Joel Craig Ehlo, born in Lubbock, Texas, is a retired 6’6″ shooting guard who is probably better known for a single moment in time than he is for his many contributions to perhaps the greatest Cleveland Cavaliers team ever. Unfortunately, that single moment in time was immortalized with it’s very own historical name (“The Shot” ) and would continue to haunt both Ehlo and the Cavs organization.
Ehlo began his college career playing two seasons close to home at Odessa Junior College before transferring to Washington State for his final two seasons of eligibility. He helped lead the 1982-83 Cougars to a 22-6 record, qualifying them for the NCAA tournament. In the opening round, Ehlo scored 18 points in a victory over Weber State, giving WSU it’s first postseason win since 1941. Picked to finish fifth in the Pacific-10 Conference, WSU won seven of its last eight games of the regular season and finished 14-4 in the league and a perfect 14-0 at home on Friel Court. Unfortunately, The Cougars were overmatched in the second round of the tournament by Virginia and it’s celebrated 7’4 center, Ralph Sampson.
Ehlo was selected by the Houston Rockets with the first selection of the third round in the 1983 NBA Draft. This ironically paired Ehlo with Sampson, who was selected as the first overall choice in that same draft. The next season, Houston drafted Hakeem Olajuwon, with the first overall pick of the 1984 NBA draft. In 1985 the twin towers of Houston, advanced to the league finals, but lost to the Boston Celtics four games to two. The following season, Houston put the little used Ehlo on waivers, and new Cavs General Manager Wayne Embry signed Ehlo in January of 1987.
Ehlo immediately fit into new coach Lenny Wilkens system. For the next seven seasons, Ehlo would spend the prime of his career scoring 5,130 points, 1,803 assists, and 2,267 rebounds for the Cavs. Ehlo continued to see his minutes grow as he became an integral part of the team, coming off the bench, but playing starter’s minutes. The team, consisting of Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, “Hot Rod Williams, Larry Nance, and Ron Harper, grew under Wilken’s coaching, going 315-259 (54.9 percent). This is much more impressive considering that Wilkens took over a team that was in the divisions last place, 11 games under .500.
Unfortunately for the Cavs, they played in the same division and same conference as the Chicago Bulls, who were beginning their run of six World Championship titles. The Cavs were eliminated four times by the Bulls in the next six seasons. Chicago eliminated the Cavs 3-2 in 1987-88 and 1988-89 in the first round, then 4-3 in the Conference Finals in 1989-90, and 4-0 in the second round in 1990-91. Chicago clearly had the Cavs number, proving to be a worthy nemesis.
Ehlo is, as mentioned above, probably best remembered for being the victim of Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan’s greatest clutch shots. On May 7, 1989, the series between the Cavaliers and Bulls was tied at two wins each. The pressure was clearly on the Cavs to win the final game, as they finished 57-25 to the Bulls 47-35, being seeded third, while the Bulls were in the sixth slot. The game had been neck and neck through out. Jordan hit a closely contested jumper with 6 seconds remaining, giving the Bulls a 99–98 lead. After Cleveland took a time out, Ehlo scored on a driving layup to give Cleveland a 100–99 lead with 3 seconds left. Chicago immediately called timeout. Jordan fought thru a double-team by Ehlo and Larry Nance on the inbounds play. Jordan bounced off of Ehlo and pushed Nance out of the way to get open. Brad Sellers hit Jordan with the pass, who drove two dribbles to his left.
Jordan went up for the shot, with Ehlo right in front of him, arm out stretched for the block. Jordan seemed to hang suspended in air forever, but eventually gravity returned Ehlo to Earth, milliseconds before Jordan released the ball with time expiring. The horn sounded as the ball rattled thru the rim, giving the Bulls a one point upset victory over the Cavs. “The Shot”, as it was dubbed by the media, was captured by a photographer, and posters were sold to adorn the bedrooms of a generation of young Jordan fans. It was a series for the ages, one of the hardest fought, most intense playoff battles ever in NBA history.
At the end of the 1993 season, Wilkens would resign from his job in Cleveland, failing to reach the promise of the team. He agreed to coach the Atlanta Hawks that same year. Ehlo followed Wilkens south, signing as a free agent with the club. He played three seasons for the Hawks, before winding up his career back in Washington State with the Seattle Supersonics in 1996-97. For his NBA career, Ehlo averaged 8.6 points per game, 2.8 assists per game, 3.6 rebounds per game and 1.1 steals per game. His playoff numbers mirrored these almost exactly.
Ehlo settled in Spokane, Washington after retiring from the NBA, finishing work on his Bachelor’s degree in 1999. He spent three seasons as head coach at Rogers High School in Spokane from 1998-2001. Ehlo worked extensively as a television analyst, including full schedules for the Seattle SuperSonics and Gonzaga. He has also worked on broadcasts for his alma mater, Washington State University, as well as Eastern Washington University.
Ehlo also spent six years coaching for the esteemed Nike Skills Academy camp for high school players, while working with NBA superstars as LeBron James, Steve Nash, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Deron Williams. Ehlo later coached at EWU until July 13, 2013 when he resigned. He was selected to the Washington State University Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996, and was one of 10 inaugural basketball inductees into the Pacific-10 Conference Hall of Honor in 2002.
Ehlo’s wife, Jani, is also a graduate of WSU. They have three children — Erica, 23, Austin, 21, and Gavin, 16. Austin plays football as a wide receiver at Whitworth University. Ehlo has been very involved in many charities including the Children’s Miracle Network and the Special Olympics.