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Browns Being Browns

So, from our pal Florio comes the news today that the Cleveland Browns almost traded for San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. This has led to the expected denials, the various “yeah, it’s basically true,” stories and the “what does it mean for Harbuagh’s future” stories. All in a matter of hours. Now, that’s a 21st century news cycle.

The emerging story seems to be that the Browns and 49ers had the basics of a deal in place for Harbaugh who, in the end, pulled out, perhaps after waking up from whatever coma he must have been in to consider being Jimmy Haslam’s coach in Cleveland in the first place.

Anyway, this small bit of insanity reminds of what might be the favorite — and least favorite — story of my childhood. When I was a kid in Cleveland, the Cleveland Cavaliers almost signed a mid-40s Wilt Chamberlain. No, really, they did. It was super close. I know you say you’ve never heard a single thing about that, but believe me, it was really close. There were hugely promising stories in the paper about the possibility. I was 12 years old. And I believed every word.

“We want a championship,” Cavaliers president Nick Miletti said in a quote splashed across the top of the Cleveland Plain Dealer sports front in November of 1979. “And he can help us get it. His presence will be felt on and off the court.”

Do you see the positive language there? He CAN help us get it. His presence WILL be felt on and off the court. In my 12-year-old mind this deal was done. Done! I did not know all that much about Wilt Chamberlain, and I did not know anything at all about aging. But I did know that Wilt Chamberlain had once scored 100 points in a game, and I did know that they basically had to change various rules because he was so awesome, and I did know that with Wilt the Cleveland Cavaliers WERE GOING TO WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP! With Wilt Chamberlain leading the way! Woohoo!

“I am optimistic that Chamberlain will sign,” Miletti told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.


“However, I’m still cautious.”

Oh oh. Wait a minute. Cautious? What does that mean?

“I have been here before.”

He almost signed Wilt Chamberlain before?

“Nothing is certain until it is certain.”

Oh, he was just being coy. Done! Woohoo! The Cavaliers were going to sign Wilt Chamberlain and they were going to become the best team in the NBA. It was definite. Yes, OK, it is true that the Cavaliers were terrible. Yes its true that Cleveland’s best players were Dave Robisch, Mike Mitchell and Footsie Walker. OK, it is also true that Wilt the Stilt had been retired for six seasons and had been more of a rebounder* and role player his last couple of years in Los Angeles. It is true that he had just turned 43 years old.

So what?


*Chamberlain averaged 18.6 rebounds a game in his final NBA season. That, like many of Wilt’s feats, will never happen again.

I couldn’t read enough about it. And there were stories everywhere — the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in the Cleveland Press, on the television news. Understand, these weren’t just stories saying the Cavaliers might sign Wilt. These were stories celebrating Wilt’s awesomeness AS IF HE HAD ALREADY SIGNED. I read how Cavs coach Stan Albeck was a longtime friend of Chamberlain’s — they coached the San Diego Conquistadors together five years earlier. So that was great (never dawning on me that the fact Chamberlain was an ABA coach five years earlier did not bode well for his playing future). I read how Cavaliers GM Ron Hrovat wined and dined Chamberlain at the “fashionable LaScala restaurant in Beverly Hills.” Swanky.

I read how Chamberlain loved the Cleveland team’s youth and was super psyched about turning them into champions. Here is perhaps my favorite sentence in the Chamberlain saga, written by Bill Nichols, a hero of my youth: “(Chamberlain) likes the young team and, although he has not seen it, is impressed with what he has heard about the Coliseum.”

Check that. This might be my favorite sentence: “All indications are that Chamberlain is in top condition after playing professional volleyball the past several years.”

No, wait, maybe it’s this paragraph: “There were rumors last season that Chamberlain was considering signing with the Chicago Bulls. Several months ago, he reportedly talked with the Phoenix Suns, but any deal was never as close as the Cavs’ offer. In fact, the other stories were more rumor than fact.”

The story goes on to speculate that Chamberlain might be in uniform when the Cavaliers played Utah upon returning from their road trip.

Looking back on this, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Cavaliers really believed they were close to signing Wilt Chamberlain. I have no doubt they talked at length with Wilt, including that time at fashionable LaScala. I don’t really doubt that Chamberlain was at least semi-serious about coming back — though, that one is a little fuzzier.

