On the wall outside the entrance to Ted Stepien's Competitors' Club restaurant in downtown Cleveland, there is a sign that, Stepien says, pretty much sums up his philosophy of life: DEDICATED TO THE INDOMITABLE ONES WHO FIGHT FOR THEIR CAUSE AND NEVER GIVE UP.
Indomitable is the word for Stepien, who took a flier on a fledgling advertising company in 1947 and transformed it into a $172 million multinational business. Indomitable spirit, stick-to-itiveness and lots of money are just what Stepien needs to see him through his latest project, ownership of the Cleveland Cavaliers. After assuming control of the team last June, Stepien, 55, promised the people of Cleveland an immediate improvement over last year's dismal Cavs. A fun, exciting team and a berth in this season's playoffs would be a nice start, Stepien said. Oops. At the end of last week Stepien had a fifth-place team with a seven-game losing streak and a 4-13 record. But it isn't the failures on the court that are drawing the most attention. A series of controversial and, to outsiders, ludicrously onesided player deals finally persuaded NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien to halt any further trades and order an investigation of the team's operation.
Chaos is hardly a stranger to the Cavaliers, but recent months in Cleveland have been truly bizarre. Stepien is the fourth person to own the team since last February, and the franchise's credibility was so poor that no bank would lend it money until Stepien kicked in $2 million of his own. He spent $5,000 for a new team fight song, a polka (he's Polish), and supervised the selection of 33 dancers, the "Teddi-Bears," who appear at each home game. The best move he may have made was hiring tough-minded Bill Musselman as his coach, replacing Stan Albeck, who had taken off for San Antonio.
Despite the changes, however, the Cavaliers could conceivably fall to the level of the baddest bad-news teams of the past. (Remember John Warren's wrong-way basket against Portland in 1970?) O'Brien's actions fit right in with the Cavs' extraordinary history. According to a league spokesman, O'Brien "felt concern about the frequency of trades by the Cavaliers." The moratorium will last until Joe Axelson, the NBA's director of operations, conducts an investigation covering "a number of operational matters." Any player transaction planned by Cleveland must be approved by Axelson for what could turn out to be the rest of the season. And until his study is finished, Axelson says, "They couldn't trade their 11th man for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar."
November 17, 1980
When Stepien and Musselman were running the team by themselves, the Cavaliers made five major transactions. On Sept. 24 they obtained Guard Roger Phegley, a two-year pro with a 9.0-point career average, from New Jersey for Guard Foots Walker (six years, 7.2 points). The next day Forward Campy Russell (six years, 16.2 points) was sent to New York in a three-way deal with Kansas City in which the Cavs received Forward Bill Robinzine (five years, 10.7 points, 6.4 rebounds). On Sept. 16 the Cavaliers traded their first-round draft choice in 1984 to Dallas for Guard Mike Bratz (three years, 7.1 points). The NBA entered the picture after a pair of deals made two weeks-ago. On Oct. 30, Robinzine and the Cavs' No. 1 choices for 1983 (obtained earlier from Atlanta) and '86 were dealt to Dallas for Richard Washington (four years, 10.1 points, 6.6 rebounds) and Jerome Whitehead (two years, 2.0 points, 2.0 rebounds). The next day, Center Dave Robisch (nine years, 12.4 points, 7.28 rebounds) was sent packing to Denver for Forward/Center Kim Hughes (five years, 4.0 points, 5.7 rebounds) and two 1981 second-round draft choices and a second-round choice in 1981 if it is higher than No. 12.
The latter transaction, which finally triggered O'Brien's intervention, is also interesting because it was made over the objections of Larry Creger, Cleveland's director of player personnel. Don Delaney, the team's general manager, also opposed it, but he was afraid to say so. Although a lot of other people around the league didn't like what they saw happening either, Dallas loved it. By combining their own likely high draft picks with Cleveland's, the Mavericks could soon become a much stronger club than the Cavaliers, who have only one first-round pick between now and 1987.
The record doesn't show it yet, and few would agree with him, but Musselman believes the trades can make the Cavs competitive immediately. "After 10 games I looked at our club to evaluate it and I saw us getting beat up underneath," he says. "[Mike] Mitchell is six-six, Robinzine is six-seven, and Robisch is six-seven. Teams were posting us all game long. We had no kind of a shot-blocking threat on defense. Hughes had 12 last year; we had one guy who got seven. I'm not saying Hughes and Washington are great players, but neither was what we gave up. I know what roles I want filled on our club, and they can do it."
