How Ted Stepien almost killed Toronto Raptors basketball in the 1980s


The Toronto Raptors were announced in November 1993, and they began their first season of play in 1995. The following decades have seen the team captivate Canada with their brand of basketball and take home a championship for the first time in 2018-19. However, they were almost beat to the punch by…the Toronto Towers?

Outside of one Toronto Huskies season and a handful of Buffalo Braves games in the early 70s, Canada’s largest city was without pro basketball for the longest time. The Raptors were almost preceded by the infamous Ted Stepien, who owned the Cleveland Cavaliers for the better part of three seasons.

Stepien’s disastrous three-season run as the owner of the Cavaliers almost saw him move the team to Toronto, as he even had a new logo and branding ready. Before former Minnesota North Stars and Richfield Coliseum owner Gordon Gund bought the team, the move to Toronto looked like a done deal.

The move collapsed, and Canada would have to wait a whole 12 seasons until the league expanded to Toronto and Vancouver by adding the Raptors and Grizzlies. It’s a good thing that this move fell through, as the Towers would not have been positioned for success.

Ted Stepien’s Towers wouldn’t have worked like the Toronto Raptors have.

You could write several books on how bad Stepien was with the Cavaliers, but one highlight including shuffling a loathed coach in Bill Musselman between the sideline and front office. Stepien replaced him as both a coach and GM with Don Delaney, the coach of Stepien’s softball team who had only coached basketball at the junior college level.

He also had four coaches in one season, including future Hall of Famer Chuck Daly, but he fired him…in order to make Musselman coach again. Standouts like Bill Laimbeer and Mike Mitchell would have their best seasons elsewhere.

Pelting pedestrians with softballs for a publicity stunt and claiming he wanted to make the Cavaliers racially balanced because “white people need white heroes” shows how repugnant Stepien could be.

However, the defining moment in Stepien’s career might be when he traded away four consecutive first-round picks for a collection of role players. This was so reckless that the league required that all Cavalier transactions be approved by the league while creating the “Stepien Rule” that states NBA teams can’t trade first-round picks in consecutive seasons.

While only one player he acquired in those trades (Geoff Huston) played more than 90 games with the Cavaliers, Stepien gave up the rights to a bunch of Mavericks standouts, including Derek Harper, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, and Roy Tarpley. Players like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone were still on the board when Dallas’ selections were made.

After three feckless seasons, Stepien agreed to move the Cavs to Toronto. The deal was publically regarded as done. Nothing was going to change his mind…until the Gund family swooped in and bought them.

Why would this impact Toronto basketball?

The Cavaliers slowly recovered, as they ended up becoming a fixture in the postseason in the late 80s and early 90s. However, this success came without Stepien, and he likely would’ve stayed on as the owner if the move took place.

As was proven with the Grizzlies, playing in Canada was no degree of success. Vancouver’s financial situation and lack of appeal to young stars certainly helped facilitate a move to Memphis, but the fact that they never won more than 23 games in a season helped drive the final nails in the coffin.

Toronto struggled early in their NBA lifespan, but that turned around when they drafted Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady in the first round. Considering how everything Stepien touched went wrong, history suggests that he would’ve had similarly poor results in Toronto, provided he didn’t trade all the picks away first.

The only reason Cleveland was able to turn it around was the addition of Wayne Embry, who currently works for the Raptors, as GM, as he helped select players like Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, and Mark Price. Stepien would’ve been shuffling through softball coaches in the front office, minimizing the chances that he would’ve landed those players.

The Raptors may not have been great to start their career, but they were entertaining and well-supported. A roster created and organized by Stepien would’ve likely been in for years of painful losing seasons. If Vancouver only lasted six years, there’s reason to believe poor management from Stepien could’ve killed any plans to go back to Toronto during the 1995 expansion.

Stepien did create the Toronto Tornados in the old CBA, but they lasted just two seasons.

Stepien was a very successful businessman, but everything he touched in the sports world melted in his hands. He almost ruined Cleveland and Toronto basketball in a three-year span, and Raptors fans need to be thankful he was stopped in his tracks.