This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2018 edition of Onward: John Carroll University Alumni Magazine. Dr. A.J. Cianflocco, Ph.D. ’72 retired as a team physician for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2016 following the franchise’s first NBA Finals championship.
As confetti fell in Oracle Arena in Oakland on June 19, 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers were celebrating the first championship in franchise history. While players and coaches rejoiced, Dr. A.J. Cianflocco ’72, a team physician, was desperately negotiating with an arena security guard.
Cianflocco had spent much of the final moments in the locker room with the rest of the medical staff. Now, his all-access pass was not earning him passage back on the court. “I told the guard — this is my last game, I’m retiring,” Cianflocco remembers. “I have to be out there.” Thanks to an Oakland police officer who wandered by, and who recognized him from team practices, he made it past the guard and onto the podium for the historic moment.
Three days after Game 7, Cianflocco stood on the back of a flatbed as the team motorcade drove through downtown Cleveland. When the truck turned onto E.9th Street, he was stunned by the sheer number of people. “My wife told (then) general manager David Griffin that the team threw me one legendary retirement party,” Cianflocco remembers.
It was a storybook ending to a career that began four decades earlier in University Heights, that saw him interact with hundreds of student-athletes at John Carroll, and which culminated with success with Cleveland’s professional teams.
The Journey Begins
Once he visited John Carroll, he knew it was home. “I fell in love,” Cianflocco remembers. “JCU had a reputation for getting students into medical school – and it felt like an Ivy League campus.” Even though he was drawn to history in high school, he remained committed to the medical track. John Carroll’s biology and pre-med programs were the perfect fit.
Cianflocco felt that his academic training in University Heights was primarily informed by the Jesuits and professors closest to him. Two key relationships were with Rev. Casey Bukala, S.J. ’54, ’55G and Fr. William Bichl, S.J. “I had Bichl in the classroom, and Bukala on the floor down the hallway in Murphy Hall,” Cianflocco says. “Those relationships were important to my success in and out of the classroom.”
Following his graduation, Cianflocco attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina. Cianflocco worked at Cleveland Clinic for one year in internal medicine, then returned to Wake Forest for his residency in pathology from 1977 to 1981. Because most of his friends lived in Cleveland, it felt natural for him to return to Northeast Ohio.
After seven years of residency, Cianflocco took over sports medicine care at John Carroll in the summer of 1988. He was drawn home to University Heights by the opportunity to support student-athletes. “Athletes at John Carroll don’t come here to just play sports,” he says. “It is a thrill to see them grow on the field and in the classroom. That’s when I really became involved in sports medicine. That patient interaction made a big difference.”
“My specialty in sports medicine took off in the late 1980s when the field really started to develop,” Cianflocco says. He was part of the group of doctors who started primary sports care medicine at Cleveland Clinic. Cianflocco proved himself at the college level with John Carroll before being “called up” to the professional ranks.
Called Up to the Pros
In the 1980s and 1990s, Cianflocco began to work with the Cleveland Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians. During the 1999-2000 NBA season, Cianflocco began to work exclusively for the Cavaliers, along with his private practice during the day. He recalls the struggles of the first time that the Cavaliers played in the NBA Finals in 2007 against the San Antonio Spurs. “Nobody – players or coaches – had been there before, so it was a learning experience,” he says. “We wanted to get back so badly.”
In 2011, Cianflocco was named the director of primary care sports medicine at Cleveland Clinic Center for Sports Health. He also served as the director of the Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship Program at Cleveland Clinic.
By 2015, after the return of LeBron James to the Cavaliers, the organization was prepared for another playoff run. “When we lost to the Golden State Warriors, we had players and coaches with experience, but we weren’t healthy,” Cianflocco says. “It was disappointing, but it made the choice to come back for one more year even easier. I’m not sure I was quite ready.” Fast-forward one year, and Cianflocco and the medical staff were in the locker room minutes before Game 7 was complete.
“Five-to-eight minutes before it ended, they had both locker rooms ready,” he remembers. “Plastic covered every surface, the goggles were out, crates of the worst champagne you’ve ever had were wheeled in. It felt so real.” He and the staff briefly returned to the floor to check on LeBron after the forward crumpled to the floor with less than two minutes to go.
Cianflocco, along with work partner George Sibel ‘90, were then able to celebrate on the floor as they had achieved their goal of bringing another championship to John Carroll.
Remembering His Roots
Even through his travels and career, he never forgot his roots at John Carroll. Cianflocco and his wife often sent back religious icons for Fr. Bukala and others, including a painting of a 17th century Jesuit hospital to hang at Schell House.
Cianflocco spends his time between Cleveland and Charleston, South Carolina. He is back in the classroom, rekindling his love of history through a joint program with College of Charleston and The Citadel. Cianflocco spent May of 2017 in China as part of his program. He was one of a group of 10 who spent time exploring China, experiencing the culture and attending lectures. “You couldn’t ask for anything better,” he says. “I kept a diary the whole time. That experience was incredible.”
Between adventures across the country and around the world, Cianflocco has taken time to reflect on his journey. “I always tell people that I’d rather have an NCAA championship ring from John Carroll than one from the pros,” he says. “I loved my time working at JCU with Don McPhillips (Head Athletic Trainer). If you don’t have a great friend in your athletic trainer that you respect and trust, it is hard to enjoy it. Watching my athletes grow was why I stayed,” Cianflocco says. “To see where they all are now is the biggest reward.”
The book on his career closed with an NBA championship ring and parade, and a lasting impact on his alma mater. “It was important to be able to do that for our institution,” Cianflocco says. “We were able to extend the name of John Carroll in the sports and medical world throughout our careers, continuing that championship tradition on and off the field.”