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.
*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.