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Ted Stepien; the worst owner in NBA history

The term worst owner in sports is often thrown around at any owner who meddles in his teams business while the team is struggling. Sometimes the term is rightfully deserved such as with Clippers former owner Donald Sterling, other times it is not. But one owner seems to stand out above all others in terms of being the worst owner of a professional team and that is Ted Stepien. In just three seasons of owning the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stepien ruined the franchise for most of the 1980s and his decisions lead the NBA to make a rule change to trading draft picks.

Stepien seemed to embody all that is wrong with an owner. He made poor business decisions, he fired popular commentators and team personal, threatened to move the team, and made several racist comments about blacks in the NBA.

He took over the Cavaliers in the spring of 1980 and would only own them until 1982, but the damage he did was immense. One of his first moves as owner was to fire the Cavs head coach Stan Albeck and replaced him with Bill Musselman. At first the move was supported by the Cavs fan base as Albeck had struggled in his first season, but the firing of Albeck was a harbinger of things to come. Musselman was not even given a full season before Stepien fired him and replaced him with Don Delaney. Delaney got to finish the season and start the next season as head coach but after just 28 games in two seasons Stepien fired Delaney. He brought in Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach and future Pistons coach Chuck Daley but gave Daley 41 games before firing him. He ended up firing 5 coaches in 3 seasons.

Stepien believed he had some kind of special gift for predicting basketball talent, and it was this arrogance which lead to him making horrible trade after horrible trade. Technically Don Delaney was the teams GM, but he was acting at the behest of Stepien. In early 1981 the Cavs made their first of many notable bad trades when they traded a 1984 first rounded to Dallas for Mike Bratz. The Mavericks would be the recipients of many of Cleveland’s first rounders. The Cavs also traded them first rounders in 1983 and 1986 and received mediocre talent in return. The 1984 pick is especially notable as the Cavs could have drafted Charles Barkley or John Stockton. The Cavaliers also traded their 1982 first round pick to the Lakers and because of the Cavs struggles that year the pick ended up being #1 and the Lakers added James Worthy to a team that had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Nearly all of the first rounders that the Cavaliers traded turned out to be high draft picks. The early 80s seen a deluge of talented players enter the league and the Cavs missed on nearly all of them, and even though Stepien did not own the team any longer the fans still hated him.

The trading of draft picks became so problematic that NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien was forced to step in and in 1981 froze Cleveland's ability to trade draft picks. Unfortunately for Cavs fans, the league rescinded on this decision at the conclusion of the 81-82 season. The NBA stepped in because there was real fear around the league that he would trade away all of the Cavs first round picks in the 1980s and 1990s and this would in-turn cause the Cavs to became so unstable that they might disband.

Always the cheap-sake, Stepien is rumored to have refused to give his players the allotted per Diem money required by the NBA. There were also instances were per Diem checks were bounced due to insufficient funds. The per Diem checks are what NBA players, even up to this day, use to purchase food while on road trips. Not getting the money meant big trouble for younger players in an era where even MVP Dave Cowens had to have a summer job. This kept a lot of players from even considering Cleveland.

Racial issues too cause unhappiness in Cleveland. Stepien wanted a racially balanced team, or quota, and is quoted as saying "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.” Had this been in today's modern age this quote surely would have lead to him losing the team like it did with Donald Sterling.

To his credit, Stepien did try to give the Cavs a show even if it was a circus. In 1981 he tried to coax Wilt Chamberlain out of retirement and have him only play home games. He also contact several other NBA legend who were long past their primes.

By the end of the 1982 seasons Cavs fan had had enough. They booed the team mercilessly and criticized his actions every chance they got. Stepien responded by saying he was moving to team to Toronto and they would be called the Toronto Towers. The threat was empty but it did catch the NBA's ear and in 1983 the league sent it's legal counsel David Stern, who would eventually became the NBA's commissioner from 1984-2014, to help facilitate a sale of the franchise.

Stepien balked at the sale initially but after Gordon Gund offered enough money he acquiesced and sold the team. The league sweetened the deal for Gund by giving the Cavs some additional draft picks.

The 1980s are a decade that many fans look back upon as being some of the funnest and best basketball ever player; that is of course unless you are a Cavaliers fan. The Stepien era left the Cavs decimated and to make matters worse the league was in the middle of one of it's strongest era's in its history. The Cavs did sneak into the playoffs in 1985 but had a losing record. The Cavs didn’t have a winning record again until 1988, ten seasons after their last winning record.

Because of the Stepien era the NBA adopted several run changed, the most famous being the Ted Stepien rule which forbids the trading of first round picks in consecutive years. The League also mandated Per Diems be tracked better and be done with checks before travel. Stepien left the Cavaliers believing that he had the right vision but that he just did not execute it properly. He tried his hand at other basketball teams in minor leagues and even a womens pro softball team but these endeavors too failed. He died of a heart attack in 2007.