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Where Are They Now: Jim Cleamons

As "The Last Dance" Concludes, Former Cavs Great and 10-Time NBA Champ Jim Cleamons Reflects on NBA Odyssey
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Where Are They Now:
Jim Cleamons

As "The Last Dance" Concludes, Former Cavs Great and 10-Time NBA Champ Jim Cleamons Reflects on NBA Odyssey

There are those who have had an NBA career and there are those who’ve had an NBA odyssey. Jim Cleamons is in the latter category.

To call him a former Cavalier is to honor him and the franchise. But even as one of the key pieces to the famed Miracle of Richfield squad, that’s just a small slice of his NBA journey – one that began with a title-winning team that set a record that still hasn’t been broken and saw him collect nine more Championship rings along the way.

Cleamons, who grew up in Columbus, starred at Linden-McKinley High and played his college hoops right in the state capital. After four outstanding years with Ohio State, he was tabbed with the 13th overall pick in 1971 by the L.A. Lakers as the heir-apparent to Jerry West.

The star-studded Lakers won the NBA title in Cleamons’ rookie season, winning 33 straight games in the process. But after one season in Tinseltown, he was traded that offseason to the Cavaliers, a team that in two years of existence was a combined 38-126.

Cleamons was one of the key young pieces that would eventually become the “Miracle” squad – orchestrating Bill Fitch’s offense and playing dogged defense on the other end.

His crowning moment as a Cavalier came in Game 5 of that thrilling seven-game slugfest against the Bullets – grabbing Bingo Smith’s airball and laying it in at the buzzer to give the Wine and Gold a 3-2 series lead. That was also his best year with Cleveland, averaging 12.2ppg and leading the team in assists that season.

After one more year with the Cavs, Cleamons signed as a free agent with the Knicks, where he played with a wiry second-unit big man named Phil Jackson.

Their relationship – which eventually produced nine NBA Championships with the Bulls and Lakers – has a fascinating Cleveland connection that Cleamons revealed when he took a minute from his Columbus home to talk with for today’s installment of Where Are They Now.

With ESPN’s “The Last Dance” concluding on Sunday night, we checked in with the former Cavalier who rode shotgun with Phil Jackson – (and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal) – and has visited the top of the NBA mountain many times.

Jim Cleamons and Phil Jackson's relationship goes back to their playing days -- and has an interesting Cavaliers connection.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

You know at some point we’re going to have to talk about the Bulls documentary. Have you been watching?

Jim Cleamons: (laughs) People want to talk about it, so I’ve been watching it so I can answer their questions intelligently.

So let’s start in Columbus. You played high school ball there. Was Ohio State always your choice?

Cleamons: Well, if you’re from Columbus, Ohio State isn’t always popular. It’s your hometown, you want to get away and have different experiences. Kids don’t want to go to school in their hometown, and I was much the same.

Columbus had a curfew and my parents were very strict. And my birthday’s not until September, so I’d have to be home by 10 o’clock.

So I had no intention of going to Ohio State. I wanted to get away from home.

What changed?

Cleamons: The coach, Fred Taylor and I, we had about a 45-minute conversation the day before I was going to make my announcement and I actually told him why I wasn’t going to OSU, and as the conversation continued I saw his side of the equation.

It was very honest and very open.

I wasn’t O State’s premier player. I was just blessed enough to where my skills continued to develop.

One thing led to another and I was happy at the end of it. It was a good choice for me.

So you go from not leaving Columbus to a veteran Lakers team that has Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich. What was that like for a 20-year-old?

Cleamons: It was very, very interesting. (laughs)

I was the only rookie on the team. And on a pro team there’s some hazing that takes place. And it’s a feeling-out process of how you handle it. We got along. And there’s certain rules you have to follow.

You’re the youngest guy there and you have to earn your spurs, so to speak. And if you give them a hard time, they’re going to continue to give you a hard time. If you don’t and you’re compliant and they see what you’re trying to do, they leave you alone.

The Lakers drafted me because at the end of my rookie year, Jerry West was supposed to retire. And I was the guard in-waiting and I was being groomed to take Jerry’s spot.

Elgin Baylor was my favorite player because of the way he played the game. When we were out playing, everybody is somebody’s favorite player. And the way Elgin would take guys to the hoop and double-clutch, he was the guy that I wanted to be.