What I know now to be true after shedding at least a little of that childhood sense of wonder is that there was absolutely a 0.000 percent chance that Wilt Chamberlain would really come back to play for a lousy Cleveland Cavaliers team in the late 1970s. There was exactly the same chance of that happening as of Benjamin Harrison rising from the dead and running for president in 1980. Think about it: Was Wilt Chamberlain — WILT CHAMBERLAIN — going to come back to play basketball for the bleepin’ Cleveland Cavaliers in front of 6,000 people at Richfield Coliseum? What?

The deflated “Wilt ain’t coming” stories were, if anything, even funnier than the celebratory ones that had Wilt in uniform against Utah.

Again from our man Bill Nichols five days later: “The Cavs have not heard from the Big Dipper since early last week. They gave him an offer on Tuesday and Chamberlain was supposed to respond by Thursday. … Chamberlain doesn’t plan to respond personally, the source said.”

He didn’t even plan to respond personally. I don’t know that you could have a more perfect image for this farce. The story then says the Cavaliers had moved on to the idea of trading for Joe Barry Carroll instead.*

*They didn’t do that either.

People talk about doing stupid stuff all the time. Usually the stupid stuff talk dies fairly quickly, but sometimes it proceeds to the next stage and every now and again it proceeds to a “what the heck, let’s do this thing” stage beyond that. Drunken conversations about trading Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams start to feel real. Absurd negotiations with long retired legends start to take on a life of their own. But you know what? Almost 100% of the time, people come to their senses.

The 49ers, I suspect, do have some issues with Harbaugh, who seems pretty high maintenance (or crazy, depending on who you ask). The Browns are an absolute mess in search of a savior. I can see exactly how the conversation started, and I can see exactly how it started sounding pretty good to both sides, and I can see how the framework of a deal was put together, and I can see how it came super close to happening.

I can see how those negotiations — which I’m sure the Browns felt were on the verge of becoming real — were the big reason why the Cleveland Browns coaching search was such a public train wreck.

And you know what? It had no chance whatsoever of happening. Think about it: Jim Harbaugh going to coach the fundamentally broken Cleveland Browns? Insanity. It had the same chance of happening as the Cavaliers signing Wilt Chamberlain. It’s one of those stupid rabbit holes that bad organizations constantly climb into. That to me is the takeaway. The Cleveland Browns will keep looking for that elusive shortcut to greatness. And that shortcut, like the Cleveland concert hall tunnel in Spinal Tap, will keep bringing them right back to where they started.

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28 Responses to Browns Being Browns

  1. Grover Jones says:

    Well circle me Jon Gruden.

  2. Aaron says:

    I am surprised you haven’t yet written about the Browns blowing up the front office brain trust AFTER firing their 1st year coach and allowing them to hire the next coach.
    Assuredly, NOW, the owner is confident in who is in place and espousing stability and following a plan.
    To the new guys: Good luck. And don’t worry, you have a year to turn this thing around, or we will let you go and hire others in the pursuit of stability.

  3. Dale says:

    I’d forgotten about the Chamberlain story. Classic. And the Browns? Yeah, they live in that rabbit hole.

  4. Michael Green says:

    Joe, a thought on creative writing. As I recall, the story, Stan Isaacs, Larry Merchant, and Len Shecter were at the baseball winter meetings and decided to start their own rumor about a team being interested in a manager. Who, they thought, would be the least likely manager? Yogi. So they started a rumor that the Giants were interested in acquiring Yogi to be manager. And after that, every time a team looked a for a manager, other writers brought up Yogi … who became a manager, and won pennants in both leagues.

  5. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    “So that was great (never dawning on me that the fact Chamberlain was an ABA coach five years earlier did not bode well for his playing future).”

    Actually, Wilt was supposed to be a player coach for the Q’s, but the Lakers (who apparently still had contractual rights to him) vetoed the deal.

    I suspect that a 43-year old Wilt would still have been an effective player, probably at least as good as Elmore Smith, his Laker replacement (and later of the Cavaliers). But obviously he wasn’t going to drag that Cleveland team across the finish line. I still think Wilt, and not Jordan, was the greatest ever, but that’s only if you ignore how much better the game has gotten over the years (sort of the way baseball fans do with Babe Ruth).

