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

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.

1992 NBA All Star Game
Mark Price and Brad Daugherty represented the Cavs at the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

FEBRUARY 1992

Jeffrey Dahmer is given 15 life sentences. The Winter Olympics are held in Albertville, France. Paramount Pictures releases Wayne’s World. Neymar is born in Mogi das Cruzes, Brazil and Alex Haley dies in Seattle, Washington.

(Released February 24, 1992)

The de jure midpoint of the Cavaliers’ season was history by February 1992. Still to come, however, was the season’s de facto midpoint — All-Star Weekend, the wrist on which the league annually took its collective pulse.

For the Cavs, the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando represented rare air. The team had sent multiple representatives to the All-Star Game on just two previous occasions, placing John Johnson and Butch Beard on the Eastern Conference team in 1972 and sending Price, Daugherty and Nance in 1989. This year, Price and Daugherty served as Cleveland’s standard-bearers in the league’s marquee showcase. It was Daugherty’s fourth All-Star trip and Price’s second.

Price’s selection, beyond its significance for the Cavaliers franchise and for the man himself, was hailed 30 years ago as something of a medical marvel. “Price joins Bernard King as the only players in NBA history named to participate in an All-Star Game after undergoing anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery,” Graeff wrote in the Plain Dealer.

“I hope this gives other guys who have had this injury inspiration. This shows you can come back and accomplish things you want to accomplish,” Price told reporters. In an era when an ACL injury was still largely considered a prima facie career-killer, the totality of Price’s comeback seemed to defy logic. Thus, Price was picked despite finishing outside the top 10 in fan voting for Eastern Conference guards.

Before the festivities, the Cavs had to play a few games. Daugherty made his triumphant return on February 2 and helped Cleveland dispatch Minnesota 106-95, dropping 24 points and pulling down 11 boards in a virtuoso performance. He heaped praise on Price afterward, who put up 20 points of his own and gave out nine assists.

“I just know Mark so well,” Daugherty told reporters succinctly. “He makes my game so much better.”

It was Nance’s turn to play hero in Philadelphia three days later as the Cavs eked out a narrow win over the 76ers. With the game tied at 108 in the dying seconds of overtime, he found himself giving nine inches to Sixers big man Manute Bol. Nance responded by calmly flipping a skyhook over Bol and into the net. Final: Cleveland 110, Philadelphia 108.

The Cavs closed the book on the first half with a miserable 112-95 loss to the Pistons at the Coliseum in which the home team took 20 shots in the second quarter and made only one, tallying eight points against Detroit’s 29. It was a stretch Battle compared to “going into a gun battle with a knife,” and Thomas took full advantage, cooking the Cavs to the tune of 38 points, six rebounds and six assists. The future Hall of Famer also won the evening from a comedy perspective, bringing a huge pipe into the home locker room pregame and jokingly shouting, “Where is John Battle?”

Price and Daugherty decamped for Florida following the Pistons loss, joined by Three-Point Contest participant-to-be Ehlo. Pregame coverage was dominated by the return of Magic Johnson, slated to start for the Western Conference after being voted into a guard slot by 658,211 fans. Players’ initial reactions to Johnson’s comeback had been somewhat mixed — Karl Malone was a particularly vocal opponent of Johnson playing, a stance he has never truly lived down — but had become much more positive as the game approached.

Price, for his part, walked back previous comments expressing what the Plain Dealer termed “concerns about playing on the same court against Johnson,” adamantly stating he did not wish to be pitted against Johnson.