We used to play a game, Chicago 21, in my neighborhood. And I was always Elgin Baylor.

So I was like a kid in a candy store.

How did the guys – so many future Hall of Famers – treat you?

Cleamons: Like I was a rookie. (laughs) Like I was the rookie that I was.

That being said, I didn’t think I was all that and a bag of chips. I knew I had to earn my stripes. I was there to learn.

The rookie the year before me was a guy named Jim McMillan out of Columbia. Good player. And when Elgin retired a month into the season, Jimmy Mac became the starter and didn’t look back, but I was disappointed. I wanted to see Elgin do his thing.

I had the best seat in the house, and this is my man out there. He’d do some things and I’d jump out of my seat, like “Damn!” And the vets would say “Rook, you should have seen him do this and that.’ And I was just salivating all over myself.

And then a month into the season, he told the Lakers that he was going to retire. And I could’ve cried, to be honest with you.

But I really enjoyed that team. The guys were genuine.

Guys by the name of Flynn Robinson and Leroy Ellis and John Q. Trapp, they treated me like I was their little brother.

On the road, they’d take me to soul food places to eat. We’d stay late after practice to play 2-on-2 or 3-on-3. We just enjoyed the game of basketball.

Here I am: I have my degree from OSU, have my college education. I’m making a little money, have a brand new car, playing a sport I absolutely love on a legendary team – and I have no idea of the history we’re about to make.

To this day we have the record of 33 straight that I hope is never broken – at least not in my lifetime.

What was your reaction when you found out you’d been traded to Cleveland?

Cleamons: I’ll be very honest and open with you: I cried like a baby.

I’m serious. You go from winning the NBA title to playing for the Cavaliers?!

You’re playing behind Jerry West and Jerry’s supposed to retire, we were the defending Champs and one day in August I get a phone call, and they said I’d been traded. And I was crushed, because I knew how the league felt about the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers were the lowest of the low. I’m just being honest.

"We were all just out there trying to get some respect. And we started to grow together, and we learned to play together. No one was jealous. We’d talk it out. We’d work it out. Our chemistry was great."

What was the team like when you got there?

Cleamons: It was a young team. The Cavaliers were filled with young players, basically former All-Americans and first round draft picks, and they thought they’d invented the game of basketball. And it was just tough.

But the fortunate part for me – and this is how God has blessed me – when I got traded, Lenny Wilkens was part of another trade and he really took me under his wing.

Thank God that Lenny was there – because he brought some sanity to the organization.

When did that team finally start turning the corner?

Cleamons: Well, Fitch wanted Austin to shoot the ball 25 times a game. A.C. got hurt and Dick Snyder stepped in.

And to A.C.’s credit, when he got healthy, he came off the bench, he became our main weapon off the bench. He knew that his points were more valuable to the second unit, to give it some firepower.

And we just started spreading it around. Instead of one guy getting all the shots, it began to spread out and you have five guys getting between 10 and 20. Now, AC comes back from injury and you have six guys. Foots Walker did a wonderful job, now you have seven. Campy gives us eight players.

And you have guys who loved to play with each other. We’d stay after practice and play two or three games of our own. Or just shoot for 45 minutes. Or we’d just go to other guys’ houses and play backgammon, play cards.

We were all just out there trying to get some respect. And we started to grow together, and we learned to play together. No one was jealous. We’d talk it out. We’d work it out. Our chemistry was great.

What do you remember about the game-winner in Game 5 of the Miracle of Richfield?

Cleamons: Fitch drew up the play and the play was going to Bingie, and you knew Bingie was gonna shoot it. And there wasn’t any sense standing around watching him shoot it. So my instincts said go rebound.

So … I know Bingie. I love Bingie. Bingie’s gonna shoot that damn thing!

So I went to the boards, Bingie threw something up – I went and got it and I was in the right spot. That’s just basketball. Playing on instincts and knowing your personnel.

How satisfying was it to win that series after being the league’s laughingstock when you arrived?

Cleamons: I lost more games my games my first year in Cleveland than I had in my entire athletic career – in all sports.

You don’t know as a player the power that you have until you quit playing. That was a wonderful team moment.

