Ex-NBA Owner Who Ruled an Empire Wants Back in the Game

Times Staff Writer

Nick Mileti wrote this script in 1970: You come from nowhere, buy yourself a National Basketball Assn. expansion franchise with relatively little personal investment and build a sports empire.

That was Cleveland, 17 years ago, when Mileti bought a team for $3.7 million and named it the Cavaliers.

He eventually weaved an Ohio kingdom that included the Cavaliers, the Cleveland Indians, the Cleveland Crusaders from the defunct World Hockey Assn., the Cleveland Barons minor league hockey team and the $35-million Richfield Coliseum. Not to mention radio station WWWE-AM, which broadcast his teams' games, and an FM station.

This is Anaheim, 1987, and the competition for an NBA team is fierce. Mileti, who sold off all his Cleveland holdings after moving to Beverly Hills to start a movie financing business in 1979, is the "name" brought in by the Westdome Partners, four developers who want to build a 20,000-seat arena southwest of Anaheim Stadium and attract an NBA team.

Mileti, 55, is listed as the team owner on the Westdome group's bid to the NBA and has personally paid the necessary $100,000 application fee. Mileti's acquaintance with many of the NBA's 23 owners, developer and Westdome partner Al Durkovic hopes, will be the ticket to success in a competition with six other cities.

Described by some Clevelanders as "a glitter guy" and "flamboyant," a high-energy idea man who wants to put together the deals but let someone else handle the administration, Mileti prefers to think of himself in less colorful terms.

'I'm a Hard Worker'

"I don't know about any of that. I would just say I'm a hard worker," he said in a recent interview.

"I think he's a great guy and he was very good for the league," said Lewis Schaffel, a former NBA general manager who is also trying to get back into pro basketball as director of operations for a Miami team. "Of course, that's not the only reason you get a franchise, but Nick has a lot of respect. . . . A lot of respect and a lot of friends."

Bill Fitch, a former Cleveland coach who now coaches the Houston Rockets, said the owners view Mileti as a proven commodity. "It's not a buddy-buddy type of thing. He earned it. Cleveland was an expansion team and that's no picnic."

On the other hand, while Mileti says he misses the action and the fun of professional sports ownership, Fitch wonders why he would want to go through the travails of expansion again. Such franchises, Fitch recalls, typically start off in debt, draft the last players on existing clubs' rosters and have to fight to build fan loyalty.

"War is hell," Fitch said. "Expansion is worse."

Mileti grew up in a suburb southeast of Cleveland. He played most sports in the neighborhood but wasn't skilled enough to make the varsity teams at John Adams High School, where he settled for a spot on the cheerleading squad.

After working as a prosecuting attorney for the City of Lakewood, Ohio, and then a consultant on housing projects for the elderly, he turned to sports.

Filled Arena for Game

His first endeavor was promoting an exhibition basketball game featuring his alma mater, Bowling Green State University. A capacity crowd of 11,000 fans showed up in the downtown Cleveland Arena and Mileti was convinced that he had found his calling.

In 1968, he purchased the arena and the minor league Cleveland Barons hockey team. Two years later, he met with NBA owners in Los Angeles and won approval for a Cleveland franchise.

For the Cavaliers' first home game in 1970, Mileti planned to distribute wine glasses to every fan, provide the wine and have everyone toast the new team, said Jim Lessig, who was a coach and then TV commentator for the Cavaliers and now serves as commissioner of the Mid-American Athletic Conference. The promotion would tie in with the new team's colors, gold and "cavalier wine."

But state officials said it would be illegal for Mileti to buy the house a round. He distributed the giveaways (real glass, not plastic) anyway, and a dry toast was offered up.

Even freebies didn't help at first. The Cavaliers still hold a share of the NBA's record for worst first-year teams (only 15 wins) and are alone at the bottom of the first-year attendance figures (with only 3,518 people per game).

Fitch, who was both coach and general manager under Mileti, hasn't forgotten the struggle. "I can remember wondering how we were going to pay the light bill in those days," he said.

Pleased Die-Hard Fans

Undeterred, Mileti kept buying. In January, 1972, he purchased the AM radio station. The following March, he and about 40 investors put up $10 million to buy the Cleveland Indians. Die-hard fans were ecstatic to hear that Mileti would keep the team in town, because the former owners had proposed splitting home games between Cleveland and New Orleans.

In June, after being rejected in his bid for a National Hockey League franchise, Mileti strung together about 20 partners and joined the NHL rival and now-defunct World Hockey Assn. The team, the Crusaders, lost an estimated $2 million by 1974 and Mileti sold his interest in 1975.

But the Cavaliers were doing well, managing an encouraging turnaround when they went all the way to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1975.

Mileti, once described by a local magazine as "the great Sicilian hope of Cleveland," was on his way to becoming the stuff of Ohio legend.