If the numbers Musselman quotes are indicative of his knowledge of the team, then Cleveland's problems may be even worse than people imagined. According to the Cavaliers' media guide, Mitchell is 6'7½", and Robisch is 6'10". Also, Hughes had 77 blocks with Denver last season and a single-game high of five. Mitchell also had 77 and was one of six who attained the Cavs' single-game high of four. However, Musselman is correct when he says that the players he obtained are by no means great. Hughes was sidelined with an injured right knee when Denver let him go, and after arriving in Cleveland he asked Musselman incredulously, "Why did you get me?" Washington had been on the verge of being released in Dallas until he finally began to show improvement. Whitehead would have been released but he held on long enough to be traded, and now Cleveland is expected to release him soon.
A rival Eastern Conference general manager says, "They overestimated the talent of the people they brought in. I understand Musselman likes big, physical people. They'll be impressive walking through airports, but they won't play well."
While NBA front offices were expressing dismay at the apparent pillaging of the Cleveland franchise, rival teams also tried to ensure that they got theirs. Says the same Eastern Conference general manager, "The vultures were circling. Every club in the league was saying—I was saying—'What can we cook up with them?' " To discourage such carnivorous thinking, the NBA stepped in. If there is a precedent for O'Brien's actions, it was Bowie Kuhn's thumbs-down on the sale of Oakland's Vida Blue, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to New York and Boston in 1976. Kuhn acted to prevent a pre-free-agent re-entry draft fire sale by Charlie Finley. "But that was only stopping a few deals," says the G.M. "This is like running the entire operation."
"I can see why O'Brien did it," says a Western Conference general manager. "Their one remaining asset was Mitchell, and he was probably concerned about something happening to him." Adds another front-office type, "I can control my own franchise, but I can't do that for anyone else, and on a league level things reflect on us and have a bearing on our success. I think O'Brien had a right to step in." Stepien says that no more deals were planned, and he is very unhappy with O'Brien's involvement, even though the commissioner's directive stated that Stepien was in accord with the action. "Maybe I should give him a call and ask him to give me some advice on how to run my advertising business," Stepien says. "When we talked, he guaranteed me complete confidence and secrecy. I don't appreciate his coming out with statements saying what he's going to do. Who's to say what's good or bad in a trade? Robisch was a stiff. I'm laughing at Denver."
Stepien is a self-described fighter who admires that quality in others. He once said he wouldn't mind having Billy Martin as his coach. He settled for Musselman, who's a tough cookie in his own right. When discussing the situation, Musselman's voice rises and his ice-blue eyes glaze over in anger. "People are acting like we traded away superstars for nothing," he says. "Were those deals so lopsided that we deserve this criticism? We got back what we gave up. And about the draft choices, where was the NBA when Stepien and I got here and didn't have a first-round choice of our own until 1983? We're trying to win today. No, Kim Hughes isn't a great player, but he's going to fit our needs."
Hughes, who had 66 steals coming off the bench last year, along with those blocked shots, could help the Cavaliers if he could boost those numbers in proportion to an increase in playing time. If so, Washington could move from reserve center to starting forward, where his outside shooting might take some pressure off Mitchell, as well as Guard Randy Smith. The pair are presently Cleveland's only scoring threats and are Nos. 1 and 3 in the league in minutes played. Both are having excellent seasons (Mitchell is in the top 10 in the league in scoring with 24.2 points per game, Smith is averaging 18.5), but having to play so much, they tend to tire in the fourth quarter. To their credit, they seem unaffected by the swirl of events around them. "It's pretty wild what's going on," says Mitchell, "but you just have to keep your head."
While the latest group of Cavaliers is getting acquainted, the team is playing erratically. In a 111-106 loss to Kansas City last Saturday night, Mitchell scored 34 points but didn't see the ball in the final two minutes. "It seems like there should be designated shooters in the last two minutes, but right now everyone wants to take the shot instead of the right people," he lamented.
Musselman, on the other hand, saw the game as a sign that his team was finally beginning to come together. "We had a shot at that game tonight. We've had shots at all but one of the last six," he said. "We're damn competitive, and I know we're not that far away from winning. I know it."
If they are, the rest of the league will be shocked.