For one night in 1990, Cavs overcame obstacle to impress

The Cavs took the league by storm in 1988-89 behind a mostly young and promising lineup that included Larry Nance at power forward.

Bill Kostroun/AP

Editor’s note: FOX Sports Ohio will take fans back to 1990 when the Cavs hosted the L.A. Lakers at the Richfield Coliseum in an exciting game that resulted in a Cavs win. Don’t miss the re-air of the Cavs-Lakers game from December 19, 1990 Friday at 8:00pm on FOX Sports Ohio.

In early December 1990, the Cavaliers accepted their season was probably over.

After all, early December is when the Cavs learned Mark Price would be lost for the year after tearing ligaments in his knee. Price suffered the injury following a collision with — get this — an advertising sign attached to a press table in Atlanta.

Today, those things are commonplace. Back then, Cavs general manager Wayne Embry found the placement of the ad ridiculous enough that he filed a complaint with the league office.

Now, in order to understand the importance of Price to the Cavs, you must consider the previous seasons. The Cavs took the league by storm in 1988-89, finishing with an impressive 57-25 mark behind a mostly young and promising lineup that included Price at point guard, Brad Daugherty at center, Larry Nance at power forward, and the lengthy John "Hot Rod" Williams coming off the bench.

The team was coached by Lenny Wilkens, and Price was the engine that kept the Cavs running. As former NBA point guard and current TNT analyst Kenny Smith said a few weeks ago, nobody in league history could split a double-team like Price. Smith then offered a modern-day comparison — calling Price the predecessor to current Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.

He also missed the first game of the playoffs against the underdog Chicago Bulls in 1989. It was a game the Cavs lost — and sadly for the Cavs, it eventually became the same series that introduced the world to The Shot and Michael Jordan. But Price missing Game 1 (with a hamstring injury) cost the Cavs dearly.

Then came the 1989-90 season, in which the Cavs suffered an array of injuries, including a few more to Price. He missed nine games that year, and the Cavs won one. Again, they were dispatched by Jordan and the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs as they tried to gel at the wrong time.

So when Price injured his knee against the Hawks early in 1990, it spelled doom. The tape shows Price landing awkwardly on the sign in chase of a loose ball — then losing his balance when the sign "rolled" to display an ad.


"I will complain to the NBA about these sorts of signs," Embry told the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time.

Complain or not, the Cavs lost their engine, as Price was headed for surgery and the Cavs were headed for nowhere. They finished 33-49 and missed the playoffs.

Still, for one night, despite the disappointment of the news involving Price, everything came together against one of the league’s most powerful teams.

It took place Dec. 19, 1990, at the old Richfield Coliseum, against none other than Magic Johnson and his Los Angeles Lakers. Eventually, the Lakers would reach the Finals for the last time of the Johnson/Showtime era, before losing to Jordan and the Bulls.

So the Lakers were no joke. And the Cavs were without Price. The Cavs had lost six in a row entered with a record of 10-14. The Lakers had won three straight and were 14-7.

But it was the Cavs who controlled the game that night, slowing down Magic and his men via defense and slowing things down offensively.

Wilkens used just eight players. Nance was particularly brilliant, compiling 26 points and 15 rebounds, along with three blocked shots. Brad Daugherty scored 23 and grabbed 15 boards himself, playing a very methodical and disciplined game near the rim. And backups Steve Kerr and Darnell Valentine filled in admirably for Price at the point — each playing 27 minutes and forcing little.

Eventually, Price’s injury would wear on the Cavs. But for one night in that season, they gave their fans hope. And no more than the night of Dec. 19, 1990, when they willed their way to an 84-74 win over the Lakers.

It may not have been much, but it was a win for Price. For the Cavs, it actually meant a lot.