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Batten Down the Booby Hatches, Tornados on Horizon

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Times Staff Writer

Did you see the report that the Toronto Tornados are contemplating a move to San Diego? Stop laughing and listen.

You want me to tell Toronto to send us the Maple Leafs--or even maple syrup--and keep the Tornados?

Hear me out. The Tornados play professional basketball. They might be just the cure for all the pro basketball junkies who’ve dropped out of society and gone to living in the canyons around Balboa Park.

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For those who are not aware of the big picture, I suppose I should first identify the Tornados. They are members of the Continental Basketball Assn., a far-flung aggregation that has teams in Albany, N.Y.; Worcester, Mass.; Casper, Wyo.; Oshkosh, Wisc.; and San Juan, P.R., among other places. If a community has a general store and two gas stations, it qualifies for a franchise.

The CBA is not a major league. It is a basketball player’s limbo, a place to do time either on the way up to the National Basketball Assn. or on the way down to a neighborhood playground.

Keith Fowler, who fills dual roles for the Tornados as general manager and assistant coach, came to San Diego this week to tout the merits of the CBA and scout Golden Hall as a possible home.

Fowler, who served as a part-time assistant at San Diego State in 1981-82, undoubtedly feels the community will be receptive to minor-league basketball. He was here during Donald T. Sterling’s heyday, so he is aware minor-league basketball is all we’ve ever really had, recently at least.

What’s more, Fowler has no notion of grandeur about moving into the Sports Arena, if the word grandeur can be applied to the Sports Arena. He thinks Golden Hall (seating capacity, 3,000) will be enough. Truthfully, I think my living room (seating capacity, 7) may be sufficient, but I hate to discourage a guy interested in filling a void hereabouts.

“We’ll draw in San Diego,” Fowler insisted. “I know we’ll draw. Golden Hall would be a perfect place, and I think the people in San Diego will be surprised at the level of basketball we play.”

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I presume he was talking about the level of ball in the CBA, because the Tornados are fifth in the seven-team Eastern Division with an 11-19 record. Maybe my living room would be sufficient.

Understandably, sports fans here might react indignantly to a minor-league franchise. However, these people are not rubes I suspect Sterling thought they were.

But Sterling’s departure has left an awful void.

No, I am not referring to the lack of an NBA team. The loss of the Clippers did create that void, but I’m talking about another.

San Diego has been without a genuine buffoon.

Sterling’s verbal antics, while pitiful, were always good for a laugh. The man thought Thom McAn and Florsheim were famous chefs. When he finally stopped making inane statements and ultimately unfulfilled promises, it had to be because his mouth was so full of feet he couldn’t talk.

Donald T. took his Clippers to Los Angeles after the 1983-84 season, presumably to shorten the distance from his Beverly Hills wine cellar to the arena.

In his absence, the poor populace has had to settle for worn out ethnic and elephant jokes. We never needed to stoop to the mundane when Donald T. was in our midst.

However, San Diegans do have a sense of humor. They can sharpen their needles if the Tornados come to town and bring their owner with them.

The Toronto owner is none other than Theodore J. Stepien. If anyone can fill the void left by the departure of Donald T. Sterling, Ted Stepien is our man.

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When he owned the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stepien created such havoc that he took some of the heat off Sterling within the NBA’s hierarchy. A colleague informs me the team was so bad, fans switched the nickname to Cadaveliers.

You want a parallel between Sterling and Stepien?

When Stepien bought the Cavaliers, he said: “. . . I’ll say right now, this team will stay in Cleveland.”

Later that very same year, Stepien said: “I don’t want to move the team and, when I bought it, I never considered that possibility. But yes, now there is that possibility.”

If I’m not mistaken, San Diego encountered just such an about-face from Sterling. He was the guy who once proclaimed the Clippers would be in San Diego when his son ran the franchise.

Cleveland was lucky. Stepien sold the Cavaliers before he could get around to moving them.

Alas, Stepien is not out of basketball. He owns the Tornados, and the Tornados are looking for another home.

San Diego, according to Fowler, is at the top of the list.

Should the Tornados consummate their contemplated westward sweep, San Diego may well have an owner who can take Sterling’s place as the butt of cocktail hour humor and coffee break derision.

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Except Fowler insisted Stepien has changed.

“He’s been good with us,” Fowler said. “He has stayed out of it and let us run the show. I can’t say anything bad about him.”

That being the case, Mr. Fowler, we don’t want the Tornados. We want more than just a basketball team. We want an owner who will put his picture on buses and promise to make us proud and spill wine on the coach’s tie. We want a guy who says he’ll be here forever and keeps a moving van at the back door of the arena.

Sterling has left giant shoes to be filled, even if they do have saliva all over them.

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