When the Cleveland Cavaliers gained the NBA championship in 2016, a metropolis whose identification had been outlined by a long time of heartbreak and disappointment lastly – lastly! – had one thing to have a good time.

But, even probably the most un-Cleveland second in Cleveland sports activities historical past comes with a backstory that most likely feels a bit too acquainted to Clevelanders. The vast majority of basketball followers below age 35 won’t comprehend it, however the Cavaliers very practically turned the NBA’s first Canadian franchise – a dozen years earlier than the Raptors have been born.

And whereas the Cavaliers remained in Cleveland – and finally delivered town its first main skilled sports activities title in additional than 50 years – the picture of then-owner Ted Stepien holding up the Toronto Towers brand, proud smile on his face, is a chilling signal of simply how shut the Cavs got here to being a forgotten footnote within the NBA annals.

“He was lifeless critical,” Kent Schneider, Stepien’s shut good friend and lawyer, instructed theScore. “He was going to do it.”

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(Photograph courtesy: Getty Pictures)

Stepien bought a majority share of the Cavaliers in 1980. On the time, he was finest identified for his promoting enterprise, Nationwide Promoting, which had 35 workplaces throughout North America, together with a department workplace in Toronto.

But, whereas he loved some success within the advert business, the sports activities world introduced a wholly completely different problem – and he was comically ill-equipped for it. He confirmed little regard for the long-term viability of the staff – and even much less basketball acumen – when he authorised transactions inside a span of 5 months that noticed the Cavaliers hand over 4 years’ value of first-round picks (1983-86) for gamers who flamed out.

The 4 gamers taken with these first-round picks – Derek Harper (1983), Sam Perkins (1984), Detlef Schrempf (1985), and Roy Tarpley (1986) – mixed to play greater than 3,900 video games within the NBA, whereas the gamers acquired in these trades – Mike Bratz, Richard Washington, Jerome Whitehead, and Geoff Huston – appeared in a mixed 436 video games with Cleveland. Huston was the one participant to seem in additional than 90 video games with the Cavs.

The flurry of horrible strikes pressured then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien to put a moratorium on the Cavaliers, requiring them to acquire league approval earlier than making any extra strikes. The league additionally instituted a rule stopping any staff from buying and selling first-round picks in consecutive seasons. “The Stepien Rule” nonetheless exists right this moment.

By March 1983, when Stepien introduced his intention to maneuver the staff to Toronto, the Cavaliers have been wrapping up a three-year stretch through which they gained simply 66 video games. That stoop was highlighted by a 15-67 displaying throughout a 1982-83 marketing campaign through which they cycled via 4 head coaches – together with Don Delaney, beforehand the top coach of Stepien’s skilled softball staff.

Many who skilled the Stepien period up shut inform a well-known story: He was an affable man off the courtroom, however was merely overwhelmed as an NBA proprietor.

Leo Roth coated the Cavaliers for The Lake County Information-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio. Amongst his favourite reminiscences: Stepien tossing softballs off the roof of the 52-story Terminal Tower throughout the constructing’s 50th-anniversary celebration, damaging two vehicles and breaking an onlooker’s wrist.

“He was a kind-hearted man,” Roth instructed theScore. “He meant properly. For a man who was so profitable within the enterprise world it simply appeared like as soon as he bought into sports activities, the Midas contact left him. Every thing he touched turned to stone.”

Schneider was extra direct in his evaluation of Stepien.

“He is the worst proprietor within the historical past {of professional} sports activities,” he mentioned. “That is not a subjective opinion. That is goal opinion.”

After dropping hundreds of thousands of {dollars} and coping with comically low attendance figures on the Richfield Coliseum, Stepien determined it was time for a change of surroundings. Toronto introduced probably the most interesting state of affairs for Stepien, who presupposed to have lined up a number of traders, ticket-sale ensures, and help from native politicians.

The announcement of the Cavaliers transfer did not come as a shock to those that have been across the staff.

“It was all the time a menace,” Roth mentioned. “At any time when the media, followers, or town bought important of him, that may be his menace. Ted was so unpredictable. He cherished Cleveland and I do not assume he wished to do it. However I believe he would have.”

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(Photograph courtesy: Getty Pictures)

Whereas Canadian basketball is flourishing in 2018 (thanks in no small half to the nationally beloved Raptors), that wasn’t all the time the case.

The historical past {of professional} basketball in Toronto started with the Huskies, who performed within the 1940s within the Basketball Affiliation of America for one season earlier than disbanding. Within the 1970s, Ruby Richman, the previous coach of Canada’s nationwide staff, labored with Harold Ballard to relocate a staff to Toronto with out success. The Buffalo Braves additionally performed 16 house video games at Maple Leaf Gardens from 1971 to 1975.

Leo Rautins grew up in Toronto and was a highschool star at St. Michael’s School College. Having attended a number of of these Braves video games within the 1970s, he noticed the potential for his hometown to help an NBA franchise.

“There was a common curiosity that was solely going to continue to grow,” Rautins mentioned. “However I do not know the way Ted’s administration would have affected that.”

