Spurs Remember The Alamo, Cavs Fans Can’t Forget Stepien

By Tony McClean
Updated: June 6, 2007
The Finals NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Before I begin this article, I must congratulate all of you long suffering Cleveland Cavalier fans for reaching the NBA Finals. I’m not talking about those fly-by-night hangers-on like Geraldo Rivera or folks who became “Witnesses” just a few years ago when a certain No. 23 showed up.

I’m talking about folks are old enough to remember guys like Bingo Smith, Austin Carr, Campy Russell, Dick Snyder, Mike Mitchell, and one of my personal favorites, the immortal Clarence “Foots” Walker.

You remember the old (and I do mean OLD!!!!) Cleveland Arena in the early days of the franchise. You remember when the Richfield Coliseum opened in 1974 which was supposed to bring better days to the franchise.

Little did you know that in just a few years, the darkest period of the franchise would lie ahead in just over five years. While Cleveland sports fans have cursed the names of John Elway, Michael Jordan, and Mike Davis over the years, there is only one name that still isn’t allowed to be mentioned at many dinner tables across Ohio.

You wanna start a fight with a Cleveland sports fan? — just say the name, Ted Stepien.

The founder of Nationwide Advertising Services, Stepien purchased the Cavaliers in the spring of 1980. Over the next three seasons, the Cavs and their fans would suffer through arguably the worst three-year stretch in the history of the NBA.

Stepien oversaw the hiring and firing of a succession of coaches and was involved in making a number of poor trade and free agent signing decisions. Early on, Stepien proposed to rename the team the “Ohio Cavaliers”. The plan included playing some of their home games not just in the Cleveland, but also in cities such as Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

If seeing their favorite basketball team playing in known enemy territory like Pittsburgh wasn’t enough, Stepien also introduced a polka-type fight song, which was widely ridiculed by longtime Cav fans and the media.

But it was Stepien’s “expertise” in the front office that would leave a lasting mark in the team’s history. The result of his questionable trades was the loss of several of the team’s first round draft picks, and led to a rule change in the NBA prohibiting teams from trading away first round draft picks in consecutive years. This rule is known as the “Ted Stepien Rule.”

The ensuing chaos was reflected by the Cavs’ on-court performance and attendance woes, going 28-54 in 1980-81 (Stepien’s first year as owner), followed by an abysmal 15-67 mark in 1981-82.

The 1981-82 team lost its last 19 games of the season which, when coupled with the five losses at the start of the 1982-83 season, comprise the NBA’s all-time longest losing streak at 24 games.

During that dismal ’81-82 season, Cleveland went through four (Yes, that’s what I said, FOUR) head coaches:
1. Don Delaney, who had taken over for Bill Musselman with 11 games remaining in the 1980-81 season.

2. Assistant coach Bob Kloppenburg, who filled in for a game after Stepien relieved Delaney of his duties.

3. 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.

4. And finally Musselman, who returned to the bench after serving as the team’s director of player personnel since being fired the previous season.
Although the team improved its record to 23-59 the next season, local support for the Cavs eroded which eventually bottomed out that year by averaging only 3,900 fans a game at the cavernous Coliseum which seated more than 20,000.

At one point, even longtime radio and TV play-by-play announcer Joe Tait would be fired by Stepien. For two seasons, the “Voice of the Cavs” worked for the New Jersey Nets and the rival Chicago Bulls.

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.”

In the same article, Stepien was quoted as saying: “We made mistakes. And, I take the responsibility.” To the national and local media, the Cavaliers were routinely referred to as the “Cleveland Cadavors”.

The nightmare would finally end for Cav fans in 1983 when Stepien would sell the team to brothers George and Gordon Gund for $20 million. By 1986, the Cavs under the direction of head coach Lenny Wilkens and GM Wayne Embry, would begin a stretch of eight playoff seasons in the next nine years, including three 50-wins plus seasons.

While those Cav teams would eventually be foiled in the playoffs by that obscure Jordan fella from Chicago, it was Camelot compared to the godawful period their fans suffered through the early part of the decade.
How much so? Let me give you a perfect example.

A longtime Cavs fan that I’ve known for years still has a tee shirt that reads “I no longer fear Hell. I survived the Cavs under Ted Stepien”. I don’t know if his shirt sold like the LeBron James “Witness” shirts are now, but the statement alone is a true and genuine reflection of the times.

So please forgive the giddiness of Cleveland fans as they prepare to see their Cavs in the NBA Finals. Considering where they’ve been, they more than definitely deserve to enjoy this brief moment in the sun.