All-Star Saturday Night was overshadowed in the basketball world by Johnson’s return and in the wider sports world by the opening of the Winter Olympics in France, but provided a show nonetheless. Ehlo finished sixth in the Three-Point Contest, which Chicago’s Craig Hodges won for the third time. He donated the $1,000 prize to Methodist Hospital in his native Lubbock, where his sister was undergoing treatment for cancer.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics
Off the court, Craig Ehlo championed cancer research in 1992 while his sister battled the disease, which would eventually take her life.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Elsewhere, Phoenix’s Cedric Ceballos took the Slam Dunk Contest crown, and future Hall of Famer George Gervin put up a double-double as the Eastern Conference team won the now-defunct Legends Classic. The latter event’s demise was hastened by injuries to 37-year-old David Thompson (knee) and 36-year-old Norm Nixon (quadriceps), both of whom had to be stretchered off the court.

Sunday brought no such poor injury luck, as February 9, 1992 became one of the most memorable days in NBA history.

“It was more than Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat,” Livingston wrote. “It was the Gipper winning his own game.”

“Today’s day was meant for Magic,” Price told reporters. “He played well and the West played well.”

Johnson scored 25 points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out nine assists, helping the Western Conference dismantle the East 153-113. He was named MVP of the game, scored its final points, and was mobbed in the closing seconds by both teams.

Every other element of the game took a backseat to Johnson’s performance, which was capped by a pair of late threes over Thomas and Jordan. One sentence in Graeff’s Plain Dealer recap noted the Cavs’ brief cameos: Price scored six points and gave out three assists, while Daugherty had six points, six rebounds and an assist.

“It was a special day for sports, a special day for the NBA,” Thomas told reporters.

Whatever warm glow the All-Star Game cast over the league as a whole faded quickly for the Cavaliers, who promptly dropped both games of a Rocky Mountain swing to open the second half. The first game, against the Jazz, was lost on a fatal error by the usually cool-handed Price; Blue Edwards stole the ball from him with six seconds left and found Stockton for the winning layup at the buzzer.

The next night, the Nuggets rode 22 second-half points from former Cavalier Reggie Williams to a 108-102 triumph (Williams’s wife had been in a car accident earlier in the day, and per newspaper reports he arrived just 10 minutes before tip-off). The Cavs now had three straight losses to their name, a first for the 1992 season.

“We were a step behind all night,” Wilkens said. “We were not very aggressive early in the game.”

Wilkens tinkered with his starting lineup accordingly, dropping Oliver in favor of Bennett for the Cavs’ February 15 date with New Jersey. It paid off handsomely, as Cleveland whipped a tired Nets team 128-92 as Bennet pleasantly surprised with 14 points. “Winston is a live body out there,” Wilkens said. “I feel more comfortable with him in the starting lineup.”

Daugherty brought his usual excellence — 27 points and 16 rebounds — while Ehlo tallied 12 points in 28 minutes. He’d left the team briefly for the burial of his sister in Lubbock, and thanked the Cavs profusely for their support.

“I can’t say enough about the Cavaliers and my teammates, who sent flowers,” Ehlo told reporters. “She would have loved that. She loved the Cavaliers. She coached a Little League basketball team and they were called the Little Cavaliers.”

The win sharpened Cleveland ahead of yet another clash with its traditional bugaboo in the Windy City. This game unfolded much like every Cavs-Bulls game of the recent past: Jordan dropped 46 points. Pippen had a well-rounded 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Chicago shot a sterling .570 from the field.

There was, however, one key difference. The Cavs won, 113-112.

Everything clicked for Cleveland, which bettered the Bulls by shooting .592 from the field (Daugherty, Ehlo, Nance and Price combined to shoot .652). The Cavs erased seven- and three-point deficits late, and never trailed after Ehlo sank a go-ahead layup with 1:04 to go. A late Pippen miss relegated the team’s 12-game regular-season losing streak against Chicago to the history books.

Jordan, his 29th birthday spoiled, was impressed. “They played us extremely well,” he said. “They established their game tonight with their perimeter shooting, but they went inside very well and put it down our throats.”

“We knew it was a matter of time before we would beat them,” Price said confidently.