    • invitro says:

      Wilt was the greatest ever. The only way Jordan tops him is to make nothing count but championships. I think Kareem is ahead of Jordan, too. I wish Joe would write about the NBA more. I know he is not really into it and most of you guys aren’t.

      I read one Wilt autobiography, which was highly entertaining, and it stopped well before 1979. I think Wilt was quite serious about volleyball, is in the volleyball HoF, and was even his league’s president (!). He stayed in prime physical condition; wikipedia says “In his mid-forties, he was able to humble rookie Magic Johnson in practice”, and the Nets gave him an offer when he was 50 (!).

      “Yes its true that Cleveland’s best players were Dave Robisch, Mike Mitchell and Footsie Walker.”

      bask-ref says Campy Russell and Austin Carr were (these are all just names to me). That CLE team had a not-really-terrible 30-52 record, and even had a winning record and made the playoffs the previous season, but they sure had a lack of big names.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        Certainly, Wilt is the Babe Ruth of the NBA, and if we’re still going to call Ruth the greatest baseball player of all-time, nearly 80 years after his last game, then I don’t see how we avoid putting Wilt in the same category. It has always been strange to me that people still speak in awe (appropriately) of Oscar Robertson and the year he averaged a triple-double, but somehow Wilt’s season-long average of 50 ppg is denigrated as some sort of freak show stat.

        As for Jordan, well, of course he’s in the pantheon, but he never carried a team the way Wilt did, at least not until Scottie Pippen hit town. Wilt took the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA finals when his best teammate was Tom Meschery (or maybe Al Attles).

        And I agree with you on Kareem, too. Just punch up the Bucks’ roster in 1970 when they won 56 games with a rookie named Lew Alcindor and the holdovers from a first-year expansion club.

        I’ll concede, especially given improvements in the game, that Jordan deserves to be in the conversation (as do Kobe and LeBron, and maybe Magic). But if you want to talk about Ruth-like dominance, there are only two names. (And, no, I don’t care about George Mikan; that was another world.)

      • NevadaMark says:

        Yeah, no one remembers Carr or Russell now, but Carr at least was one of the most famous college players of his time. And he was the first pick of the 1971 draft. Russell was certainly well known as a college player. Both had good NBA careers and both are pretty well forgotten today.

        • EnzoHernandez11 says:

          Right, Austin Carr (with Notre Dame) lit up UCLA in 1971 back when the Bruins were the titans of college basketball. In fact, that loss was followed by an 88 game winning streak for UCLA, which ended, oddly enough, when they were again beaten by the Irish in 1974. Everyone projected Carr to be an NBA superstar. He wasn’t, but he had some decent years with Cleveland.

          Mike Mitchell was actually a pretty good player for several years, and was probably the best of the 1979-80 Cavs.

          Campy Russell (not to be confused with Cazzie Russell) never did all that much in the NBA. And I never heard anyone refer to Foots Walker as “Footsie”. Must have been a Cleveland thing.

          • EnzoHernandez11 says:

            Actually, I just wandered over the Basketball Reference. Campy Russell was a bit better than I remembered.

          • Dale says:

            Walker was almost always called “Footsie” by Cavs fans and their legendary announcer, Joe Tait.

        • Kuz says:

          Russell had a “good” NBA career?

    • Wilbur says:

      I saw Wilt play in the latter part of his career, mostly with the Lakers. He was huge, played as big as he was – very strong and a quick leaper – and was durable to the max.

      About all you ever see of him now are ESPN Classic replays of games in his Laker days. In them, I’m struck by how slow-moving and, if not awkward or clumsy, how offensively limited he appears now.

      Early in his career, most teams had skinny centers in the 6-8 to 6-9 range who simply couldn’t deal with him. All except one: a guy named Bill Russell. And even he just limited the damage.

      I don’t have any doubt that in every athletic endeavor, the performance level of players increases with time. A young Wilt, brought up to the present in a time machine, would not come close to dominating the NBA like he did in his day.

