By Vince Guerrieri
On Jan. 20, 1983, Ted Stepien was having a busy day. Less than three years into his tenure as Cavaliers owner, he was looking for a way out. Stepien, a minority shareholder in the Indians (who were perpetually on the prowl for stockholders to provide capital in the 1970s), had bought the Cavs in 1980, becoming the team’s fourth owner in as many months. The Cavs were in bad shape, a middling team that, like the Indians, were struggling to stay afloat.
Stepien, by comparison, was an all-American success story. A self-described “Polack from Pittsburgh,” he had seen combat as part of a bomber crew in Europe and Africa during World War II, then returned to Cleveland, where he’d had his military training, and used his GI Bill benefits to attend Western Reserve University. He turned a $500 loan from his father into a multimillion-dollar firm, Nationwide Advertising, with offices throughout North America. He also owned a chain of Cleveland-area restaurants called the Competitors Club.
Stepien had a sports itch he couldn’t fully scratch. He had been an all-city football and basketball player at Schenley High School and had turned down a football scholarship to Cornell University to join the Army Air Forces. But with the Cavs, Stepien’s sports management approach could charitably be described as scorched earth. Immediately after taking over the team, Stepien fired head coach Stan Albeck and replaced him with Bill Musselman, a Wooster native, a Wittenberg graduate and a former coach at Ashland University. Musselman was probably best known in Ohio, though, as the Minnesota coach when the Gophers brawled with the Buckeyes at the end of a game. A new Cavs song—a polka, honoring Stepien’s Polish roots—was unveiled, and a dance team, the Teddi Bears, could soon be found on the Coliseum hardwood. Play-by-play man Joe Tait, who had been part of the Cavs almost since the team started a decade earlier, went into exile for being too critical of the Cavs on broadcasts. Stepien changed the team’s radio home in a fit of pique.
Stepien also owned a professional slow-pitch softball team, the Competitors, and they were part of one of Cleveland’s most ignominious – and dangerous – moments. In 1938, the Come to Cleveland Committee—in an effort to bring positive publicity to the city—organized a stunt where Indians third baseman Ken Keltner went to the top of the Terminal Tower—then the tallest building outside of New York City—and threw baseballs to a waiting crowd of Indians players below. (Catchers Frank Pytlak and Henry Helf each caught one.)
The Indians were initially approached to recreate the stunt in 1980, as part of a series of celebrations commemorating the tower’s 50th anniversary. Team president Gabe Paul turned it down flat. But Stepien and the Competitors would be happy to participate, and Stepien himself, never shy about publicity, would stand at the top of the Terminal Tower and throw the softballs down to members of the team to catch.
And so during lunchtime on June 24, 1980, Stepien leaned out from the 52nd floor of the tower, looking down at a crowd around 5,000 that had gathered at ground level to watch. “This is bad,” he said (as later recounted in Cleveland Magazine). “I’m really going to hurt somebody.” His first throw hit a parked car. The second throw hit retiree Russell Murphy in the shoulder. He declined medical attention. The third hit Gayle Falinski, a downtown worker who’d been watching from the sidewalk across the street. She was shielding her eyes from the noonday sun, and the ball struck her wrist, breaking it. (All in all, it could have been far worse; it was estimated the softballs were traveling 144 mph on their way down.) The next ball bounced on the sidewalk “about 40 feet in the air,” recalled Dan Coughlin, who covered the event for the Plain Dealer. Finally, Mike Zarefoss, a corrections officer who played for Stepien’s softball team, caught one.
Stepien sent Falinski flowers and invited her to lunch—and two years later settled her lawsuit for $35,875.
Stepien also had a quick trigger finger when it came to personnel moves. In the span of one calendar year, 1981, the Cavs had FOUR different coaches—including Don Delaney, a high school and college coach who’d coached the Competitors. When Stepien took a controlling interest in the Cavs, he hired Delaney there—as general manager, a position he was inexperienced in and ill-prepared for. (Legend has it when Stepien made the offer, Delaney said, “You want me to do WHAT?”)
Musselman was fired with 11 games left in the 1980-81 season, and Delaney stepped in as head coach. Just fifteen games into the 1981–82 NBA season, Delaney was fired after a 4-11 start. Bob Kloppenburg coached three games—all losses—as interim coach while the Cavs tried to find their next head coach. They interviewed Hubie Brown, who’d turned around a mediocre Hawks team, winning coach of the year along the way. But he withdrew from consideration, essentially giving the job to the other candidate: A well-worn high school and college coach who’d been a 76ers assistant since 1978.
Chuck Daly had previously distinguished himself as a coach at the University of Pennsylvania, but now at the 76ers he knew changes were afoot, and decided it was time to move on. He actually turned down the Pistons job before latching on with the Cavs. Up until that point, Stepien’s ownership had been fraught with problems and one rash move after another, but the general consensus was that the Cavs had actually made a good hire with Daly.
That the Cavs were in a precarious position in the NBA was well known to most. But Daly didn’t realize how bad it was until he started his new job and found there weren’t enough players to hold practice.
“I had only been there a week, and I knew I was in big trouble,” he recalled in his autobiography, Daly Life. Sensing that he wouldn’t be long for the job, he set up residence in a local Holiday Inn.
Stepien was a hands-on owner, and that wasn’t a positive trait in Daly’s eyes. When Daly fined a player, he had to talk to Stepien about it. Stepien wanted to talk to Daly after every game. Once, after a lengthy conversation, Daly was shocked to read the main points of it in the newspaper. He called Stepien and informed him there was a leak in the front office.