The banner victory deflated the Cavs for the back end of their two-day Lake Michigan swing, as a turn-back-the-clock performance from 36-year-old Moses Malone (30 points, eight rebounds) secured a 128-116 upset win for the Bucks. Cleveland rebounded admirably, however, and picked off another division leader, rallying to take a 92-89 slugfest from the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

“We’re not worried about what the Knicks and Bulls do,” Price again assured reporters in New York. “We’ve got lots of road games left and it’s a long season.”

The Cavs continued to back up Price’s conviction, closing a four-games-in-five-days run with a 119-102 win over Sacramento at the Coliseum. Daugherty was immaculate, feasting on the Kings to the tune of 30 points on just 14 shots. Sacramento forward Wayman Tisdale, tasked with defending Daugherty for much of the contest, described his night as “effortless.”

“It’s the test of a great team to come back and be as sharp and clever as they were after playing the night before,” Kings coach Rex Hughes said. “Price is brilliant and Daugherty keeps improving.”

February 23 brought an easy home win over Milwaukee, which Price sat out with sore legs (Brandon spelled him in the startling lineup with 12 points and seven assists; Kerr also clocked in for 26 minutes, quipping afterward that “you can ride that Stairmaster all day, but it’s not the same as playing”). Then came the real challenge: the 1992 season’s longest road trip, a four-state, six-game jaunt from February 26 to March 7 that took the Cavs to five Pacific Division cities as well as Atlanta.

It began inauspiciously, as a .384 shooting night doomed Cleveland to a 103-100 loss to the Suns in Phoenix. Daugherty scored 32 points and pulled down 13 rebounds, but former Cavalier Kevin Johnson secured the victory for the Suns with a late steal of an Ehlo pass.

Price returned but shot an abysmal 5 for 19 from the field; a Graeff sidebar noted his forthcoming appearance on NBA Inside Stuff on WKYC, during which he was scheduled to give Willow Bay free-throw shooting tips and discuss “his recent Christian contemporary music concert at the Coliseum.”

As had been the case in every month of the season thus far, the Cavs closed February 1992 on a winning note, downing the Lakers 101-90 in Inglewood. A skidding Los Angeles team had no answers for Nance and Daugherty, each of whom scored 25; future Cavs coach Byron Scott offered slight resistance with 20 points of his own.

“I know eventually [defenses] will make adjustments,” Daugherty — an astounding .731 from the field in the past four games — told reporters. “I could have one of those nights where I go zero for 10.”

Luckily for the Cavs, that day of regression had yet to come.

The Cavaliers ended February 1992 with a 37-18 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).

MARCH 1992

Bosnia and Herzegovina declares its independence from Yugoslavia. Christian Laettner sends Duke to the Final Four with The Shot. 20th Century Fox releases White Men Can’t Jump. Kyrie Irving is born in Melbourne, Australia and Menachem Begin dies in Tel Aviv, Israel.

(Released March 10, 1992)

On March 1, 1992 — 5,678 miles from Seattle, where the Cavaliers lost to the SuperSonics 113-107 — voters in Sarajevo went to the polls in an effort to determine whether Bosnia and Herzegovina should secede from Yugoslavia and become its own republic.

To much of America at the dawn of the 1990s, such a dispatch meant little beyond the ordinary din of news from abroad. To many in the Cleveland area specifically, however, the events being set in motion in southeastern Europe meant profound change. And in time, they would come to transform the NBA.

Yugoslavia was a nation multiethnic in character, home to Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Slovenes, Albanians, Montenegrins and numerous other groups. Its roots lay in Europe’s old, multinational empires — the Habsburg and Ottoman states that met their demise in World War I. The postwar settlement had created a pan-Slavic monarchy in the Balkans, and Yugoslavia had persisted in some form or fashion since 1918, notwithstanding a four-year Nazi occupation.