A yr earlier than Stepien’s announcement, Rautins – then a star small ahead with Syracuse – had an opportunity encounter with the proprietor within the stands at Varsity Area in downtown Toronto whereas he was watching a Workforce Canada sport.

“Hey, are we getting a staff?” Rautins requested Stepien.

“We’re engaged on it,” he replied.

If Rautins did not take him critically on the time, he did a yr later. Stepien did not simply unveil a staff brand on the announcement. He had reached an settlement with Ballard, who owned the NHL’s Maple Leafs, for the Toronto Towers to play at Maple Leaf Gardens. The plan was to begin promoting season tickets instantly after the Cavs completed their closing season in Cleveland.

His obsession with making a splash wasn’t new. In 1981, the Cavs tried to lure NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain out of retirement, providing him a deal through which he would solely play house video games. Chamberlain declined.

Stepien had one other attention-grabbing plan for the staff’s transfer to Toronto. Rautins was ending his senior season at Syracuse and can be eligible for the 1983 draft. The plan was to draft him and have a Canadian star play for the primary NBA franchise in Canadian historical past.

“It could have been a dream come true,” Rautins mentioned. “I saved fascinated by how unbelievable it could be to play at house.”

Whereas Rautins and basketball followers in Toronto may need been ecstatic, Schneider did not share within the pleasure. Stepien wanted some assist to maintain his funds afloat, and whereas he did estimate a transfer to Toronto would assist him generate $6 million of earnings in his first season, he was going to promote Nationwide Promoting and take the cash to assist his basketball franchise.

Schneider disagreed with the transfer.

“It had nothing to do with the difficulty of conserving basketball in Cleveland,” he mentioned. “It needed to do along with his monetary well-being.”

Schneider organized a sequence of telephone calls with Dick Watson, the lawyer who represented George and Gordon Gund. The brothers, who owned Richfield Coliseum, would ultimately come to phrases on a take care of Stepien to buy Nationwide Promoting and the Cavaliers for $22 million. (Stepien initially rejected overtures from the Gunds, however modified his thoughts when the siblings elevated their supply.) League house owners additionally determined to award the Cavaliers first-round picks from 1983-1986 to assist undo the injury Stepien had carried out.

Identical to that, the Stepien period was over in Cleveland – and so, too, was the dream of an NBA franchise in Toronto, at the very least in the intervening time.

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(Photograph courtesy: Enjoyable Whereas It Lasted)

Whereas Toronto would want to attend 12 extra years for its NBA franchise, the story of Stepien, Rautins, {and professional} basketball in Toronto did not finish with the sale of the Cavaliers.

A month after promoting the staff, Stepien bought a Toronto basketball franchise within the Continental Basketball League. The emblem for the staff, the Toronto Tornados, was nearly an actual reproduction of the Toronto Towers brand, excluding some minor colour modifications and the elimination of a reference to the CN Tower.

Rautins was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers however was traded to the Indiana Pacers after an injury-filled rookie season. He then signed with the Atlanta Hawks however was let go after simply 4 video games in his second season. With out one other NBA alternative and upset at how his skilled profession was enjoying out, he bought a name from Gerald Oliver, the top coach of the Toronto Tornados, with a proposal to hitch the staff.

The 2 sides went forwards and backwards, however finally, Rautins’ pleasure would not enable him to come back house to play for a CBA staff.

“It wasn’t the identical factor as if there was an NBA staff in Toronto,” Rautins mentioned. “I mentioned no. I simply could not play there.”

Toronto’s newest dalliance with professional basketball ended not lengthy after it started. In 1985, the Tornados moved to Pensacola, Fla., unceremoniously ending Stepien’s reference to skilled basketball in Canada.

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(Photograph courtesy: Getty Pictures)

Stepien handed away in 2007 at age 82. Schneider remembers his most well-known consumer fondly, each professionally and as an in depth good friend.

“He was a lawyer’s dream. He created litigation in his wake. There was by no means a uninteresting second,” Schneider mentioned, including, “There wasn’t any pretense about him. He did not care about fancy garments, vehicles, or stuff like that regardless that he may have afforded something. He was by no means pretentious.”

Former NBA small ahead Dave Magley, who may need been drafted by the Cavaliers for the only real objective of a advertising and marketing marketing campaign (he was briefly teammates with John Bagley, permitting Stepien to current them as “Bagley and Magley”), additionally remembers the previous proprietor fondly.

“I actually favored Ted,” Magley instructed theScore. “He was a very fascinating man. He had an enormous persona. However sadly, he simply did not know sufficient about basketball and made a number of goofy strikes.”

The near-relocation opens up loads of hypotheticals, from whether or not the Raptors would’ve existed, to the potential for LeBron James by no means enjoying in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, to the Cavs not ending town’s 52-year championship drought. However Schneider does not consider in opening that may of worms. As an alternative, he believes there would’ve been just one logical conclusion for the Toronto Towers: failure.

“It could have been a monetary catastrophe,” he mentioned. “Irrespective of how a lot cash he bought from the sale of Nationwide Promoting, he would have pissed it away in two or three years and ended up with nothing.”

Alex Wong is a characteristic author for theScore. His work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports activities, and The Atlantic, amongst different publications. Discover him on Twitter @steven_lebron.

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