“It’s me,” Stepien replied. “I’m the one who told them.”
Stepien’s impetuousness continued to reign, with Daly saying he actually woke up each morning unsure what moves might have been made by Stepien the night before. It became clear to Daly early on that although he really wanted an NBA head coaching job, this wasn’t the one.
He asked Stepien’s lawyer to start drawing up separation papers. At one point, he met with Stepien at his downtown Competitor’s Club restaurant. “Why don’t you quit?” Stepien asked. “Why don’t you fire me?” Daly replied.
The Cavs then went on a west coast road trip—and Stepien went too, to tell Daly that the Cavs’ plans for the following season didn’t include him.
The Cavs were now on their fourth coach in the same season—an NBA record. Stepien didn’t have to look far for Daly’s replacement. It was Bill Musselman again. After four coaching changes, the Cavs were right back where they started.
Daly walked away with $275,000 in severance, but still wanted a job coaching in the NBA. As it turned out, another awaited him.
“I didn’t think I’d be too damaged by what happened with the Cavaliers because everyone knew how messed up they were,” Daly wrote in his autobiography.
Shortly after taking over ownership, Stepien traded star players Campy Russell and Foots Walker. Then he started dealing draft picks, not just for players, but for ineffectual players. Dallas Mavericks coach Dick Motta, a frequent trade partner at the time, said he was afraid to go to lunch for fear he’d miss a call from Cleveland. Ultimately, NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien had to step in and personally approve any trade the Cavs made.
“He is the person whom NBA owners use to scare their children into staying in bed at night,” sportswriter Charles P. Pierce wrote decades later in Grantland. “Go to sleep, or Ted Stepien will trade you to Milwaukee for a pound of Usinger’s sausage and half a case of Blatz.”
Bill Laimbeer grew up in California (in high school, he played a Sleestak—a tall, intimidating villain—on the children’s TV show Land of the Lost for one season) but came to the Midwest after his father, who worked for Owens-Illinois, ended up at the company’s Toledo headquarters. (In those days, the NBA was not the financial juggernaut it has since become, and Laimbeer joked he was the only NBA player who made less than his father.)
Laimbeer started out at the University of Notre Dame but made a brief foray to Owens Community College to bring up his grades. He was claimed by the Cavs in the NBA draft, but an Italian team, Brescia, offered him a contract before Cleveland did. Newly married, Laimbeer and his bride spent a yearlong honeymoon in Italy before returning to the United States and signing with the Cavs.
As Cavs coach, Daly saw potential in the tall, hustling center. Laimbeer had come to camp overweight and was trying to play himself back into shape, as the backup to James Edwards. But his physical attributes and intangibles made him a beguiling trade token—and the Cavs were more than happy to cash it in, dealing him just before the deadline in 1982 for two players and two draft picks. (Of course, given Ted Stepien’s propensity for trading away draft picks, they needed those badly.)
Detroit Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey also saw potential in Laimbeer and wanted him badly. Just 15 minutes before the trade deadline, the Pistons were able to swing the deal after they sweetened the pot by offering Paul Mokeski. Stepien, like Mokeski, was of Polish descent, and had a soft spot for Polish players. He wanted more white players in general, but it was for less sentimental reasons; he believed that white players would ensure more white fans.
Starting immediately for Detroit, Laimbeer made an impact right away. The following year, Daly, who’d been part of the 76ers’ broadcast crew since being unceremoniously dumped by the Cavs, was hired by the Pistons, a team that was almost as moribund as the Cavs. But with players like Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and Laimbeer, the Pistons turned into a dynasty, making the playoffs every year of Daly’s term as coach, appearing in three NBA Finals and winning two.
The Cavs ended up getting two draft picks, including the Pistons’ first-round pick, which they used on John Bagley, a serviceable player. (The Cavs had traded away their own first-round pick two years earlier to the Lakers. Because the Cavs were putrid, their original pick turned out to be the first overall, which the Lakers used to draft James Worthy.)
Edwards, the center the Cavs chose to keep over Laimbeer, wouldn’t be in Richfield for long. He was traded little more than a year later to the Suns for Jeff Cook, two draft picks and $425,000 cash. Stepien needed to make payroll.
The Cavs kept losing, enough so that they were referred to as the “Cadavers.” And Stepien kept losing money. The Coliseum was more like a mausoleum, and Stepien started looking to other cities—including Toronto. On Jan. 20, 1983, he met there with a potential buyer for the Cavs, and that evening, he made an appearance on a Toronto radio show, talking about selling to Canadian investors. As later recounted in the book Cavs from Fitch to Fratello by Joe Menzer and Burt Graeff, the show’s host, Mark Hebschner, took a call from a listener: “Am I talking to the dumbest man in professional sports?” The caller sounded like a kid, but in actuality, it was Pete Franklin, host of the Sportsline radio show, which he boasted was heard in “38 states and half of Canada.” Stepien had been one of Franklin’s regular foils, at one point suing for $15 million, alleging slander by the radio host. (The suit was ultimately dropped.) Franklin dropped his fake voice and then, still on-air, proceeded to blast Stepien, calling him two-faced and a dumbbell.
Stepien ended up selling the team to local buyers, the Gund brothers. They had to buy several draft picks because Stepien had traded away the Cavs’ picks for years to come. To this day, it’s against NBA rules for a team to trade away first-round picks in back-to-back years.
It’s known as the Stepien rule.
This article is excerpted from Weird Moments in Cleveland Sports: Bottlegate, Bedbugs, and Burying the Pennant.
Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.