June 9, 1925
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||September 10, 2007
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
|Occupation||businessman, sports franchise owner, entrepreneur|
|Years active||1981–83 as owner of NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers
Founder and Commissioner, United Pro Basketball League, 2003–07
Theodore J. "Ted" Stepien (June 9, 1925 – September 10, 2007) was the owner of the National Basketball Association's Cleveland Cavaliers from 1980 to 1983. After becoming wealthy as the founder of Nationwide Advertising Service, Stepien purchased the Cavaliers on April 12, 1980. A December 6, 1982 article in The New York Times described the Cavaliers during Stepien's ownership as "the worst club and most poorly run franchise in professional basketball."
Stepien raised eyebrows when he introduced a scantily clad (by the NBA's then standards) dance team known as "The Teddy Bears". On the court, Stepien installed Bill Musselman as the team's head coach. Musselman, who coached the University of Minnesota to the 1972 Big Ten championship, the school's first in 53 years, compiled a 25–46 record with the Cavs before Stepien fired him.
Stepien thought he could quickly assemble a competitive team, however, he proved to be a poor judge of basketball talent. He spent the then lavish sum of $2 million on salaries for Scott Wedman, James Edwards and Bobby Wilkerson. While satisfactory role players (Wedman had been an All-Star but was injured and on the downside of his career), none were the stars Stepien envisioned them to be.
In an interview in December 1980, Stepien said, "No team should be all white and no team should be all black, either. That's what bothers me about the NBA: You've got a situation here where blacks represent little more than 5 percent of the market, yet most teams are at least 75 percent black and the New York Knicks are 100 percent black. Teams with that kind of makeup can't possibly draw from a suitable cross section of fans." He also said that "blacks don't buy many tickets and they don't buy many of the products advertised on TV. Let's face it, running an NBA team is like running any other business and those kind of factors have to be considered." He described his Cavaliers at that time — consisting of six whites and five blacks — as "a balanced team racially, and that's a good reflection on our society because it's balanced too." He described himself as "really big on desegregation" and "for a totally integrated society."
In the last days of the 1980–81 season, Stepien made headlines by firing popular team play by play announcer Joe Tait, replacing him with Paul Porter. Stepien claimed that "announcers were a dime a dozen", but it is widely believed that Tait was fired due to his on-air criticism of Stepien's ownership. This was also believed to be the reason that Stepien moved the Cavaliers games from WWWE (3WE) 1100AM (featuring Stepien critic Pete Franklin) to WBBG 1260AM.
By this time, Stepien's popularity in Cleveland was at an all-time low. The team was referred to locally at this time as the "Cleveland Cadavers". For the final home game of the 1981 season, the largest Cavaliers crowd in two years showed up to honor Tait and heap abuse on the Cavs' now-despised owner. The angry crowd used the occasion to not only show support for the broadcaster Stepien was running out of town, but also voice their discontent over the fact that Stepien was staying behind to run the team.
Over the course of the 1981–82 season alone, Stepien fired three head coaches and hired four: Don Delaney, who had taken over for Musselman with 11 games remaining in the 1980–81 season; assistant coach Bob Kloppenburg, who filled in for a game after Stepien relieved Delaney of his duties; Chuck Daly, who left the Philadelphia 76ers where he had been an assistant to take over as head coach of the Cavs, who went 9–32 with him at the helm; and Bill Musselman, who returned to the bench after serving as the team's director of player personnel since being fired the previous season.
According to a March 27, 1982 story in The Sporting News, Stepien said he brought back Musselman after having time to reflect on the job he did the previous season. "Bill won 25 games with a team of Mike Bratz, Roger Phegley, Mike Mitchell, Bill Laimbeer and really, no bench."
Stepien, who was an All-City basketball and football player at Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, infamously made multiple questionable transactions with his teams, such as trading away several future high draft picks for mediocre players. One of the picks whom Stepien traded away turned out to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, James Worthy, for the Los Angeles Lakers.
In fact, all of these questionable moves led the NBA to institute what is commonly known as the "Stepien Rule," which states that a team (usually) cannot trade its first-round pick in consecutive years. After Stepien dealt away several 1st round draft picks to the Dallas Mavericks, who were a newly formed expansion team, the NBA froze Cleveland's trading rights to prevent him from giving up the team's picks for the rest of the 1980s and 1990s; while the freeze was officially ended after the 1981-82 season, Stepien never traded away another 1st-round pick afterwards before he sold the team.
In a December 6, 1982 New York Times article by Ira Berkow, Musselman explained that Stepien "wanted a playoff team right away, and that's what he kept talking about." In the same article, Stepien is quoted as saying: "We made mistakes, and I take the responsibility."
During his ownership, attendance at Cavaliers games began to sharply fall due to the team's poor play and questionable moves. Stepien thought about renaming the team the "Ohio Cavaliers" and playing portions of its home schedule in nearby non-NBA cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Toronto to increase the fan base. He had also threatened to move the team to Toronto and rename them the Toronto Towers, but ultimately Stepien decided to sell the team to Cleveland businessmen George and Gordon Gund prior to the 1983–84 season for $20 million. During his tenure as Cavaliers owner, the Cavaliers went 66–180, had five different coaches, and had losses of $15 million.
After the NBA
After selling the Cavs, Stepien became founding owner of the Toronto Tornados in the Continental Basketball Association. He also owned a team in the Global Basketball Association, which operated during the early 1990s. In 1987, he was fined $50,000 by the CBA after allegedly failing to cooperate with the league office's investigation of salary cap violations.
Early in 2003, Stepien founded the United Pro Basketball League (UPBL), which featured just four teams, including three in Kentucky (Lexington, Louisville, and Frankfort) and one in Mansfield, Ohio. Stepien also opened a series of private dining rooms called "Competitors Clubs" in Cleveland. He owned a professional softball team known as the Cleveland Competitors.
Stepien died of a heart attack in 2007.
- David Fink, Stepien intends to operate Cavs his way . . . or else, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (December 24, 1980), page 6. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
- Menzer, Joe; Graeff, Burt. Cavs From Fitch to Fratello. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing. ISBN 1-57167-006-8.
- Hahn, Alan (January 18, 2011). "The 2012 loophole?". Newsday. Retrieved April 15, 2012. The actual rule is somewhat more nuanced. It only applies to drafts that occur after the trade. Also, a team can remain in compliance with the rule by acquiring a first-round pick that originally belonged to another team.
- "For The Record". Sports Illustrated. September 24, 2007. Retrieved April 15, 2012.