It's impossible to miss the large trophy case as you enter the foyer of the Grace Christian School gymnasium in Staunton, Va. And nestled between a wealth of trophies and plaques earned by the school's Warriors sports teams rests a blue and orange basketball jersey with "Cleveland" emblazoned across the chest. Alongside it sits a dated edition of Hoop Magazine, once the official game program from the Cavaliers during the Richfield years. It's just the first evidence of the unusual ties between the small private K-12 outfit that enrolls some 200 students annually and Northeast Ohio.
Staunton counts just 20,000 residents and is a delightful if not remarkable town except for laying claim to the title of birthplace of president Woodrow Wilson. His presidential library and museum is just about the only reason for out-of-towners to drop by.
Grace Christian isn't a large school and it wasn't all that long ago, in 1997, that it didn't even have a gym to call its own.
"We were just borrowing gyms, renting gyms and basically doing whatever we could to play ball," says parent and former coach of the girls' varsity basketball team, Randall McNair.
Some 350 miles away, the Richfield Coliseum was sitting vacant after ending its 20-year run in 1994 as home of the Cavaliers.
The Palace on the Prairie, which wouldn't be demolished until 1999, was the brainchild of eccentric former Cavs owner Nick Mileti, who thought an arena halfway between Cleveland and Akron would draw more fans and take advantage of urban sprawl.
Nearly twice the size of the outdated Cleveland Arena, it was the nicest sports facility northeast Ohioans had ever seen and one of the finest in the nation. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article claimed, "No arena was more beautiful than the Coliseum, a magnificent structure in Richfield, Ohio." The building opened with a concert by Frank Sinatra, hosted a boxing match between legendary Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975 (the fight that would inspire Sylvester Stallone to create Rocky), and was the site of the Miracle of Richfield, the 1976 Eastern Conference champions, the "Shot," and countless other famous if not always treasured NBA moments.
And there it sat in 1997 as Gary Summers, the husband of Grace Christian's athletic director, researched basketball courts even as Grace Christian lacked a building to put one in. Really, it lacked even the resources to construct a building, but Summers was determined to give the Warriors some sort of home.
He started with a call to a representative from a national company famous for installing courts in gyms and arenas. The exploratory phone call went nowhere at first, but a couple of months later...
"The rep called to tell me the goals and floor of the Richfield Coliseum in Ohio were available," says Summers. "And put me in contact with the Cleveland Cavaliers' facilities manager."
Ignoring the lack of a gym, the lack of resources to build a gym and the lack of resources to transport an entire basketball court eight hours from Northeast Ohio down across the Mason-Dixon line, Summers was soon en route to Richfield giddy with the idea of Grace athletes playing ball on the same court once walked upon by the likes of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
"I remember that foggy morning when I drove into Richfield," he says. "It was a pretty rural town and then, suddenly, this huge monster of a building appeared out of the fog. All I thought was, 'Wow!'"
The Cavs asked Summers what amount he had been quoted for raw maple slabs to construct a new floor. He told them the price — $26,000 — and the Cavs offered the Richfield floor and baskets, used for two decades by legendary NBA players, to Grace Christian for the same price.
"At that point," says Summers, "it became very attractive."
Back in Staunton, Summers mobilized the troops in hopes of overcoming all sorts of financial and logistical hurdles. Quickly, he had 15 volunteers and two tractor-trailer trucks — both donated free for use — and scrambled to put together $1,000 as a down payment to the Cavs. In addition, a local contractor agreed to donate a large vacant building for use as the school's new gym.
It was a fortuitous chain of events and there was one more link.
"We realized God was really helping us out because after we committed to buying the floor, a school in Ohio contacted the Cavs about the floor and told them, 'money was no object,'" says Summers. "Money was certainly an object for us and fortunately the Cavs honored our agreement."
The Grace Activities Center (capacity: 600), the nondescript white converted warehouse that now houses the Warriors' sports teams, is a far cry from the Palace on the Prairie (capacity: 20,000), but it suits Grace Christian just fine.
On a recent beautifully sunny Virginia day, the gym is full of echoes as a volleyball camp finishes up. Former coach Randall McNair walks me through the front doors to take in the Richfield Coliseum floor in person.
He mentions an internal debate at the school back in 1999. Some wanted to replace the Cavs' logo with one for the GCS Warriors. But Summers and those partial to the floor's history won out.
"It was important for us to remember the history of the Cavaliers organization and everything they had done for us," Summers says.
"All the greats played on this floor," adds McNair.
All the greats, and now the GCS Warriors.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.