      I’d like to think the best shooter I ever saw was still Rick Mount. My memory tells me this is so, but the logical side of my brain tells me probably not.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        Sure, Wilt made his living under the basket, sort of like Shaq, the only player of the modern era whose skill set was comparable. Wilt’s offensive game was limited in the sense that he did nothing much beyond ten feet of the basket. Of course, by the time he got to L.A., he no longer needed to do all the scoring because he had Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, and Jim McMillian (Baylor, unfortunately, was all but done by the time Wilt joined the Lakers).

        And you’re right, he often looked awkward offensively in his Laker days. The finger roll and the fall-away got rusty. But there’s no denying his dominance on the boards and on defense. I saw Wilt play in person a couple of times in the early 1970s, and TV just doesn’t do justice to how intimidating his presence on the court was. I think that the only other player I ever felt that way about was Barry Bonds.

      • Mike says:

        I’m not sure that if Wilt were to be drafted today that he wouldn’t be the greatest athlete in NBA history. His size, wingspan and jumping, particularly when he was young, seem absolutely off the charts. He was almost certainly bigger, quicker and more skilled than Shaq (who was probably stronger, although that might be debatable). This video makes a good case and shows some of his incredible athletic abilities.

    • NevadaMark says:

      His contract had expired with the Lakers, but at the time he owed them an option year. But the contract said nothing about coaching, so he was allowed to coach.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        Thanks for clearing that up. Of course, Wilt didn’t spend a lot of time coaching the Q’s. He was AWOL much of the time, letting Albeck run the team.

  6. Harbaugh may seem high maintenance on the field, but I wonder what he is like off the field. Even if he is high maintenance why would you trade a coach who in just a couple of years got your team to the super bowl and with in one play of winning.

  7. Yes, Harbaugh is high maintenance and crazy. I can see why the 49ers are tiring of him… though an NFC finals and a Super Bowl generally make that a little easier to deal with. After all, he MUST be high maintenance if the 49ers even considered dumping him after the success of the last two seasons. This is the kind of guy that’s (usually) great when you’re winning (at least you’re winning & making money), but you quickly tire of him the second he doesn’t win enough. Kind of like that sales guy who is a total whiney baby, but who makes quota every single month. As soon as he doesn’t make quota, he’s gone. No mulligans for that guy. That’s Harbaugh. When he started coaching, I was thinking, isn’t this the guy who was basically despised as a QB BY HIS TEAMMATES? Isn’t this the guy that drove his OWN coaches crazy? Man, he must be really tough to live with now that his buddy Pete Carroll has a Lombardi trophy…. and his own team wants to trade him to Cleveland. Wow.

  8. Shagster says:

    One story out here is Harbaugh’s friend, Lombardi – recently of Cleveland -leaked the hiring story. Story is also that Lombardi is a talker, going back to his Raider days. Apparently enough so that it bugged Al. There was probably more hope (Cleveland) than reality to the hiring, as Lombardi was trying to sell his GM capabilities and his friendship with Harbaugh to Cleveland’s owner. For all that is known, it may have factored into the Chud firing. When Cleveland’s owner realized story had no gas, he canned the Lombardi front office. That or Harbaugh led Cleveland on as part of a negotiation to get SB level pay, after 49’ers told him to win one, first. When they said, go, and they’d work an offer from Cleveland, he blinked.

  9. Brent says:

    “And he can help us get it. His presence will be felt on and off the court.”

    Joe you can have your favorite statements, but this is mine, if for no reason than what it could have meant for the female poplulation of Cleveland (given his statements about his “exploits” in his autobiography)

  10. Marco says:

    Joe, this is pure gold:

    “It’s one of those stupid rabbit holes that bad organizations constantly climb into. That to me is the takeaway. The Cleveland Browns will keep looking for that elusive shortcut to greatness. “

  11. Mark Daniel says:

    The Browns are in fantastic shape as far as the salary cap goes.

  12. KB says:

    And the Miami Dolphins thought they were going to get Jim Harbaugh too. Oh, and they also thought they had a shot at Payton Manning. Funny how teams can delude themselves into believing what they want to believe.

