NBA at 75: How Ted Stepien almost killed the Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA at 75

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The NBA has had its fair share of terrible owners, but only one has ever had a rule named after them — Ted Stepien of the Cavaliers.

Soon after Ted Stepien purchased the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1980, Akron Beacon-Journal reporter Sheldon Ocker introduced himself to the new owner and asked if he could spend time with him for a story. Stepien was receptive to the idea and said that Ocker could come over the next Sunday after church “We’ll sit around the pool and watch porno films,” he said. Thankfully for Ocker, that particular meeting never came to fruition. Instead, he watched as Stepien conducted auditions for cheerleaders, asking them questions like “What’s your favorite color?” and “If you were on vacation, would you go to a nude beach?”  For Ocker, it was an inauspicious introduction to one of the worst owners in sports history.

Such questions and statements were not out of character for Stepien. According to Joe Menzer and Burt Graeff’s tremendous history of the Cavaliers, Cavs: From Fitch to Fratello, he was reportedly heard several times introducing his daughter Nancy by asking others, “Doesn’t she have great tits?” On another occasion, Stepien mused to the media: “It’s a fact that having more white players would be beneficial from a marketing standpoint. But if we have 11 Blacks and win a title, that’s great.” Perhaps trading away all the Cavaliers draft picks was far from the worst thing about him.

As the 1970’s ended and the 80s began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were in a state of disarray. According to Cavs PR director Bill Needles, “You rarely knew who owned the team week to week.” There was a minority owner of the Cleveland MLB team who was interested in buying the struggling Cavs though, an advertising executive named Ted Stepien.

Stepien had made his fortune by founding Nationwide Advertising, a company which would partner with companies seeking new employees and buy classified advertisements for them. In 1980, Stepien began by buying 37 percent of the Cavs for $2 million, but would go on to buy more and more shares until he owned 82 percent of the franchise.

After buying the team, Stepien began a promotional blitz. He chose a fight song — a polka, no less — and had copies of it delivered to local radio stations “along with a pound of kielbasa,” according to Menzer and Graeff. He would pass out brochures, ostensibly meant to market the Cavaliers, that featured his own face on the cover. He also recruited two new team mascots: Crazy George and the Amazing Boot. Crazy George, nee George Schauer was touted as “The World’s Greatest Ballhandler.” His routine would conclude with him shaving a woman’s leg while he spun a basketball on a literal razor’s edge. Meanwhile, Don Buttrey, better known as the Amazing Boot had an act which consisted of him “crunching empty beer cans with his teeth, blowing up firecrackers inside his mouth, and devouring raw eggs and whole powdered donuts.” When recounting the Stepien era in his book, Vintage Cavs, Terry Pluto was sure to add that Buttrey was a “nice guy.”

When Stepien bought the team, Stan Albeck was the head coach. According to him, in their very first conversation, Stepien told him that he wanted to fire him. He would follow through soon enough but not before he reportedly told Albeck to select Rich Yonaker from North Carolina in the upcoming NBA Draft “because he knew his dad.”

Albeck was indeed out soon, replaced by Bill Musselman, the former coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Stepien was sold on Musselman’s coaching abilities by 5-time World Series Winner Billy Martin who was managing the Oakland Athletics at the time. However, Musselman was not temperamentally equipped to be an NBA coach. In the first game of his tenure, he played Randy Smith all 48 minutes — in a preseason contest. He would also show up late for practice due to his playing racquetball in the suburbs and losing track of time. According to Menzer and Graeff, Don Delaney — former manager of Stepien’s Cleveland Competitors softball team who was then tasked to become the Cavs GM — said that he could “show you junior high coaches that are better prepared” than Musselman was and that the coach was “the most vicious human being I have ever met.”

After a 25-46 start to the season, Stepien’s patience ran out and he decided to fire Musselman, though he did retain him in a front-office position. Replacing Musselman was Delaney. While Delaney did have some experience coaching basketball, it was at neither the NBA nor the Division 1 level, having previously led Lakeland Community College and Dyke College. It was an unorthodox selection. At first, players welcomed the change of pace from the aggressive Musselman, though success was not quick to follow.

Ted Stepien became a legend for his approach to the NBA Draft with the Cavs

Nowhere was Stepien more short-sighted than when it came to the NBA Draft. Desperate to win now, the Cavaliers would trade away future draft picks for players Stepien, Musselman, or Delaney thought could help the team immediately. The problem was they were very bad talent evaluators. To name one example of their misguided wheeling and dealing, the Cavaliers traded Bill Robinzine, along with two first round selections, to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Richard Washington and Jerome Whitehead. The team would play Whitehead in three games then waive him just 17 days after acquiring him while Washington averaged less than 10 points in 87 games over two seasons.

Since the Cavaliers had already traded a separate first-round pick to Dallas for Mike Bratz, the Mavericks now owned the team’s first-rounders in 1983, 1984, and 1986. The Cavaliers then owned just one first-round pick from then until 1987. At this point, league commissioner Larry O’Brien stepped in, announcing that the league was temporarily disallowing the Cavaliers from making any more trades.

