Oh, how times have changed in the NBA. In 1970, the league was expanding by three teams: Portland, Buffalo and Cleveland. The rest of the teams were able to protect seven players from their roster, but the rest were up for grabs in an expansion draft to stock the new franchises.
There were no laptops back then. No huge scouting departments. Team-by-team stats were rarely published in the daily newspaper. You knew a little about some of the players but not a lot. So you improvised, apparently.
In 1988, the Charlotte Hornets went through the same process. The following year, a book entitled In the Hornets’ Nest: Charlotte and Its First Year in the NBA was released.
The Cavs’ draft experience from 18 years earlier did come up in the book. And believe it or not, basketball cards were part of the process of creating the franchise for which LeBron James would eventually play. A hat tip to Ben Swanson’s Twitter feed for uncovering this gem. Here’s the excerpt from the book by Joe Drape:
When the Cleveland Cavaliers joined in 1970, coach Bill Fitch and assistant Jim Lessig had only had forty-eight hours to prepare for the dispersal draft. Computerized scouting systems and videotape were not yet available to teams. So Fitch, as the story goes, took inspiration from Lessig’s son who was collecting bubble gum baseball cards. He financed a trip that Lessig made the corner drugstore, ordering his assistant to buy all the basketball cards he could get his hands on. When Lessig returned to the hotel, they spread all the cards out on their beds and tried to figure out who was available. They were then ready to build a team.
That story may seem crazy but a few decades ago, NFL teams had to rely on the annual college football magazines to help them fill in the blanks when the draft dragged into the later rounds.
And if you look at the players the Cavs wound up with, several of them did have cards in the 1969-70 Topps set.
Want to see a really nice room of vintage baseball memorabilia?
You’ve come to the right place. Courtesy of Antique Sports Collector, here is ten minutes worth of cool, old stuff: