with a 19-9 record, alone in second in the Eastern Conference and alone in second in the Central Division. Division leaders were: Boston (Atlantic), Chicago (Central), Utah (Midwest) and Golden State (Pacific).

JANUARY 1992

Exoplanets are detected for the first time. Washington defeats Buffalo to win Super Bowl XXVI. Paramount Pictures releases Juice. Mac Miller is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Willie Dixon dies in Burbank, California.

(No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, January 11, 1992)

As the world welcomed 1992, Larry Bird had a cold.

Or, rather, a sore back. Despite the fact he’d opened the season averaging a rock-solid 21-10-6, Bird was 35 and feeling it. Not since the Celtics’ most recent championship season six years prior had he played 80 games in a season, and just once in the past three years had he played 70.

An era was coming to an end in Boston. Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, Bird’s running mates once upon a time on the Celtics’ most iconic modern teams, were now 38 and 34. Boston’s coach was no longer KC Jones, who would be fired by the SuperSonics in two weeks after guiding them to an 18-18 start, but Chris Ford — a teammate of Bird’s for three years in New England and an NBA champion in 1981.

Boston Celtics v Washington Bullets
Despite his advanced age and recurrent back issues, the Larry Bird of 1991 retained the killer instincts that made him one of the most feared players in history.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

After opening 1992 with a win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Cavaliers headed north to battle the Bird-less Celtics in search of their eighth consecutive victory. And Battle they did — John dropped 19 points off the bench on just 10 field goal attempts, while Nance and Daugherty contributed 20 points apiece. Final: Cleveland 111, Boston 100.

“We didn’t think it was going to be an easy game,” Wilkens said of Bird’s absence. It wasn’t; Parish, McHale and Co. had led 45-44 at the half. But the Cavs hardened their resolve, shot 65% in the final 24 minutes, and won in Boston for just the second time in Bird’s tenure.

While Cleveland looked ahead to the last two games of its road trip — a blowout of lowly Minnesota in which Price broke John Bagley’s team assist record, and a comeback win over Washington — owner Gordon Gund discussed in the pages of the Plain Dealer a building where the Cavs would find significantly more success against the Celtics.

“The Coliseum is still a darned good building and was state of the art when it was built,” Gund said. “But it isn’t state of the art anymore. The total entertainment package at Gateway will be better than at the Coliseum.”

Gateway was the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex, the construction site that would one day produce Jacobs Field and Gund Arena. As the 1990s opened, Cleveland could reasonably claim the strangest lineup of venues in North American sports: the Browns and Indians shared Cleveland Stadium, an archaic Depression-era ballpark on Lake Erie, while the Cavs played at the Richfield Coliseum in Summit County, 20 miles south of Cleveland proper.

The Gateway project would set off a wild chain of events that left Cleveland briefly without an NFL team. But the Cavs would soon have a new home, one day to be made the center of the sports world by a native of the team’s longtime stomping grounds — Summit County.

On January 11, back at the Coliseum, Cleveland won its 11th consecutive game, holding on to beat the 76ers 108-102. It tied a team record set in January 1989. Barkley (23-9-5) was present and accounted for, but as was so frequently the case in 1992, Daugherty was the best player on the floor, falling just two assists short of a triple-double.

“We’ve been playing pretty good basketball, but we want to keep improving,” Daugherty said afterward of a 24-9 team that now wielded the second-best record in the NBA.

At long last, in a three-day span from January 14 to 16, the Cleveland Cavaliers came back to Earth.

First it was the Finals-minded Trail Blazers edging Cleveland in a 121-114 thriller, getting 34 points from Drexler and moving to 23-12 on the season. Price had 26 points, and Ferry (15 points and three three-pointers) competently played bench-hero-of-the-night. But Drexler forced a turnover as the Cavs tried to tie it with :15 left, and Portland had what the night’s star termed “a win that builds your confidence and momentum.”

“We knew Cleveland was the second-best team in the league,” Drexler told reporters. “We had to play tough.”

The Cavs were then handily beaten by the best team in the league, allowing Jordan 35 points and Pippen 23 in a 100-85 loss to the Bulls. Media backlash toward a team that had gradually raised expectations over the course of its winning streak was swift and unanimous. “Cavs ready? Not!” screamed the front sports page of the Toledo Blade.