  13. Jake Bucsko says:

    I saw a few comments up there about how Wilt is the greatest player of all time, and how Jordan never carried a team like Wilt did, and he was the Babe Ruth of the NBA, etc, etc. So I took a look at Wilt’s career (obviously never having seen him play, being only 30) and stopped after his first 10 seasons. His 11th season he only played 12 games, and by year 12 he was still putting up good numbers, but he wasn’t the WILT that people often think about. So here goes:

    1960: Rookie Wilt averages a 38-27 (points-rebounds) and the Philadelphia Warriors go 49-26, losing in the playoffs to Russell’s Celtics.

    1961: Wilt averages another 38-27 as his Warriors dip to 46-33 and get swept in the playoffs by Syracuse Nationals.

    1962: The season everyone knows. Chamberlain averages a 50-26, scoring 100 in one game, leading the Warriors to an incredible 68-12 record and his first NBA title…wait, no, that’s not what happened. Philly went 49-31, losing in the playoffs to Russell’s Celtics. This is a 9 team league, including the 62 loss Chicago Packers. How does a team with the most dominant player the league has ever seen not win 50 games or make the Finals? The answer: the Warriors gave up 122.7 points per game, last in the league. It is worth noting that the stingiest team (the Celtics, of course) gave up 112 per game. But still, finishing dead last in defense with the best player in the game’s history is puzzling. It’s also important to note that this is the same season that Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double, and that the players doubled as MVP voters. Russell was the overwhelming MVP, followed by Wilt, and then Oscar (who got more 1st place votes than Wilt did). That says a lot about how players then felt about Chamberlain. It should also be pointed out that Wilt played an absurd 48.5 minutes per game, meaning he never left the floor, even in overtime. For his career he averaged 46 minutes a game, which is impressive even if it probably cut a few years off his career, he retired at 36.

    1963: Wilt averages a 45-24 for a Warriors team that goes 31-49, missing the playoffs. This may be the most damning evidence to Wilt even being in the GOAT conversation. In the NBA in 1963, 6 of the 9 teams made the playoffs. I don’t care who your teammates are, if you are the greatest player ever, your team cannot finish 7th of 9.

    1964: The Warriors improve to 48-32 with Wilt putting up 37-22, losing in the playoffs to Russell’s Celtics.

    1965: The Warriors completely collapse. Wilt Chamberlain, in his prime at the age of 28, is traded midseason with San Fran’s record at 11-33, 11 losses into a 17 game losing streak. He is traded to his old city, the Philadelphia 76ers, who immediately get a boost from Wilt’s dominance. They are 22-23 before the trade, and, um…18-17 after it. Wilt averages 35-23 and the Sixers lose to…*drumroll*…Russell’s Celtics. By the way, the Lakers could have traded for Wilt this year, but their players voted 9-2 against it.

    1966: Wilt wins his 7th straight (and last) scoring title, putting up a 34-25 for a Philly team that goes 55-25 but loses in the playoffs to Russell’s Celtics.

    1967: One of the all time great seasons by a team in NBA history. The Sixers go 68-13, Wilt goes 24-24 (also 8 assists a game) and finally gets by Boston on their way to a title, Wilt’s first ring.

    1968: Another 24-24 (nearly 9 assists a game) and the Sixers go 62-20 and lose to the Celtics in the playoffs, again. After the season, Wilt is traded AGAIN.

    1969: Wilt’s first season with the Lakers, he puts up a 21-21 and his season ends, for the 7th time in 10 years, at the hands of Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. His old team, the Sixers, drops from 62 to 55 wins and makes the Finals. His new team improved from 52 to 55 wins. Not really the impact you’d like to see from the best player ever.

    Phew, so there you go. In Wilt’s first 10 seasons, his teams went 492-306 in the regular season, roughly a 50 win season in today’s game. His teams went 51-46 in the playoffs, losing to the same team over and over again. He even missed the playoffs one year. He was traded twice, for pennies on the dollar. No one can deny the amazing stats he put up. No one can possibly make the case that he was the GOAT.

  14. Agent Maxwell says:

    A Bill Nichols mention! I had the privilege late in my college career and early in my professional career to spend some quality time with Bill in the classroom, on the golf course, in the pressbox and socially. A great newspaper man and journalist, great storyteller and an even better person. He is greatly missed.

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