Not many remember the “Miracle of Richfield,” mostly because some of us were not yet born yet.
It happened during the 1975-76 NBA season when Bill Fitch coached the overachieving Cavaliers to their first winning season and playoff appearance. Even though they never had a chance against the Boston Celtic's trio of future hall of famers—Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Jojo Whites—they still fought to the end. Despite the effort, they lost the series 4-2.
Fitch anchored everything, meticulously putting all the puzzle pieces together. Every challenge was an opportunity to become better, no matter how bad or how hopeless it seemed. It was Fitch’s trademark throughout his career in the NBA—turning every team he coached into a playoff contender.
A native of Davenport, Iowa, Fitch, who used to coach baseball and work as a scout for the Atlanta Braves, found himself in the bleachers in Williston, N.D., watching a lanky, young man play basketball.
He noticed how this young player set picks, play good defense and utilize his unusually long arms. He was limited offensive, but it was clear he had a knack for the ball.
This observation from the bleachers was one basketball memory that stuck in his mind. When Fitch was hired to coach the University of North Dakota, he successfully recruited the player he had watched.
That player was Phil Jackson, who was drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks in 1967.
Jackson was a reliable substitute, but his playing days were plagued with injuries.
Fitch, however, saw something different in Jackson from the minute he spotted him from the bleachers in Williston.
He saw a leader, a tactician who sacrificed stats for setting effective picks and a cerebral player who saw the game differently….
As Jackson ended his magical career with 11 championships, he thanked Fitch for believing in him.
For 22 coaching years, Jackson achieved more than what anyone could have ever expected. Nobody thought a mainly low-level professional league tactician would become one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
However, Fitch was never surprised about Jackson’s capabilities. He knew how passionate and determined Jackson was.
Fitch has coached all his life, and his greatest achievement did not involve championships or winning. They involved the way he molded his players into better people. It was always his legacy, and it was always his masterpiece in the canvass called life.
For 76 years, as far as Fitch knows, he witnessed two miracles in his life.
One was the “Miracle of Richfield”, and the other miracle happened in the bleachers of Williston, N.D.