“Face up to it,” Graeff wrote. “The Cavaliers are the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time players of the National Basketball Association.”

Lest overreacting and soul-searching be thought of as a Twitter-era phenomenon, everyone and their mother had an opinion after the Chicago defeat. “The Cavs… don’t have the firepower to play with the Bulls on a consistent basis right now,” Bill Livingston wrote in the Plain Dealer, pointing to the experience Pippen, Horace Grant and other non-Jordan Bulls had gained from years of deep postseason runs. Wilkens offered a rebuttal: “Don’t say we lost to Portland and Chicago and leave it at that… We went into New York and Boston and beat them. If you’re going to mention these two games, mention the others, too.”

In the midst of the storm, Battle pleaded for calm.

“I know fans will be fickle about it and say we have just teased them,” the veteran guard told the press. “That’s just not true. We’re still a good team. We’ve got some improving to do.”

Following the Chicago debacle, the Cavs ran back their first two games of the calendar year at home with decidedly mixed results. Price found Ehlo in the dying seconds for a three-point play that secured a 108-106 win over the Knicks (and exposed a rookie Greg Anthony in the process), but Nance (quadriceps) and Battle (ankle) were hurt. Battle returned to drop 19 points on the Celtics, but Daugherty was sidelined by a strained Achilles, and Cleveland fell 107-102 to a Boston team now missing both Bird and McHale.

Notably, Celtics breakout star Reggie Lewis tallied 26 points to lead both teams.

Nance returned for the final game of the homestand and didn’t miss a beat, burning Indiana for 26 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, a steal, and three blocks in a 119-115 overtime win. Wilkens would probably have preferred that Nance’s return be the biggest storyline coming out of the game, but a bizarre postgame fight between Battle and Pacers forward George McCloud overshadowed the proceedings.

“This was totally uncalled for,” Wilkens said of the fracas, which included Battle attempting to retaliate with a wooden board and — allegedly — a near-shoving match between the Cavs coach and Indiana coach Bob Hill. “We are supposed to be professionals.”

McCloud was suspended for the two teams’ rematch two days later in the Hoosier State. It was another nailbiter, but also a clean affair as the Cavs pulled out a 104-102 win.

“This time it was Danny Ferry, not George McCloud, supplying the punch,” Graeff’s recap began. The sophomore forward out of Duke double-doubled in the fourth quarter alone, and his 15-footer with :08.1 to go was the difference.

Regardless of Ferry’s emergence, life without Daugherty remained less than ideal for Cleveland. The Cavs took their first loss to a sub-.500 team since December 18 on January 25, shooting poorly and losing to the Magic 99-96. During the winning streak, the orange and blue had leaned on a starting lineup of Daugherty, Ehlo, Nance, Price and Bennett (who usually ceded the floor for long stretches to Williams). Life without Daugherty meant a smaller, weirder arrangement: Nance, Ehlo, Price, Williams and Oliver, making what would turn out to be some of the only starts of his NBA career.

This was the lineup the Cavs trotted out for the game that marked the halfway point of the 1992 regular season. They battled the Pistons in a back-and-forth affair that was knotted at 48 at the half and at 73 after the third quarter. Ehlo’s basket with :09.9 to play put the Cavs up 92-90, and the Pistons’ Isiah Thomas was whistled for a charge and a technical on successive possessions. The Cleveland Cavaliers were 28-13, and on pace for the second-best record in their 22-year history.

Another Nance masterpiece brought the month to a close, as he buried the Magic with 33 points and 13 rebounds on January 30 without taking a single three-pointer. The atmosphere afterward was jovial, hearkening back to the pre-Portland/Chicago days when the sky was the limit.

“Larry is amazing,” Price said of his teammate, “being over the hill and all.”

“I’m 100 years old now,” Nance said after the back-to-back. “I got a little tired in the fourth quarter.”

The Cavs, as Battle had assured fans after the Bulls loss, were still a good team after all.

“When you’ve got a guy like Brad out,” Price said as the Cavs moved to 4-2 in six games without Daugherty, “the other people have to step up, and Larry and Hot Rod have really done that.”

The Cavaliers ended January 1992 with a 29-13 record, alone in second in the Eastern Conference and alone in second in the Central Division. Division leaders were: New York (Atlantic), Chicago (Central), Utah (Midwest) and Portland (Pacific).