Harry Weltman, former general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is one of the “unsung heroes” in the National Basketball Association team’s history, said Joe Tait, the Cavaliers’ longtime radio announcer.
“Very few people know who he was or what he did, but I think he deserves credit for saving the franchise after (former owner) Ted Stepien had virtually destroyed it,” Tait said in a telephone interview. “Harry was able to keep things afloat and put things back in reasonable order so the Gund brothers could move ahead and get things going again. Without Harry, chances are pretty good the franchise would not have survived.”
Weltman, who was Jewish, died May 8 at Vinney Hospice of Montefiore in Beachwood from complications with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.
The Pepper Pike resident had been at Montefiore about four months, said his wife, Rosemary.
A private family memorial service for Weltman will be at 2 p.m. May 29 at Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz Memorial Chapel in Cleveland Heights. Family and friends are invited to a celebration of his life from 5 to 8 p.m. May 29 at Beechmont Country Club, 29600 Chagrin Blvd. in Orange.
A Cleveland native, Weltman was the Cavaliers’ GM from 1982 to 1986. Cleveland was the worst team in the NBA in 1981-82 with a 15-67 record, so Weltman had his work cut out.
But under his direction, the Cavs made the playoffs for the first time in seven years in 1984-85. It also helped that Stepien had sold the team to Gordon and George Gund before the 1983-84 season, Tait said.
“That was a key, that Harry and Gordon Gund worked very well together,” Tait said. “Harry was a good man. He had good basketball smarts, he knew the game, and he had a very positive outlook – not only on life but on the franchise, at a time when very few people could muster up a positive outlook on the franchise.”
Tait added Weltman was instrumental in bringing him back to Cleveland to be the Cavs’ play-by-play voice on radio. Tait, who retired in 2011, had left in 1981 because he couldn’t work with Stepien, and he returned under the Gunds’ ownership two years later.
“I am told one of the first things (Weltman) told Gordon Gund was, ‘We have to get Joe Tait back from Chicago to do the play-by-play,’” Tait said. “It worked out super.”
Gave Costas first pro job
Bob Costas, longtime sportscaster for NBC Sports, said Weltman was an important figure in his career because he gave him his first professional job – doing play-by-play on radio for the Spirits of St. Louis of the old American Basketball Association. Weltman served as the Spirits’ president and general manager from 1974 to 1976.
“I did sportscasting at Syracuse University (in Syracuse, N.Y.),” Costas said in a phone interview. “Harry received many applications, and he felt favorably about my tape. I was a young guy, just 22 years old, and he recommended me to KMOX (radio), and I ultimately got the job.
“Even though the (Spirits) lasted only two years, Harry became a lifelong friend because of our association with the team, and we always stayed in contact from that point on.”
Costas said Weltman was passionate about everything he did.
“He was opinionated, but in an engaging way,” he said. “He had a terrific sense of humor, and there was always an energy and a vitality about him.
“There was a humanistic quality to him. He was a person of conviction and principles, and his friends mattered to him. He felt things deeply and he cared about people, and I think that’s why so many people stayed in touch with him and cared about him right to the end.”
Another loyal friend of Weltman’s was Joe Steranka, who served as the Cavaliers’ director of public relations from 1981 to 1983.
“When Harry arrived, I felt we had someone with the gravitas and common sense and connection with people that was very much needed,” Steranka, who retired in 2012 as CEO of PGA of America, said in a phone interview. “We went through some very challenging times on and off the court, but Harry’s door was open, and we could discuss the challenges we were facing and how we could overcome them. That stayed with me a very long time.”
Steranka, now a sports and golf consultant in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said he and Weltman reminisced about their days with the Cavaliers for the last time about three years ago when they had lunch together at a golf club in Tequesta, Fla.
“I know as someone who grew up in Cleveland, Harry was proud to help resurrect one of the sports teams so important to the Cleveland community,” Steranka said. “Here’s a guy that in his career could hire Bob Costas, George Karl, Marvin Barnes and World B. Free. Harry could handle people with that range of background and personality.”
Karl coached the Cavaliers to the NBA playoffs in 1984-85, and Free, whom Weltman acquired in a trade, was one of the key players on that team. Barnes was drafted by the Spirits of St. Louis in 1974 and played two years for them.
A chip off the old block
Weltman’s son, Jeff, has followed in his father’s footsteps. He started his NBA career in 1988 as video coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’s now executive vice president of basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors.
“My dad’s counsel was very much present every step of the way,” Weltman said in a phone interview. “I consider myself a basketball lifer, through my dad’s passion and now mine. I think he gave everything he had to his life and the people who surrounded him. He was a very passionate and compassionate man.”
Weltman also served as general manager of the New Jersey Nets of the NBA from 1987 to 1990. After leaving pro basketball, he worked as an investment adviser and became president of Caliper Sports Inc., a psychological profiler for professional and college sports teams.
Last year, Weltman was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. He was a 1950 graduate of Glenville High School and 1954 graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, where he played basketball, baseball and football. He also served two years in the U.S. Army.
In addition to his wife and son, Weltman is survived by a daughter, Mandy Bolling of Glen Ellen, Calif.; three grandchildren; and a brother, Herbert, of Solon.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to The Harry Weltman Scholarship Fund at Baldwin Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, OH 44017.