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As a kid growing up in Northeast Ohio, my loyalties stayed true to my locale when it came to sports, meaning it was Indians, Browns, Cavaliers and Buckeyes all the way, with little, if any, tolerance of others.
The pecking order among my four teams was based solely on the time of year, regardless of the successes (rare, except for Woody Hayes’ Ohio State football squads) or failures (most of the time), with most of the clothes I wore to school and in the summer being based on which of my teams was involved in its season.
This was back in the dark ages of fandom, when every game was not televised. In fact, a small percentage of games were broadcast locally. Even Ohio State football games were mostly viewed via late-night replay on WVIZ, Ch. 25.
While ESPN was not yet available everywhere, what was available back then was WTCG out of Atlanta, then known as Ch. 17, America’s first superstation, owned by Hawks and Braves owner Ted Turner, which eventually became known as WTBS and eventually, TBS, as it is now known.
That resulted in pretty much every Hawks and Braves game being broadcast and as sports-crazed youngster, I became a fan of both teams, almost by default.
High on the Hawks
With hoops, while listening to Skip Caray’s calls during the Hawks’ 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons, they became the team I followed when the Cavaliers were not playing, meaning Joe Tait’s voice wasn’t crackling on WWWE through my AM radio.
Those Hawks were a good team in those days. Coached by future Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, after a 41-41 finish in 1978 and Brown earning league Coach of the Year honors, Atlanta went 46-36 in the 1979 regular season, swept the Houston Rockets in the first-round of the playoffs in a best-of-three series before bowing to the defending NBA champion Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It took the Bullets, led by future Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, seven games to get past the Hawks to get back to the Finals.
A face in the ‘crowd’
During that season, I attended a game between the Hawks and the Cavaliers at the Richfield Coliseum, played Tuesday, Nov. 28, 1978 — being one of 4,130 hearty souls to pay to get into the 21,000-seat Coliseum — and even snapped a few photos from the stands.
Coach Bill Fitch’s Cavaliers rolled to a 102-87 victory that night to improve to 7-14 and record only their third win in a 17-game span. Cleveland wound up 30-42 that season.
The Hawks, who dropped to 11-9 with the loss, were down pretty much from the jump and Brown picked up two quick technicals for arguing with the officials and was ejected, leaving his first-year assistant, a guy named Mike Fratello, to run the team for the majority of the game.
Check out the admittedly low-quality image I captured from the stands that night atop this column.
It shows Hawks star John Drew (more on him in a bit) at the free-throw line, with Fratello standing in the background.
However, also shown, sitting at the press table behind the banner that reads, “10 years together,” which signified the Cavs’ 10th season as an NBA franchise, is a sportswriter whose terrific work most of you have probably read:
Terry Pluto, excellent columnist for the Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com, sporting a full head of hair.
The write stuff
After returning home from the game that night, I skipped into the house, went to my room, tuned into WWWE to listen to the legendary Pete Franklin do his “Sportsline” postgame show, produced by Dave Dombrowski, from his studio in front of the fans at The Coliseum and, *gasp* took out a pen and paper.
I wrote a letter to the Hawks, telling them how much I enjoyed watching their games on television and how I just gotten home from watching them play a game against my beloved Cavaliers.
I mentioned how the aforementioned Drew and center Wayne “Tree” Rollins were my favorite players.
The letter was simply addressed to, “Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta, Ga.,” on the front of the envelope, yet somehow, thanks to above-and-beyond-the-call efforts by the United States Postal Service, found its way to the Hawks’ team offices.
My words scrawled on a piece of paper torn from my spiral notebook must have made an impact, though, as a week or so later, I received a package with my name on the front with a label that read “Atlanta Hawks” on the return address.
Sign of the times
Though it was three weeks before Christmas, what a present it turned out to be! Included in the package was a letter thanking me for being a fan, several Hawks bumper stickers, a team pennant and, best of all, on a 3-inch by 3-inch piece of white paper, two autographs.
One signature read, “John Drew,” with the other reading simply, “Tree.”
Needless to say, that ensured a soft spot would and continues to remain in my heart for the Hawks until I go paws-up.
Years later, Tree made his way to the Cavaliers, general manager Wayne Embry signing him as an unrestricted free agent before the 1988-89 season, a memorable campaign that ended with Michael Jordan applying the dagger with The Shot.
Early on in that season, I dug out the piece of paper sent to me by the Hawks and took it with me while covering a game at The Coliseum. In the pregame locker room, I spoke with Rollins and told him the story, then showed him the paper signed by him and Drew a decade previous.
Of course, he had no recollection of signing it, but the smile that ran across his face said it all.
“Man, you actually wrote a letter from here in Ohio to a team playing in Atlanta and said I was one of your favorite players?” he said through a laugh. “Wow, you really are a fan of the game!”
After the game that night, Rollins waved for me to come to his locker.
“I know we lost to the Cavs that night you said you watched us 10 years ago,” he said. “How did I do that night?”
When I informed him Drew had 15 points and he had six, but both fouled out, he broke into laughter.
“That’s probably why Hubie got kicked out,” he grinned. “John was an All-Star, but never got many calls, which Hubie didn’t like.
“Actually, a bunch of us didn’t get many calls back then.”
Rollins was spot on with that statement. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Drew, an All-Star in 1975-76 and 1979-80, averaged 4.2 fouls in the 1979 season, totaling 332, fourth-most in the league.
No wonder Brown was fired up at the referees that night, though — the Hawks accounted for four of the top six in fouls that season, James Edwards (363) being second, trailing only Bill Robinzine of the Kansas City Kings (367), Dan Roundfield being third with 358 and Rollins himself being sixth with 328.
Addendum on Drew: After seeking treatment for the fourth time in his career, in 1985 he became the first player to be banned by NBA commissioner David Stern for multiple violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Before that, though, Drew was a fine player. In fact, when the Hawks traded him and Freeman Williams to the Utah Jazz on Sept. 2, 1982, they received quite a player in return.
Future Hall of Famer Dominque Wilkins.
Still special, after all these years…
As I began to head out that night, Rollins shook my hand.
“Thanks for making my night,” he said through yet another smile. “I can’t believe you’ve held onto that little piece of paper for 10 years.”
“No, Tree, thanks for making mine, all those years ago,” I replied with a smile. “Since I’ve held onto it for 10 years shows the impact you guys had, and still have, on kids.”
As I write this, the Cavaliers (9-37) and the Hawks (14-30) have the two of the worst records in the NBA, but still occupy places in my heart.
The fact that piece of scrap paper, though yellowing a bit at the corners, has not been lost to time — three decades after that postgame conversation with Tree took place and 40 years I received it in the mail from the Hawks — shows good guys such as Tree still stand tall, even in the eyes… and the hearts, of those of us who are, well, no longer kids.