Tom and Jim Vilk logged more than 30 years combined as vendors at the Coliseum. Understandably, they were not as enthusiastic as others about the demise of the building where they logged lifelong memories, even if Gund Arena was shiny and new.
A trip to Whitey's Booze 'n' Burgers is enough to get Tom sentimental about the Cavaliers' "Miracle of Richfield" 1976 playoff run and endless other Coliseum memories. Whitey's has been a cornerstone of Richfield since opening in 1953, and as one of the few Richfield establishments for fans to frequent before and after games, Whitey's became the unofficial restaurant of the Cavaliers during the Coliseum years.
The Vilk brothers still know some of the Whitey's employees by first name. And they recall legendary voice of the Cavaliers Joe Tait spending many a postgame there — even marrying one of the servers. According to owner John Bigadza, when former Cavs coach and Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens was relieved of his duties in 1993, his first stop was Whitey's because he wanted the staff to hear it from him before reading it in the newspapers.
"Back then it was like a family," says Tom Vilk. "Players could come in here and people respected their privacy and left them alone."
Likewise, Bigadza describes the Cavaliers move back to downtown Cleveland in 1994 as a "divorce."
"We are a sleepy little town and village of about 5,000 people combined, so on any given event night we saw a population growth of 15 to 20,000 people," he says. "It was quite the windfall of business in just sheer numbers of spectators. (When the Cavs left) it was an obvious concern for our business. It affected the township's tax base; it affected the school system and property taxes. It was quite a blow to the community."
Jim Vilk no longer worked for the Cavaliers when the team moved downtown. Tom, however, remains employed by the team to this day. Both missed Richfield and the Coliseum after the Cavs set up shop at Gateway in 1994.
In 1999 though, fate afforded the Vilks an opportunity to say goodbye to their beloved arena in a unique and special way.
Tom received an unexpected call from a friend in the Coliseum maintenance department. With the building slated for demolition in days, the friend told the Vilks to meet up at the arena and clear space in their vehicles. The brothers arrived to enjoy the absolute run of the place, something that never occurred as employees.
After exploring every corner, they realized they stood amid a treasure trove of memorabilia, all theirs for the taking.
"We took a self-guided tour through the whole building. It was depressing, but also really cool to see places we had never been before. Security didn't mind us being there as long as we were quiet," Tom says. "Then we just started grabbing stuff."
"There was more stuff than we expected," Jim adds. "We assumed they would have taken everything. What we didn't grab is buried underground with the rubble."
Among the items salvaged were a row of floor seats, the Cavaliers' 1975-76 Central Division title banner, which once covered the scorer's table, several arena signs, uniforms worn by Coliseum personnel and a scale model of Quicken Loans Arena, which they found in a conference room.
They continued to fill their vehicles until there was not an inch of free space remaining. Jim saluted the Coliseum as the brothers drove their overloaded vehicles out of the parking lot for the final time. Days later, crews began to take the steel structure down.