Looking for a modern arena to house his teams, Mileti launched construction of the $35-million Richfield Coliseum. Built on farmland next to Interstate 77 in Richfield, halfway between Cleveland and Akron, the 20,000-seat arena was to be the crown jewel of his kingdom. It had plush seating and luxury loge boxes--not common in sports arenas at the time--and opened in October, 1974, with a flourish: a Frank Sinatra concert.

But one plan Mileti had for the Coliseum area didn't pan out, he says now.

Bought Too Much Land

Buying up 550 acres of farmland around the Coliseum in the belief that he could profit from development around the structure was a mistake, he said: "It was a major miscalculation. I thought the two cities (Akron and Cleveland) were going to grow together. Instead, everyone moved to Orange County."

In June, 1976, Mileti sold his interest in the Coliseum to Washington businessman Sanford Greenberg. Three years later Mileti moved to Beverly Hills and in 1980 he sold the basketball team and the rest of his Cleveland holdings.

Ted Bonda, who invested in most of Mileti's ventures and still owns a piece of the Indians, once called Mileti's athletic conglomeration "an empire built on marshmallows." Bonda, in a recent telephone interview from Carmel, said he maintains a close friendship with his former partner, but said Mileti was hindered by a cash shortage.

"He built that Coliseum out of just plain air and he did a magnificent job," Bonda said. "If he'd had a little more (cash), he might have been able to hold it together."

Mileti acknowledged that, as other sports entrepreneurs often do, he was able to make a number of acquisitions without being the principal investor. In some cases, Mileti said in an interview, he was able to acquire teams with borrowed funds and a Dayton investment firm, C.F. Kettering Inc., as his partner. But he denied that he had been in difficulty in Cleveland and characterized the Cavaliers and Indians as financially sound.

'Little Bit of Bill Veeck'

Said Gib Shanley, a former Cleveland TV sportscaster who worked briefly for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles: "Nick is not an administrator. He's very good at putting the deals together and promoting the show. . . . There's a little bit of Bill Veeck in him." (A baseball owner, the late Veeck was a showman who gave the game exploding scoreboards and once put a midget in the St. Louis Browns' lineup.)

The Cavaliers were sold to Louis Mitchell, who sold the team within weeks to Mileti's cousin, Joseph Zingale, who sold it again within two weeks to Ted Stepien, a successful Cleveland businessman. When asked whether Mileti was to blame for financial difficulties of the Cavaliers (the team lost about $570,000 in 1979, according to news reports), Mitchell said only, "Well, he (Mileti) ran the team."

Mitchell declined to relate details of the transactions.

But reports that the basketball team had problems persist. Stepien, who no longer owns the team, said recently that it was in such poor financial health that he had to put about $500,000 into the team just to make the payroll at the time of purchase.

Fans charged Stepien with virtually dismantling the team, and the controversy reached such a peak that at one point in 1980 league Commissioner Lawrence F. O'Brien froze all player deals involving the Cavaliers.

"Mileti . . . certainly didn't make the transition easy for me," said Stepien, who now owns the minor league Jacksonville Jets basketball team. "I'm just disappointed that he didn't give me a fair chance."

Didn't Know New Owner

In response, Mileti says only that there is a misconception that he sold the team to Stepien because the two intervening sales were so short-lived. In fact, Mileti said, "I hardly knew him."

Although he admits that he lost money on some of his Cleveland sports investments, Mileti says today he has no regrets.

"Absolutely not. . . . I worked hard. I'm very proud of the Coliseum and the Cavaliers are a great franchise. They're going to be a great team," he said.

In California, Mileti formed a movie investment group with three other NBA owners and co-financed such films as "Streamers," "Poltergeist," "Diner" and "The Verdict."

He said he would continue to operate as an independent producer but would move to Orange County if the expansion team is granted. While four hip operations have forced the former cheerleader to walk with a cane, Mileti still travels frequently and says he hasn't slowed down any. Pain in the hip eased after surgery last November, he added.

Mileti and representatives of competing cities made their pitch last fall at an NBA owners annual meeting in Phoenix. The owners voted unanimously to expand by at least one team and no more than three, but won't decide which cities get franchises until their April 22 meeting in New York City.

Long Shot for Team

Although the Anaheim bid is considered by many to be a long shot, Mileti cites the area's population and wealth as factors the NBA cannot overlook.

Concern about a third team in the Los Angeles area is unwarranted, said Mileti, adding that West Coast NBA owners don't consider that a problem. The success of the Rams and the Angels and the recent opening of the $70-million Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa underscore the county's vitality and independent nature, he said.

The NBA is stronger today than at any time in its history, said current Commissioner David Stern. It has been a a dramatic turnaround for a league that was doing so poorly four years ago that the owners discussed buying out and folding four teams.

"It's come light years," Mileti said. "When I came into the league, we were calling basketball the sport of the '70s. Well, we were right, we were just off by a decade."

Even if his expansion effort fails, Mileti said, he wants back into the exclusive club of NBA owners. If he can't get an expansion team, he'd like to buy an existing franchise and move it to Anaheim.

"I just don't know of a team for sale," he said. "If you hear of one, give me a call."

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