This is part two of a retrospective on the career of Cavs legend Austin Carr. If you missed the first installment covering Carr’s college career at Notre Dame, click here to read it.
Since many of you may not have been alive in 1971, I should probably bring you up to speed on how things were done in the NBA at that time. It was quite a bit different than the televised spectacle that is held today. On March 29th, 1971 the 17 NBA franchises connected via conference call with the NBA’s headquarters in New York City. Unlike today’s lottery system, the two teams with the worst records from the Eastern and Western Conferences flipped a coin to determine who would draft first. Beyond that the draft order was purely determined by the reverse order of the team’s won-lost records.
This particular draft was noteworthy in that a landmark ruling was established in the suit Spencer Haywood vs. The National Basketball Association. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 7–2, against the National Basketball Association’s old requirement that a player may not be drafted by a NBA team unless he waited four years following his graduation from high school. The ruling put a halt to the longstanding NBA rule and allowed players to enter the draft if they could show that waiting would be a financial hardship. Essentially, it was this ruling that is responsible for all of the underclassmen entering the league today.
Fortunately for the Cavs, their call of heads landed them the first over all selection, with the Portland Trailblazers selecting second. Coach Bill Fitch had been posturing for days before the draft, that the Cavs needed a front court player, in spite of Carr’s spectacular college career. Portland fell for the ruse and paid the Cavs $250,000 not to draft UCLA’s Sidney Wicks. With the first selection, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Austin Carr from the University of Notre Dame, who was their intended target all along. Coach Fitch told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Carr was the best available player in the country. “We felt we had to have someone of super star status,” Fitch said. “I think he can be a super star in his first year.” Carr was also selected in the 1971 ABA Draft by the Virginia Squires, but signed with the Cavaliers on April 5, 1971 for $1.5 million over a five year deal.
Carr’s first season in the NBA was marred by a series of injuries that limited his output. During the 1971 preseason, Carr broke his foot and missed the first month of the season. Nearly one month after returning to the court, he was sidelined once again by another foot injury, missing seven more weeks. Upon his return, Carr began to display the skills which made him the top selection in the draft. Carr immediately became the top option on offense averaging 21.2 points and became the first Cavalier named to the NBA All-Rookie Team. Following the season, Carr had surgery to clear up any lingering foot problems.
The arrival of point guard Lenny Wilkens prior to the start of the 1972-73 campaign gave Carr a solid partner in the backcourt, helping the Cavaliers improve by nine games in the win column. Carr’s best season came the following year, when he averaged a career-best 21.9-points, 3.6-rebounds and 3.76-assists per game while shooting 85.6 percent from the free-throw line, highlighted by Carr’s selection as an All-Star for the 1973-74 season. Just as Carr began to reach elite status in the NBA, misfortune struck. On Dec. 5, 1974, Carr suffered a knee injury that eventually cut short his season forcing him to undergo surgery. His absence in the lineup likely prevented the Cavaliers from capturing their first-ever trip to the NBA playoffs, with the team finishing a mere one game behind the Houston Rockets for the final berth.
Carr worked hard at his rehab during the off season and returned strong, playing in all 82 games in three of the following four seasons. This would be known as the Miracle of Richfield era of Cleveland Cavaliers history. The first-unit consisted of guards Jim Cleamons and Dick Snyder, center Jim Chones, and forwards Jim Brewer and Bingo Smith, and was considered to be amongst the league’s best in half-court ball possession. They were backed up by Austin Carr, Campy Russell, Foots Walker and Nate Thurmond, all providing the “instant offense” that generated an energy and enthusiasm that had fans at the Richfield Coliseum rocking the place from the rafters. The Cavs captured the imagination of the region, seemingly pulling off nightly miracles.
Under the command of NBA Coach of the Year Bill Fitch, the Cavaliers posted a 49-33 record for the 1975-76 regular season, making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Jim Brewer and Jimmy Cleamons were named to the NBA All-Defensive second team. Matched against the Washington Bullets, the Cavs went on to win the first round series four games to three. The Bullets featured future Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, who would later go on to win the 1977-78 NBA Championship. However, the 1975-76season, belonged to Austin Carr and the Cleveland Cavs. In only the Cavs sixth year in existence, they had won their first playoff series.
The Cavs went on to play the Boston Celtics, who had a 54-28 record, second best in the NBA that season, giving them first place in the Eastern Division. The Cavs played Boston tough, but eventually succumbed four games to two, bringing the magical season to an end. However, the Cavs had made their mark on America. WWWE boomed Joe Tait’s voice, via 50,000 watts, to 48 states in the US and half of Canada. His enthusiasm and energy was felt in homes throughout Ohio, allowing them to share in the nightly miracles, and inspiring a whole new generation of Cavs fans. Many of these same fans, continue to root for the team today. The Cavs would continue their buzzer beating exploits to reach the playoffs for the next two seasons, but were destined to fall in the first round to the Washington Bullets in 1977 and again to the Boston Celtics in 1978.
These three seasons would be the only playoff games Austin Carr was to compete in during his career. He played a total of 18 games, averaging 11.8-points per game, 2.3-rebounds per game, and 2.3-assists per game, while shooting .426-percent from the field, over 23.6-minutes per contest. Carr played for three more seasons, with his best being the 1978-79 campaign in which he averaged 17.0-points per game over 82 contests. He closed out the 1980-81 year playing for both the Dallas Mavericks and the Washington Bullets, before announcing his retirement from the NBA.
It was announced on April 2, 2007 that Carr was inducted to the second class of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, along with Dick Groat, Dick Barnett and numerous coaches. On February 21, 2008, Notre Dame recognized Carr, their all-time leading scorer, during the Pittsburgh-Notre Dame men’s basketball game. Today, Carr serves as the Director of Community Relations for the Cavaliers and is also a color commentator on the team’s broadcasts on Fox Sports Ohio. He has been active in the Cleveland community, which he has called home since moving there in 1971, and has won numerous awards for his accomplishments in making Cleveland a better place to live. Carr’s #34 is one of just six jerseys to be retired by the Cavaliers.