STEPIEN, THEODORE H. “TED” (9 June 1925-10 September 2007) was a businessman and sports owner, mostly notably owning the CLEVELAND CAVALIERS from 1980 to 1983.
Stepien was born in Pittsburgh to Polish immigrants John and Julie (Marszalek) Stepien. He grew up in that city’s East Liberty neighborhood and attended Schenley High School, where he played football and basketball. He was offered a football scholarship to Cornell University, but instead joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, training with them in Cleveland before serving overseas in World War II. After the war, he attended WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY on the G.I. Bill, earning a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in education.
In 1947, with a $500 loan from his father, he started Nationwide Advertising. The company grew to 35 offices in the United States, Canada and England. Stepien had a chain of related restaurants called the Competitors Club.
Stepien, a minority owner of the CLEVELAND INDIANS in the 1970s, bought into the American Professional Slo-Pitch League in 1979 when he bought the Cleveland Jaybirds, renaming them the Competitors. As a publicity stunt for his softball team, and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Terminal Tower, Stepien dropped softball off the top of the Terminal Tower, then still the tallest building in Cleveland, to be caught by his players. A crowd around 5,000 people showed up on 24 June 1980 as the softballs dented cars and injured people before finally being caught.
In 1980, Stepien initially purchased 275,000 shares in the Cavs for $2 million, getting an ownership stake of 37 percent – and was the team’s fourth owner in a four-month span.
He replaced the Cavs’ fight song, “Come on Cavs,” with a polka and introduced cheerleaders to the Richfield Coliseum sidelines. On Stepien’s watch, the Cavs made so many bad trades that the NBA banned him from making any deals without league approval. Because of Stepien’s habit of trading draft picks for players, the NBA instituted a rule named for him that forbade teams from dealing future first-round selections in back-to-back years.
Stepien also had a contentious relationship with local media. His feud with Pete Franklin (who once called him “the dumbest man in professional sports”) and criticism on the air from Joe Tait – whom he later fired – led him to remove Cavs games from WWWE (now WTAM). Stepien even tried to move the team to Toronto and rename them the “Toronto Towers,” leading to a verbal confrontation with Franklin live on a Toronto radio station. Instead, Stepien sold the team to George and Gordon Gund for $20 million prior to the 1983-84 season.
Under Stepien’s watch as owner, the Cavs had gone 66-180, with six coaches in a three-year span (including four in just one season, 1981-82, when the Cavs won just 15 games). It is estimated he lost $15 million.
Following his stint owning the Cavs, Stepien founded the Toronto Tornados of the Continental Basketball Association, and also owned a team in the Global Basketball Association. In 2003, he founded the United Pro Basketball League, a circuit of four teams in Kentucky and Ohio that folded a decade later.
Stepien met Ann Bowerman at a YWCA dance in Cleveland, and they married at ST. JOHN CATHEDRAL on April 25, 1953. She died on Dec. 29, 1979. They had six daughters, Carol, Mary, Nancy, Gail, Cindy and Teddi. He is buried in Gates Mills South Cemetery.