National Basketball Association Hall of Fame inductee Larry Bird’s favorite place to play was one steeped in history, with hundreds of sporting events and concerts taking place within its confines each year. When Bird discusses his favorite place to play he is not talking about the Celtics’ Boston Garden where he won three NBA championships, but is instead referring to the Richfield Coliseum. Larry Bird praised the venue often both during and after his playing career, frequently expressing his affinity for the arena, saying if one were to create the perfect arena it would be in the Coliseum’s image. His compliments did not come without some critiques, all that reference the location of the arena. He disliked the long drive out to the Coliseum twenty-five miles south of Cleveland, which required his team to leave early in order to arrive on time, and wished it was “in a city somewhere — not a suburb.”
The construction of the Richfield Coliseum was a hot topic in Northeast Ohio in the early 1970s, mainly due to its location in Richfield Township, which is over twenty-five miles south of downtown Cleveland. This would be a significant location change from the Arena that had not only been home to the Cavaliers but also the Cleveland Barons since its opening in 1937. The site was chosen by Cleveland Cavaliers and Indians owner Nick Mileti, who saw its northern Summit County location as optimal for bringing in the largest possible number of Northeast Ohioans to events because, as he noted, no one lived in Lake Erie. Mileti wanted the Richfield Coliseum to be “the big brother to Madison Square Garden,” not only a testament to his perceived quality of the new location, but its upcoming cultural significance.
This move of the Cavaliers and other sports teams was met with resistance almost immediately after Mileti announced his plans to construct the Richfield Coliseum. Opposition to Mileti’s plans were from the politicians and officials of Cleveland, who all wanted the Cavaliers to remain downtown and keep other performing acts coming to the city, not to a venue twenty-five miles away. This desire was motivated by the revenue produced by the events held downtown and was aligned with their attempts to revitalize the area. Ultimately city officials were unable to prevent Mileti from relocating his teams to Richfield, and the twenty-thousand–seat venue was constructed in Summit County.
The Richfield Coliseum hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Barons as well as countless concerts during its twenty years of operation. The Coliseum proved it was a viable event location from its opening, hosting Frank Sinatra on October 26, 1974, the first of many famous artists to visit Richfield Township. The list of acts that performed in Richfield is strikingly similar to the current list of inductees of Cleveland’s Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, with acts like Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, KISS, The Who and Grateful Dead performing in the Coliseum.
Concerts were not the only significant events that took place at the Coliseum, it also had its fair share of historic sports moments. Richfield Coliseum hosted the Chicago Bulls for Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference First Round where Michael Jordan would hit ‘The Shot’ as time expired to end the series with a 101-100 Bulls win. Another significant event that took place in the Coliseum was a heavyweight boxing match between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner. The bout was held on March 25, 1975, and determined the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council heavyweight title. Wepner, the underdog, lasted until nineteen seconds before the final bell when he lost by TKO. Wepner’s life and match against Ali has been widely credited as the inspiration for the Rocky film franchise, which depicted an underdog Rocky Balboa going toe-to-toe with the champion Apollo Creed.
The Cavaliers returned to downtown Cleveland in 1994 after twenty seasons in Richfield, and the Coliseum was torn down five years later in 1999. The Coliseum was an important building both locally and nationally from when it was first proposed by Nick Mileti, and embodied the national trend of sports teams fleeing city centers in the 1970s. The demolition of the Coliseum was less controversial than its construction, yet many came to the site in Richfield to see it one last time. Twenty years of historic events occurred within its concrete walls, events that would not only hold significance for Northeast Ohio but the nation as a whole. Perhaps Nick Mileti’s 1974 prediction of a venue on par with Madison Square Garden wasn’t too far from the truth.