A few minutes before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ home opener last month, owner Dan Gilbert addressed the players in the locker room.
He talked about the excitement of the season before getting serious and telling them about his eldest son, Nick Gilbert. NBA fans may remember Nick from the 2011 draft lottery, when he was the team’s onstage representative and good luck charm.
When the Cavs won the lottery that night, earning the right to draft Kyrie Irving as the global number 1, 14-year-old Nick declared, “What’s not to like?”
Nick has neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on the nerves. For Nick, they have always grown in his brain. He has fought them throughout his 26 years, and the battle has been a daunting one.
Dan, who has been in a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2019, told Cavs players that Nick needed three different brain surgeries in the last two months.
“He’s a fighter,” said Dan, who was shown on the team’s YouTube series ‘The Road Back.’
“And he’s fighting.”
The team has dedicated the 2022-23 season to Nick, and players have been wearing a bow tie decal in their warmups, a nod to Nick’s signature tie. The bow tie he wore in the 2011 lottery, the Cavs believe, was the reason they won the lottery again in 2013 and 2014 and jumped to the No. 3 draft in 2021, when they got the young star Evan Mobley. She was present to all of them, even when he wasn’t there.
Uniting around Nick is another bond for this Cavs team, which has slowly and deliberately been building an admirable team-first culture in recent years that has been instrumental in his 8-2 start.
It is not a new concept, of course, but wanting it and selling that culture are very different realities. Coach JB Bickerstaff has sold him to his team, and perhaps the best personification is an honor after victories that he designed to be a unifying force.
In the middle of last season, Bickerstaff unveiled the Dumpster Dog Award, given to the player who was the feistiest and hungriest player in a win. He arrived complete with a deliberately ridiculous oversized gold chain, ready to wear to press conferences and social media posts.
This is not a new idea either, but that is much less important than accepting it. Winning that award has become a big deal in the Cavs’ locker room, and therefore a competition on the court during games. Earned by players who dive to the ground, pull off a vital offensive foul, or secure a big rebound.
On Sunday night, after a road win against the Los Angeles Lakers, Bickerstaff was ready to announce the honor and reached into the award’s travel case only to find it empty. It was then that kevin love, now in his ninth season with the team, roared and revealed that the players had flipped tables and were giving the chain to their coach after an emotional halftime speech ignited the Cavs’ defense. Bickerstaff had to blink back tears.
All of this may sound a bit corny to adult billionaires. But the connections are also present in more tangible ways.
When Donovan Mitchell he arrived over the summer after a successful trade, had done his homework on how the Cavs operate internally. Perhaps sensitive to the notion that he had struggled with his former Utah Jazz teammates, Mitchell arrived with a team-first attitude that immediately impressed Cavs players, team sources said.
Players, coaches and members of the Cavs front office noted that Mitchell showed no ego from preseason workouts through the start of the season, and several team members said they believed it helped him fit in. When the All-Star point guard darius garland dropped in the first game with an eye injury, Mitchell’s move into a more pronounced leadership role was seamless.
Mitchell has been one of the best players in the Eastern Conference in the first month of the season, averaging 31.4 points on 49.2% shooting, which would be career bests.
The team’s togetherness is shown in their collective defense, ranked second in the league, and how they have built a great start despite some injuries. The top four of Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Jarrett Allen they had played a total of 28 minutes together through the first eight games due to various injury problems.
Everything is set for an unexpected big game on Friday, when the Cavs visit their old adversary, the Golden State Warriors. It is the first time in the five seasons since Lebron James he left Cleveland that the game has real meaning. It’s also been 25 seasons since the Cavs made the playoffs on a team without him, a streak this team looks like it might finally break.
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