Why you should care
Because we learn from the worst as well as the best.
In any discussion of basketball, odds are good that the conversation will eventually stray to one age-old question: Who’s the greatest player of all time? Kids will say it’s LeBron James, their dads will say Michael Jordan, their grandads will say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But rarely do you hear a discussion about the other end of the spectrum … the worst of all time.
It’s important to address what goes into declaring a player the worst of all time. The worst player on the worst team? Sure. Dismal stats over an exceptionally brief career? Absolutely. But just as basketball archivists factor in intangibles when discussing greatness, it’s critical that intangibles are assessed for the antithesis as well. Considering all elements, there’s one man whose on-court contributions were so unremarkable and off-court antics so detrimental to the team, that he likely has the most legitimate claim to the title of worst of all time. His name was Gary Suiter.
If you look at Suiter’s stats, you’ll find a remarkably short and undeniably disappointing list of numbers. He appeared in 30 games for the 1970 expansion Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished dead last. He played just under five minutes per game and averaged a less-than-blistering 1.4 points. However, this argument is not predicated on the numbers alone — there are undoubtedly more forgettable careers than his. It’s the narratives surrounding Suiter that truly make him the absolute worst NBA player to ever set foot on the hardwood.
After essentially pestering his way into a tryout and lucking his way into a roster spot, Suiter began his quest for basketball immortality by accidentally locking himself inside the locker room several times. Due to his irrelevance to actual gameplay, he would often remain trapped until the team returned at halftime. That wasn’t the only way Suiter found to avoid playing basketball: He was once unable to disembark a plane with the rest of the team when he locked himself inside the onboard lavatory. On another occasion, Suiter was missing until the trainer discovered him lying unconscious on the floor of his hotel room after he reportedly smashed his head against the door.
If you think these quirks made Suiter a lovable oaf, you’re wrong. The Willoughby News-Herald reported in November of 1970 that he was so disliked by teammates that head coach Bill Fitch instituted a rule: Whoever committed the most turnovers in a game would be required to room with Suiter on the following road trip. Not to say Suiter didn’t have his fans: That December, the Cavs front office received a number of calls imploring the team to give the 6-foot-8 forward more time on the court to show what he can do. But the receptionist recognized the caller’s voice: The passionate fan was Gary Suiter himself.
Many players have been a bit eccentric off the court but would lock in once the whistle blew. Suiter was not among them. Likely knowing his tenure with the Cavs had an expiration date, Suiter would utilize his limited time on the floor to apply for jobs on the opposing team. He reportedly whispered to Dolph Schayes, coach of the Buffalo Braves, while play was in progress to ask if they could use a forward. However, Suiter’s self-promotion didn’t stop there. According to longtime Cleveland broadcaster Joe Tait’s memoir, It’s Been a Real Ball, Suiter visited a funeral parlor on the team’s day off, telling the salesman he needed a casket for a recently deceased family member and asking to use the phone to make last-minute funeral arrangements. “The salesman was very willing and he took the whole tour and got a casket. Then he somehow got the salesperson to leave the office, and he called every team in the NBA and the ABA at National Casket’s expense.” The plan went off without a hitch until, Tait explains, “A month later, the guy from National Casket is in the Cavaliers office flashing this $700 bill.”
Even after that, Suiter wasn’t dropped from the Cavs roster. That took a bit more doing. Suiter had managed to finagle his way into remaining on the talent-strapped Cavaliers roster.
“The Cavaliers had sustained so many injuries that the coach finally wrote his name in as a starter,” writes Bob Dyer of the Akron Beacon Journal in The Top 20 Moments in Cleveland Sports. “Just before tipoff, Fitch gathered the starters around to finalize their defensive assignments. He noticed that Suiter was missing. The trainer was dispatched to the locker room to see whether he was locked inside again. He wasn’t. The team’s starting forward was finally discovered standing in front of the concession stand, in full uniform with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other.” After scheming, begging, pestering and conniving his way into more playing time, Suiter cast it all aside for a pregame snack. That was the final nail in Suiter’s (metaphorical, this time) coffin: He was cut from the team after the game.
But just like Jordan coming out of retirement to win three more championships, Suiter made a parting shot when he returned to pick up his last paycheck. The Cavaliers had a policy in which travel expenses could be reimbursed for both the player and their spouse. Knowing this, the unmarried Suiter stopped by a popular hangout for prostitutes on his way to the arena and recruited one with the promise of making an easy $50. The two walked into Cleveland Arena arm-in-arm to collect their per diem only to be met by Fitch, who promptly shoved the bumbling big man back onto Euclid Avenue. A fitting end for the career of this all-time underdog.
Correction: This piece originally used the word “says” when quoting the written work of journalist Bob Dyer.