A memo was distributed to every team stating that no trade with Cleveland could occur unless approved by league executive Joe Axelson. Nevertheless Axelson soon approved another Cleveland-Dallas transaction with Cleveland sending their 1985 first-rounder to Dallas for Geoff Huston. Axelson did note he was “obviously disturbed” by Cleveland’s decision-making though. Mavericks coach Dick Motta claimed, “I was afraid to go to lunch for fear that I’d miss a call from Cleveland.”

Such actions, as well as his consistent mishandling of the Cavs, did not endear him to the media or to Cavaliers fans yet Stepien could not stand the criticism that came with being a public figure. Instead of making peace with the press, he would be confrontational, only solidifying their negative impressions. He was completely unable to accept any blame for the team’s failings and would reflexively threaten to move the team. He once spoke of his desire to rename the team the Ohio Cavaliers and schedule home games in cities apart from Cleveland to build a broader fan base. He named three cities he would like the team to play in: Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, apparently failing to realize that only one of those three cities is actually located in Ohio. At one point, late in his tenure as owner, he pledged to keep the Cavaliers in Cleveland before going to Toronto the next day and holding a press conference announcing that he planned to move the team there. This was not a man who thought ahead.

After naming Delaney as coach, Musselman became Stepien’s right-hand man and took every chance he could to undercut Delaney. Musselman would sit next to Stepien, criticizing the new coach and his tactics. After a 4-11 start, Stepien fired Delaney. Bob Kloppenburg filled in for three games (all losses) before the team brought in a 76ers assistant named Chuck Daly. This was Daly’s first head coaching job, and he was under no illusions about the mess he had walked into. Even though his contract was for three years, with the first two guaranteed, he decided to live out of a Holiday Inn in Richfield. It turned out to be a prudent decision. After going 9-32, Stepien fired Daly after a loss to Golden State, agreeing to pay him the rest of his salary for that season and $125,000 for the next.

Though one trade that happened during Daly’s brief time in Cleveland would pay dividends for the future Hall of Fame coach in years to come. With the Cavaliers desperate to trade for a draft pick after dealing all of their own in the last few years, Musselman and Stepien sent center Bill Laimbeer to the Pistons in exchange for a first and second round pick. The Cavaliers did not do anything remarkable with those picks, selecting John Bagley and Dave Magley. However, Laimbeer and Daly would reunite in Detroit a few years later and go on to win two NBA championships in the process.

With Daly out, the Cavs were looking for their fourth coach of the 1981-82 season and Bill Musselman took advantage of the opportunity, finding himself coaching Cleveland for the second time in as many years. He had already shown he was not the right man for the job and yet here he was, holding it again despite a string of strange and upsetting behavior.

According to, several secretaries believed that Musselman was responsible for “obscene phone calls they were receiving at the office.” He was also spotted spying on people multiple times. On one occasion, on a road trip in Houston, broadcaster Joe Tait, trainer Paul Spicuzza, and reporter Bill Nichols had dinner together. While they were walking together, they saw that the bushes next to them were moving; it was Musselman, keeping an eye on them from behind the foliage.

Unsurprisingly, Musselman was not the answer for the floundering Cavaliers. They went 2-21 with him as head coach and lost their last 19 games in the season. In spite of the sad ending, Stepien nevertheless arranged for champagne to be in the locker room after the last game of the season. Predictably, the players were not in a celebratory mood, opting to take the champagne with them for a more suitable occasion rather than drinking it in the locker room after wrapping up such a strange and depressing campaign.

Musselman was replaced by Tom Nissalke the next season, and yet Stepien would say years later that he should have had more faith in the ill-tempered Musselman: “That was the biggest mistake I made. He was a proven coach.” The Cavaliers did marginally improve the next season with Nissalke at the helm, going 23-59, an 8 game improvement over the previous year. Yet Stepien had had enough. In just three years as an owner, he had lost around 20 million dollars, and was getting fed up with the ceaseless criticism.

Enter George and Gordon Gund. The Gund brothers already owned the Richmond Coliseum and did not want the team to leave the area, which seemed increasingly likely with Stepien consistently threatening to move the Cavaliers. With a deal close to completion, future commissioner David Stern stepped in to sweeten the deal, convincing other league owners to allow Gund and the Cavaliers to buy themselves back into the draft, giving them bonus first-round picks. A new era of Cavaliers basketball had dawned.

In one way, the Ted Stepien era functioned as a wake-up call for a league that was aching for credibility. The NBA needed owners who were more reliable and less impulsive, owners who were intelligent enough to avoid destroying their team from the inside. Stepien is thus a relic and a symbol of a time before the NBA became more unified, corporate, and regulated. And the Cavalier teams he helped put together were testaments to both his own ineptitude and the necessity of good executive leadership.

In addition to the Cavaliers, Stepien also owned a bar called the Competitors Club. He would occasionally emcee lingerie shows and luncheons there, even once summoning Chuck Daly to meet him there for a meeting. Reflecting on his relative skills, Stepien once said, “I may not be able to run a basketball team, but I can run a lingerie show.” I cannot attest to Stepien’s abilities as the emcee of lingerie shows, but the first part of that statement may be the truest words he ever spoke.

Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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