Obituary: Ted Stepien / Controversial owner of Cleveland Cavaliers

June 9, 1925 -- Sept. 10, 2007

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Ted Stepien, a Pittsburgh native who was a colorful and often controversial owner of the NBA Cavaliers. died of cancer Monday at his home in Willoughby Hills, Ohio. He was 82.

Mr. Stepien, who grew up in the East Liberty section of the city and was an outstanding basketball and football player at Schenley High School, built a fortune in the advertising business with companies in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Mr. Stepien worked every day until recently at his Cleveland-area businesses of Classified USA and Softball World.

But Mr. Stepien was best known as the eccentric owner of the Cavaliers during a tumultuous tenure from 1980 through 1983. He was a hand-on owner, involving himself in hiring and firing coaches and making trades. Because he dealt away draft choices for mediocre players with a number of his trades lopsided in favor of the other team, the league passed the "Stepien Rule" which prohibits a team from dealing future first-round draft picks in consecutive years, and NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien went so far as to rule that he would have to approve Cleveland trades.

Mr. Stepien's Cleveland teams weren't very successful on the court and he was always trying to spice things up because attendance reflected the losing. He changed the team's uniform, had a polka composed to be used as the team fight song and severed ties with the popular and longtime radio play-by-play announcer, Joe Tait.

Following his graduation form Schenley in 1943, Mr. Stepien decided not to accept a football scholarship to Cornell and enlisted in the Air Force during World War II as bombardier navigator and rose to second lieutenant. Mr. Stepien survived a plane crash over Africa and later dropped notes over Italy to let the citizens know the war was over.

After the war, he moved to Cleveland and founded Nationwide Advertising Service Inc., a recruitment service, with $500 he borrowed from his father. Mr. Stepien graduated from Western Reserve University on the G.I. Bill with a bachelor's degree in business and then earned a master's degree in education.

Mr. Stepien's company grew to 35 offices in the United States, Canada and England, with its headquarters in the penthouse and top two floors of the downtown Cleveland Statler Office Tower.

Mr. Stepien sold his company and the Cavaliers in 1983.

In addition to owning a pro basketball team, Mr. Stepien owned the Cleveland Jaybirds from 1977 through 1979 in the American Professional Slo Pitch League.

In 1980, he organized the North American Softball League that included a team called the Pittsburgh Champions. The league folded after a year, but not before Mr. Stepien had a publicity stunt in which five softballs were thrown from the 52nd floor of Cleveland's Terminal Tower skyscraper. One ball hit a car, another broke a woman's wrist, one grazed an onlooker's shoulder, one bounced off the street and the final one was caught.

Mr. Stepien's wife of 26 years, Ann, died in 1979.

Mr. Stepien is survived by his sister, Mary Jane Stepien-Buxton of Evansville, Ind.; brother Richard Stepien of Pittsburgh; daughters Carol Stepien-Callahan of Toledo, Mary Stepien-Robinson of San Diego, Nancy Stepien of Gates Mills, Ohio, Gail Stepien of Las Vegas, Nev., Cindy Stepien-Kaplan of Solon, Ohio, and Teddi Stepien-Deka of St. Joseph, Mo.; and numerous grand children and step-grandchildren.

"We came back to Pittsburgh a lot. We have a lot of relatives in the area, a lot of cousins living in Bethel Park," Carol Stepien-Callahan said. "He always loved sports."

Carol Stepien-Callahan fondly remembers watching her father play the infield in several softball leagues in Cleveland when he was in his 30s and 40s. The basketball hoop he built still stands in his driveway at his home in Cleveland.

Visitation will be at Joseph C. Shulte and Mahon-Murphy Funeral Home, 4090 Mayfield Road, South Euclid, Ohio, from 2 to 5 and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday. Mass at St. Francis of Assisi, 6850, Mayfield Road, Gates Mills, Ohio, will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday.

The family requests no flowers. Tax-exempt donations are welcome to Mr. Stepien's favorite charity, the Ed Keating Center, 2121 W. 117th St., Cleveland, OH 44111.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 13, 2007) The mailing address for the Ed Keating Center is 2121 W. 117th St., Cleveland, Ohio 44111. In this obituary as originally published Sept. 12, 2007 editions an incorrect address was published. The Keating Center was Mr. Stepien's favorite charity.

Phil Axelrod can be reached at paxelrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1967.


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