We were the lowest of the low. You remember Rodney Dangerfield? That was the Cavaliers: We got no respect.

At then there was a point where we said: ‘Here we are, now we’re somebody you have to contend with.’ Now guys know: ‘You got a game tonight; don’t come out here and play up cheap. No easy W’s here.’

I remember our first win in Chicago. Our first win in Los Angeles. You’re going to places where you’ve never won before – and I’m talking about as a franchise.

I experienced some firsts on that team.

What is the genesis of the relationship between you and Phil Jackson?

Cleamons: Phil and I were teammates with the Knicks. And Bill Fitch was his college coach and obviously my coach in Cleveland for five years.

When I first got to New York, they’d already started exhibition games and Phil and I were both on the second unit. And Phil knew the game, so we had basketball chemistry.

The next season, Phil went to New Jersey and I didn’t see him for about 10 years.

So I was the coach at Youngstown State. And I remember it was the series in which Jordan hit the shot over Ehlo. That was on a Sunday afternoon and the day before, the Bulls were practicing. And I was going to meet Brad Sellers – who I’d coached at OSU and who was with the Bulls – for lunch.

Phil and Doug Collins and Tex Winter were having a meeting and I saw Phil, who I hadn’t seen in forever. We chit-chatted and I watched practice. Afterward, wished each other well.

Two weeks later, I’m driving home from a recruiting trip and I hear on the radio that Doug Collins has been fired and that Phil Jackson is named head coach. So, I come home and my phone is ringing and it’s Phil on the other line.

I said I was just listening to radio – congratulations. Phil said he had one spot open, I can’t promise it to you, but we’d like to meet.

They flew me to Chicago, we talked basketball, I took some tests. We talked about what I was teaching the kids at Youngstown. Later that summer, I flew to L.A. where they were playing summer league and they offered me the job.

What were your early experiences like, coaching Jordan and the Bulls?

Cleamons: Well, the hype was definitely there.

Doug gave Michael the ball and basically told Michael: ‘Do what you want to do.’ And the Triple-Post, it’s not complicated, it’s based on fundamental basketball.

And they said Michael’s not gonna go for that; Michael wants the ball in his hands and he’s gonna be tough to deal with. But that was overblown, because Michael just wanted to win.

And I think once he saw how it was laid out, what the scheme actually was an how it fit. He didn’t have to force things, he was gonna have the ball and have judgement when to pass and when to shoot. It was good fundamental basketball and Michael never had any issues.

He was scoring a ton of points, but he couldn’t get past Boston and Detroit. But once he figured out how to get other guys involved, he found it was easier.

We learned how to beat Detroit we learned how to grow as a basketball team and grow as men. Detroit treated us like little brothers – like we’re gonna come in here and kick your asses because we’re older than you, we’re tougher than you, we know more than you.

So the Bulls had to get stronger – mentally and physically – to beat Detroit at their own game.

And to Michael’s credit, it forced him to become a leader. Before that, he just tried to lead by being the best athlete, by scoring. But now he had to become a leader, mentally.

Having coached them both, what were there differences between Jordan and Kobe Bryant?

Cleamons: Michael was different in that he played three years under Dean Smith at North Carolina. And having Dean Smith as a head coach is vastly different than going straight from high school into the league.

Kobe felt that a lot of guys didn’t feel that he belonged there. So, I think Kobe always had that chip on his shoulder about not being accepted. He had to prove that he deserved to be in the league. Because he had no other credentials than being Jellybean’s son.

Michael’s chip was: Yes, I can score. Now can I win?

You came to Cleveland this year to help the Cavs celebrate their 50th season. What are your thoughts on that milestone?

Cleamons: The Cavs being around for 50 years is remarkable – but it’s not remarkable. It’s a testament to the community of Northeast Ohio that supports them.

For people to support the Cavaliers after those first five or six years – they were the butt of a lot of jokes – but people stuck by them and the product kept getting better. That’s a testament to their longevity.

It’s been a struggle at times. And that’s a testament to Mr. Nick Mileti all the way through to the ownership that’s there now.

Cleveland is a blue-collar town, and I love it there.

Growing up in Columbus you had different factions – you were either from the ‘Nati or Cleveland. And people in Cleveland are solid people and they’ll give you the shirt off their backs. They’re salt of the earth.

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