Sunday, December 7, 2003

A vision for Cleveland


Cavs owner's never seen LeBron, but pictures future champion

By Connie Mabin
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund has never seen LeBron James in action. Not those no-look passes. Not the soaring leaps to the basket. Not the sky-high dunks that have made him the most hyped rookie ever to play in the NBA.

Gund has been blind nearly twice as long as James has been alive, but he has a clear picture of the 18-year-old, 6-foot-8, 240-pound player who has helped transform the Cavaliers from forgettable to hot commodity.

"In my mind's eye I think of somebody who carries himself with a sense of confidence, not of arrogance and not of hubris, but with a nice, quiet confidence and belief in what he's all about," Gund said. He pictures James "as a younger man, but with a real maturity in his face and his eyes. A real understanding of his stature. Clearly, a real strong, husky young man."

Gund, 64, also envisions James as part of a Cavaliers future he sums up in one word: championship.

"I don't like losing," Gund said in a recent interview.

Determination is something Gund has mastered.

A degenerative retina disorder called retinitis pigmentosa began stealing his sight in his 20s. He was a pilot who had just returned from Navy duty in the Pacific, and a recent Harvard grad with a budding career at a New York bank.

By age 30, he was legally blind.

"It was a very difficult time going through that," Gund said. "When you lose something, a very important sense and part of your life, of course you go through all of the emotions and there's a lot of frustration and wondering whether or not you can be productive."

With the support of his wife, Lulie, Gund pressed on.

He continued working for his family's businesses and charities. He also started his own company, Gund Investment Corp. of Princeton, N.J., with holdings in hotels, apartment and office buildings and advertising. Today, sales top $2 million annually.

Gordon Gund and his brother, George Gund III, bought the Cavaliers in 1983 in a last-minute deal because "we're true to Cleveland." Then-owner Ted Stepien had threatened to move the club.

A stately, white-haired man who's rarely seen in anything but designer suits in public, Gund walks with a cane, sometimes with the assistance of an aide. He attends some games at Gund Arena, listening on the radio in a private suite.

"I have a mental image of the court and where the players are on the court and what's happening," he said. "I'm always asking people what they look like and how they move, if they're athletic, how strong they are. I have a pretty good sense of it."

James, the NBA's top draft pick, signed a three-year, $12.96 million deal with Cleveland in July, sparking talk of James turning around a team that was the worst in the league last season with a 17-65 record. But the team was 4-15 entering Saturday night's game with Atlanta.

Gund said he was elated to get James but asked NBA commissioner David Stern to restrain the hype.

"We've got to all be patient because it takes time to put young players like this together with a new coaching staff," Gund said. "... It will be fun to watch them build on that. I'm more excited than I have been in a long time about this."

James said he'll work hard for Gund.

"Ever since I knew I was going to be drafted by Cleveland, I've just wanted to help any way I could to make us a better team," James said. "It's amazing everything that he has been able to accomplish in his life."

Diehards were thrilled when Gund restored the team's original colors of wine and gold a year ago - and when James was signed.

Despite the losing record, fans are flocking to games; season ticket sales have tripled. Merchandise sales are among the best in the league, and the Cavaliers have returned to national television.

"This is the beginning of some great years ahead," said Cavs fan David Saurer of Gund. "God bless him."

The Gund file

Age/birth date: 64; born Oct. 15, 1939, in Cleveland.

Education: Harvard University, 1961. Honorary doctorates from Goteburg University in Sweden; University of Maryland; Whittier College; and University of Vermont.

Experience: Chairman and chief executive officer of Gund Investment Corp.; on several boards of directors, including Kellogg Co. Bought Cleveland Cavaliers in 1983 with brother, George. The brothers also owned NHL's San Jose Sharks, until they sold the team in 2002. Gordon Gund cut ties with the WNBA's Cleveland Rockers this year, saying the team couldn't be profitable.

Of note: Lost eyesight to a degenerative retina disorder called retinitis pigmentosa; formed the Fighting Blindness Foundation in 1971, raising $175 million for research.

Family: Wife, Lulie, married in 1966; sons, Grant and Zachary; brother, George Gund III; sister, Agnes Gund, president of New York City Museum of Modern Art.

Quote: On blindness: "I have a better ability to make judgments about people's ability, people's integrity, people's way of thinking that I might have not otherwise. I listen much better."




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