Over the decades, though, violence and other factors encouraged emigration from the region, and South Slavs came to America by the thousands. In few American cities was these immigrants’ influence as strong as it was in Cleveland. Slovenes poured into Northeast Ohio, making Cleveland a global center of Slovenian culture by the mid-20th century. Croats contributed directly to the city’s growing industrial might, and exerted power within the Catholic Church. Each Yugoslav ethnic group brought distinct cultural, linguistic and religious practices.

When Yugoslavia began to crumble in 1991, its constituent communities in Cleveland took center stage. “Fears of Civil War Mingle with Joy at Independence,” read a June 26 headline the day after Slovenia and Croatia declared their intent to leave Yugoslavia. It captured the simultaneous joy and apprehension of the region’s Slovenian and Croatian Americans.

“This was a forced marriage after World War I,” one man told the Plain Dealer, “and now we’re seeing the ugly divorce.”

The breakup of Yugoslavia had huge implications for the basketball world by virtue of the fact that perhaps no European nation had been better at the game since World War II. The Yugoslavs cruised to the gold at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 amid the American boycott, and won the FIBA World Championship in 1970, 1978 and 1990. With the nation falling apart, new players were poised to emerge in the international basketball arena; in the 30 years since, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia have reached the Olympics and Montenegro has played in the FIBA World Cup.

Dino Radja and Tilt Sokk
The breakup of Yugoslavia accelerated an influx of Balkan players into the NBA, such as Dino Radja (pictured here playing in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul).

The volatile international situation accelerated a nascent trend of players from their Balkans plying their trade in the United States (Milos Babic, a Serb, had played 12 games for the Cavs in 1991). As the 1992 season wore on, a sea change was underway, one that would end with Montenegrin swingman Sasha Pavlovic and Croatian center Ante Zizic representing Cleveland in the 2007 and 2018 Finals, respectively.

Stateside, the Cavs continued to add to their road warrior credentials. On March 4, Ehlo sank a short jumper with :01.2 seconds left to erase a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat Sacramento 109-108. After dropping the back end of the back-to-back 116-108 to Sarunas Marciulionis and Golden State, the team closed the six-game trip by dusting the Hawks 110-94.

The finale was a night to be proud for two of the Cavs’ stalwarts. Nance put up 35 points, his highest total since a 45-point outing against the Kings in December 1987 when he was still a Sun. And Daugherty, the face of the franchise, became its all-time leading rebounder, corralling a Maurice Cheeks jumper in the second quarter for board No. 3,791.

“I knew he’d blow right by me,” commentator Jim Chones, the old record-holder, told reporters.

Coming home proved a mixed bag for the Cavs. On the one hand, Price helped the Cavs start a three-game all-Western homestand on a winning note, scoring 17 points in the fourth to down Phoenix 102-100. On the other, Ehlo (sprained knee) and Bennett (Achilles tendinitis) sustained injuries.

The 40-20 Cavs remained an unfinished product, but their community profile continued to increase even as the always-closely-watched — if rarely watchable — Indians opened spring training. Williams, Nance and Bennett took an off day to speak at John Marshall High School, bringing with them 1,600 t-shirts bearing an informal team slogan: “Bring it on, baby.”

Undermanned, Cleveland started Kerr and James on March 13 against the Lakers. It was Price who provided two late strikes to propel the Cavs to an overtime victory in front of Cleveland-born Heisman-winning return man Desmond Howard. He sank a go-ahead three with :22.6 showing on the clock, and added two clinching free throws 18 seconds later. For the first time in franchise history, the Cleveland Cavaliers had swept the season series from the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I’ll go 0 for 15 every night,” Price (4 for 15 from the field) said, “if I can make the three-pointer to win the game.”

The Cavs then avenged their previous loss to Denver, 100-91, in a Selection Sunday win that saw another milestone: Lenny Wilkens became the NBA’s fifth coach to win 800 games. It turned a 26-point masterclass from Nuggets point guard Winston Garland — seven years away from fathering a son named Darius — into a footnote.

“Either he’s real old, or he’s a great coach,” Daugherty quipped as the Cavs’ celebrated Wilkens’ achievement, which the coach modestly attributed to “good people.”

