As fans cheer on the Cavaliers in their quest for the city's first NBA title, few will remember Cleveland's last professional basketball champions — the Pipers.
Named after original owner Ed Sweeny's plumbing company, the team played in the National Industrial Basketball League from 1959 to 1961 under the direction of John McLendon, the first African-American head coach in the modern era of professional sports.
"He was very far ahead of his time in terms of race relations," says Bill Livingston, Plain Dealer sports columnist. "When they went on the road, there was a very firm rule: one white player and one black player to a room together."
A 30-year-old George Steinbrenner bought the Pipers in 1961 and moved them to the new American Basketball League. Mercurial even then, Steinbrenner once traded a Pipers player for $500 during halftime of a game against the Hawaii Chiefs — then tried to make him suit up for the opposition. But despite Steinbrenner, the Pipers won the 1962 ABL tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.
Only about 10 seconds of film documents our city's last basketball championship.
"In it, the players romp joyously into the cramped locker room," writes Livingston in George Steinbrenner's Pipe Dream, a book on the Pipers due out this month from the Kent State University Press. "[Dick] Barnett grabbed a thematically appropriate plumping pipe near the ceiling as he stood on a bench, steadying himself with one hand while pouring Champagne in a foaming torrent over a teammate's head."
Sadly, no trophy was awarded to the victors. Both the team and league disbanded soon after.