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The View From Pluto: The Cavs' Orange of the '80's Marked A Bright New Era

Cavs orange jersey
The Cavs debuted orange jerseys in 1984, and it had signifcant meaning

The NBA is tapping into fans’ nostalgia by encouraging teams to wear retro uniforms for a handful of games this season. It’s a promotion intended to sell more jerseys. But for the Cavs, bringing back the bright orange of the mid 1980’s carries a deeper meaning.

WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says it all started in 1980 when Ted Stepien bought the team. "Arguably, the worst owner in the history of pro sports,” Pluto says. 

Stepien's dark era
Stepien's decisions to trade away five consecutive first-round draft picks led the NBA to make a rule change. Called the "Stepien Rule," it prevents teams from trading two straight No. 1 picks. And, the NBA had to approve all Cleveland deals.

Pluto says Stepien was controversial in other ways.

“Ted would say things like, ‘We need like 50/50 ratios on the team, black to white, because a lot of sports fans are white. He also had these women called the 'Teddy Bears,' these cheerleader types. Dancing was not the primary thing they were picked for, shall we say.”

Pluto calls Stepien’s ownership a disaster.

“There was nobody going to these games. It got so bad after the first year, legendary Cavs radio broadcaster, Joe Tait, refused to do the games the next year and left town."

On the brink of folding
"There was a serious plan in place for the Cavs to fold and merge with the Indianapolis Pacers.

At that time, the Cavs had a general manager named Harry Weltman, a very sharp, Cleveland guy. He, along with NBA Commissioner David Stern, tried to find someone to buy the Cavs. They got Gordon Gund to buy the team in 1983.

“Part of what Gund Investments did was to buy distressed properties, Well, they got one here!”  

"It was the best era of basketball until LeBron's first era or second era."

A bright start
Pluto says Gund and Weltman wanted a new era.

“The first thing they did was sign Joe Tait and bring him back. And they wanted something new and different with the uniforms. Weltman had talked to some marketing people that he knew and they just wanted something new. So they came up with orange.”

So from 1983-87, orange was one of their colors.

“They did dump the orange after one year and they went to more blue. But the orange to me represented the end of Stepien and the start of the Cavaliers basically as we know them.

"And that team in mid to late 1980’s -- with Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty -- started winning 50-some games. They couldn’t win a title, but real basketball returned. It was the best era of basketball until LeBron’s first era or second era."

Pluto covered the Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal in '85-'86 and remembers the fun he and Joe Tait had. “They had a heavy-set guy named Lonnie Shelton and Lonnie kept getting bigger and bigger during his tenure here. [Joe Tait] and I used to call him ‘The Great Pumpkin’ in that orange.”

The Cavs eventually went back to wine and gold -- the colors they started with in 1970. 

The Cavs will wear the throwback orange jerseys Jan. 4th, Jan. 29, March 14 and March 31st.

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.