Cleveland Cavaliers 40th Anniversary: A Uniform Retrospective
There was once a time in America when professional sports teams rarely, if ever, changed the look of their uniforms.
It wasn't just the Yankees, Celtics, Packers, or Bruins who kept the same look year after year, decade after decade. Most teams did.
That began to change in the 1960s, and then the practice became common during the '70s and beyond.
So it has been for the Cleveland Cavaliers. As they celebrate 40 years in the NBA this season, let's take a look at the team's looks, and offer a ranking of each uniform's visual artistry.
No. 7: The Worst, 1994 to 1999
Look at those things. I mean, just LOOK at them.
The Cavs wore these monstrosities, with slight modifications along the way, from 1994 to 1999. Amazingly enough, they actually had some success in them, with four winning seasons and three playoff appearances in five years.
But tell me, in all honesty: Would you feel good playing in these get-ups?
Fashion design, gone wrong.
No. 6: The Lost Years, 1981-83
In 1980, a wealthy advertising executive named Ted Stepien purchased the Cavaliers, and promptly ran the franchise into the ground.
The offenses of the Stepien era are too numerous to detail here. A year after buying the team, Stepien implemented a redesign that was as boring as his ownership was destructive.
Oh, the colors are fine. But even the home uniform (right) said "CLEVELAND" across the front. The jerseys had horizontal striping, as if to underscore the fact that this era was a disaster, start to finish.
They're not terrible, but they're not great. And yes, that's a young Bill Laimbeer in the black and white photo on the right. Naturally, Stepien traded him to Detroit, where he became the stuff of legends.
For the transgressions of the Stepien years alone, these uniforms get bad marks.
No. 5: A Team Searching for an Identity, 1999-2003
These uniforms represented a welcome relief for Cavs fans, from the blue-swoosh debacles of the late 1990s. For that reason alone, they could probably rank higher.
The fact is, however, that these were pretty bland as uniforms go, particularly the black road version. The Cavs had wandered from their original identity through much of the 1980s and '90s, and this look represented the last, desperate attempt to establish something...ANYTHING.
Unfortunately, the Cavs never had a winning season in these duds. The last, forgettable year that they wore them, 2002-03, they won a whopping 17 games.
One good thing came of it, however. They won the lottery that summer, which would usher in the LeBron James era.
No. 4: The Founding Fathers, 1970-74
Ah, the golden oldies. Anybody who remembers the early years looks back on these with fondness.
As 1970 uniforms go, they were radially different, which is what made them cool. The quill of a musketeer's hat, forming the bottom of the "C" and underlining the script "Cavaliers"—we loved them, just as we did our Cavs.
The team was terrible when they wore these uniforms, compiling a 99-229 record (.302) in four seasons. But this look—and many of the players who wore it, including Bingo Smith (left) and Lenny Wilkens (right)—will always hold a special place in the hearts of true Cavs fans.
No. 3: From Miracle to Mayhem, 1974-1981
These uniforms will forever be linked to the first brush with greatness for the Cavaliers.
It was the 1975-76 season. The team won 40 games the previous year, and was clearly a franchise on the rise.
In '75-76, the Cavs won 49 games and a division title. This collection of upstarts, featuring some of the game's best nicknames of that era—"Bingo" Smith, "Campy" Russell, and "Foots" Walker—then went out and beat the Washington Bullets in a dramatic seven-game showdown.
Because of the gut-wrenching twists and turns of that series, including multiple last-second shots, it became known as "The Miracle of Richfield"—Richfield being the community southwest of Cleveland where owner Nick Mileti had built his sports palace of the day, The Coliseum.
By the time the team finished wearing these, however, the doom of the Ted Stepien era had settled in.
The current Cavaliers pay homage to this look with the alternating color bars on the piping of their blue road jerseys—considered by many to be their best look of the LeBron James era.
No. 2: The Team of the Nineties...That Never Quite Was
As the Cavaliers closed out the 1980s, Magic Johnson dubbed them "the team of the '90s."
It never quite materialized, thanks to a guy named Michael Jordan. Instead, it was Jordan's Bulls that seized that mantle, and went on to become one of the greatest teams of all time.
After the Ted Stepien era, World B. Free arrived in Cleveland and single-handedly revived interest in a dying franchise. It might have been unusual for a franchise to completely overhaul its colors, but the Gund brothers, who bought the team from Stepien, knew that a separation wasn't enough; a divorce was necessary.
Within a few years, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price had appeared on the scene. Together with Larry Nance, they led the Cavaliers to the brink of greatness—but never quite reached the mountaintop.
Even so, the numbers of Daugherty, Price, and Nance hang in the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena to this day, retired as a testimony to their performances in the blue and orange.
These years were part of a legacy that helped a city and a league forget those three years in the pro basketball wasteland. The Cavs hearkened back to those days repeated appearances in these uniforms this season.
No. 1: The LeBron Era, 2003-Present
When LeBron James became a Cavalier, everything changed in Cleveland, including the uniforms.
Sensing impending greatness, the organization decided to revert back to its original color scheme of wine and gold after 20 years of orange, blue, and black.
Fans loved the new look. LeBron James jerseys flew off the shelves. Within two years, Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert had bought the team. Shortly thereafter, all of the seats at the newly named Quicken Loans Arena were covered in burgundy instead of blue.
By 2006, they were in the playoffs, and a year later, they reached the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Playoffs are now a given. This year's star-studded lineup includes the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison.
The basketball gods have indeed smiled on Cleveland.
For that reason alone, these uniforms stand alone at the top of the Cavaliers' list. However, the fact that Cavs fans have grown to love them seals the deal.
Honorable Mention: The 1990s Throwbacks, in Wine and Gold
The first time the Cavs took the court in these gems, fans did a double-take.
Yeah, it's the wine and gold, those are the Cavs, but, wait a minute; that's the look of the '80s and '90s!
Someone in the marketing department—or else the NBA offices—came up with the idea of combining the two.
You've got to admit, these things look good. Kudos to whomever it was who thought this one up.
Dishonorable Mention: The Founding Fathers Throwbacks—in BLUE and gold?
These were introduced last season, ostensibly to honor the Cavaliers' social fan network, CavFanatic.com. OK, whatever you say.
They still looked horrible. Common refrain: They recall the old Golden State uniforms of long ago.
When they were unveiled in January 2009, LeBron was at his diplomatic best: "They're colorful."
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
Now, may they forever R.I.P.