After rallying past Washington 111-102 on March 16, Cleveland turned its attention to a post-St. Patrick’s Day showdown with the Celtics at Boston Garden. It seemed like a constellation of poor circumstance for the orange and blue: the Celts’ Big Three was present and accounted for, Ehlo and Bennett remained absent, and Daugherty was out with a stomach bug. Despite everything, the Cavs nearly won behind 24 points from Nance; only a late Dee Brown three-point play sealed their fate.

“Not having a guy like Craig hurt us,” Wilkens said, before dabbling in a little foreshadowing: “We don’t have the size at the two-guard to match up with Reggie Lewis.”

Shaking off the Boston loss and flexing their muscles again, the Cavs regrouped to reel off four double-digit wins in a six-day span from March 20 to 25. Cleveland’s future hated rivals were bounced first as Daugherty returned and double-doubled against the Warriors. Battle erupted for 21 points off the bench against his former team as the Cavs annihilated the Hawks 123-80 at the Coliseum.

“No question,” Battle said postgame with a smile, “that I enjoy saying to them, ‘See what you are missing?’”

With Williams sitting out the next home game against Indiana with his own stomach bug, Daugherty picked up the slack. He scored 32 points, collected 11 rebounds, and added 11 assists to polish off his first triple-double of the 1992 season. Price added 25 points, and the Cavs’ role players continued to shine: Kerr dropped 13 points in 18 minutes, and veteran forward Mike Sanders — signed for the rest of the season after a successful 10-day mid-March audition, marking his second stint with the team — also reached double figures.

A 106-96 road win over Orlando thanks to 30 points from Price brought the dominant stretch to a close. Wilkens summarized the Cavs’ March thusly: “I think we’re playing pretty darn good.” The team was cruising as the finish line began to draw near; the word “magic number” began to pop up in the newspapers. “Any combination of six Cavaliers victories or Pistons losses ensures coach Lenny Wilkens’ club of opening playoff play in the bracket opposite the Bulls,” Graeff wrote in the Plain Dealer.

The Cavs’ resilience reached its zenith in Charlotte, where Cleveland dealt a faltering Hornets team a 121-115 loss in which just eight Cavs played, but seven scored in double figures (Brandon, the only Cavalier with fewer than 10 points, pulled his weight by handing out five assists). Could a second straight win over the Bulls at Chicago Stadium the next day be in the cards?

Not this time around. “Steve Kerr now knows,” Graeff wrote. “So does John Battle. So does Mike Sanders. What is it they now know? They now know the hell Craig Ehlo goes through every time the Cavaliers face the Chicago Bulls.”

Jordan delivered a cool 44 points in 37 minutes of work, and the Bulls shellacked the Cavs 126-102. It seemed as if the natural order of the Central Division had been restored. “It was a good game to win and keep [the Cavs] thinking,” Pippen said after chipping in 18 points and 18 rebounds. Nance downplayed the loss, calling it “one of 82.” The teams were scheduled for just one more meeting before the postseason, an April 14 clash at the Coliseum.

Last on the docket in March 1992 was the Heat, two months and two weeks after the Cavs had administered their 148-80 pasting (Miami, for its part, remained firmly in the playoff hunt in a less-than-stellar Eastern Conference). Despite a fan’s plea to “get these guys by 70 tonight,” Cleveland “only” managed a 123-114 victory, surrendering 10 three-pointers in the process — the most the Cavs had ever allowed in the three-point line’s relatively brief history.

Other than this defensive hiccup, it was smooth sailing, as it had been (injuries aside) for much of March. Nance blocked four shots to move into the top 10 all-time in the statistic. For the 11th time in 13 games, Wilkens gave a press conference as a victor.

“Our intensity level was pretty good,” he said. “This is how I want to keep it going into the playoffs.”

The Cavaliers ended March 1992 with a 49-22 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).