SAN ANTONIO – Looking back, Craig Ehlo wishes the Cleveland Cavaliers could've deployed those long arms of Larry Nance to defend the inbounds pass. Maybe that would've made the angle tougher for Michael Jordan to catch the ball. In the heartbreaking history of the Cavaliers, the most unforgettable moment has been re-run a thousand times on television, but a million in this old guard's mind.
Here it was, the decisive Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference first-round playoff series between Chicago and Cleveland, and Ehlo was doomed. Jordan caught the ball, dribbled to his left across the circle and hung and hung and hung, until he flicked his wrist and crushed the Cavaliers' season.
"I was running at him and he stopped on a dime and got his elevation," Ehlo said the other day from his home in Spokane, Wash. "He hesitated on his shot and it was like in "Top Gun." He put on his brakes and I flew right past him."
And as Jordan celebrated a trip to the conference semifinals to meet Detroit, his fists pumping into the Richfield Coliseum air, the memory of Ehlo collapsing to the court has been the forever snapshot of Cleveland basketball. Everyone forgets that Ehlo had made a tough, driving layup with three seconds left, that he could've owned the Cavs' greatest playoff moment. His shot dropped through the net, he turned to the scoreboard clock and knew he had left too much damn time for Jordan.
"After I made that layup, the building was so deafening, you couldn't hear yourself think," Ehlo said. "And then, Michael makes the shot, and you could hear a pin drop. My reaction was our fans' reaction. For a long time, people in Cleveland thought that there was a curse on us. We could just never get over the hump."
There was no curse, just the cold, cutting truth of Jordan's genius. The Cavaliers would lose five of seven years to Jordan in the playoffs with the core of Ehlo, Ron Harper, Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty forever falling short. Cleveland never did have its own No. 23, just a lineage of good, never great, players through the years.
Everything changes now with LeBron James, whose breathless barrage of 48 points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals unhitched the hook from Ehlo as the embedded image of Cavaliers playoff history. Cleveland has James, the next generation Jordan, and his arrival in the NBA finals for Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday will keep pushing the memories of heartache into the past.
"I was jumping out of my shoes and shorts watching (LeBron) in that Pistons series," Ehlo said. "I still feel a part of that organization, part of the brotherhood. You know, we were a blue-collar team, a nucleus that worked really hard. But Michael just kept beating us. He kept doing what he does."
So yes, it has been fitting that Ehlo has been talking on the phone lately with Bernie Kosar, who relentlessly had John Elway do to him and the Browns what Jordan did to Ehlo and the Cavaliers. Kosar was on the wrong side of "The Drive" the way Ehlo was on the wrong side of that jumper. Together, they're poster boys for the second-city nature of Cleveland sports history.
For now, James vindicates so much for this franchise and its city. The heartbreaker always came to town and crushed Cleveland's dreams. Now, he plays the role of one. The Cavs did make it to the Eastern Conference championship in 1992, but Michael and the Jordanaires wouldn't let them into the NBA finals.
Ehlo is friends with Cavs general manager Danny Ferry, whom has promised him tickets when the finals reach Cleveland for the first time in history. When Ehlo was doing television for the Sonics a couple of years ago, he introduced himself to James and told him that he used to wear the Cavs uniform in the good, old days.
"I remember you," James told Ehlo. "I grew up in Akron."
At 22 years old, James could've remembered the back end of the Bulls' destruction to his hometown team. Truth be told, Ehlo would've merely been that angst-ridden defender foiled by Jordan in the franchise-defining clip broadcast through a James childhood of watching Jordan's greatest hits.
Still, James was old enough to see the Gatorade commercial, where they needed Ehlo's permission to change the course of history. The spot showed Jordan missing the shot and dropping his head and a computer-generated Ehlo flinging his arms skyward in victory.
And maybe, that's how it would've looked had the ball bounced the Cavs way in '89. Nevertheless, Ehlo still says, "I had so much fun playing those last six seconds." Years later, he would go see Jordan's IMAX movie with his kids and would be fascinated to watch the way that the detail of Jordan and him could be studied on that immense movie screen. It made Ehlo remember the words of Phil Jackson, whom always called that one of his most cherished Jordan moments.
"He said it wasn't so much that he made the shot, but the reaction of the two players," Ehlo said. "One devastated, one jubilant."
Ah, it isn't such a horrible memory. Maybe he was on the wrong side of history, but he was there. Now, No. 23 wears a Cleveland uniform and, all these years later, the kid from Akron bailed out Craig Ehlo. His agony of defeat is no longer the lasting legacy of the Cavaliers.