Continental Basketball Association (1983-1985)
Born: 1983 – CBA expansion franchise.
Died: December 1985 – The Tornados relocate to Pensacola, FL in midseason.
Arena: Varsity Arena
Owner: Ted Stepien
During the 1982-83 NBA season, despised Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien threatened to move his woeful club to Toronto. It was one of the final missteps in a four year marathon of gaffes and civic humiliations that began with Stepien’s 1979 Rave Magazine interview where he opined that the Cavaliers had “too many black players” and spanned his disastrous three-year reign as Cavs’ owner from 1980 to 1983. The Cavs’ move to Toronto never came to pass and Stepien mercifully divested himself of the Cavaliers in the spring of 1983. But oddly, the reviled owner ended up with his Toronto hoops team anyway.
Stepien applied for a Toronto expansion franchise in the Continental Basketball Association in the spring of 1983. The CBA was, at the time, a developmental partner of the NBA. For players, the CBA was simultaneously one rung below the NBA and 10,000 light years away. The league played in burgs like Billings, Montana, Casper, Wyoming and Lima, Ohio. Ted Stepien was assuredly the only NBA owner ever to drop ranks into the blue collar CBA, but beleaguered Cleveland fans would likely argue he ran ran the Cavs like a bush league operation in the first place, so he probably just ended up where he truly belonged.
As an expansion club in the winter of 1983-84, the Toronto Tornados finished last in their division at 16-28. Toronto averaged just over 1,200 at Varsity Arena.
During their second season 1984-85, the Tornados began to win under Head Coach Gerald Oliver. But it was clear that Toronto sports fans didn’t care. Attendance dipped below 1,000 spectators per game and the Tornados openly explored relocation to Jacksonville, Memphis, Pensacola and San Diego.
As usual with Stepien-owned teams, chaos swirled around the organization. After a 9-18 start, the Tornados won 17 of their final 21 games in 1985 to clinch the CBA’s final playoff spot with a 26-22 record. They were the hottest team in the CBA. Stepien’s peculiar response to this late season rally was to fire his head coach, Gerald Oliver, 36 hours before the start of Toronto’s 1985 first round playoff series with the Phil Jackson-coach Albany Patroons.
When Stepien arrived in Albany for Game 1, he rattled off a long list of complaints against Oliver: the team only sold 162 season tickets and Oliver had been responsible for the business operations as well, the ex-coach rested his starters in the final regular season game and “backed in” to the postseason in the owner’s estimation, and Oliver may (or may not) have been angling for other coaching jobs in the league during the season. As to the last allegation, if it was true - who could blame him?
“The coach is only worth 20 percent. He doesn’t play,” Stepien explained to Schenectady Gazette sportswriter Tim Layden.
The Tornados lost to the Patroons in five games.
Rather surprisingly, the Tornados returned to Toronto for a third season in the winter of 1985. But the team’s fortunes continued to drop, with attendance down to fewer than 700 per game. At Christmas 1985, with the Tornados mired in last place with a 2-7 record, Stepien abruptly shipped the club off to Pensacola, Florida to finish out the 1985-86 CBA season as the Pensacola Tornados. Incredibly, Stepien would go on to move the team twice more in the next twelve months, first to Jacksonville and later to Biloxi, Mississippi.
==Tornados Games on Fun While It Lasted==
Former Tornados owner Ted Stepien died on September 10, 2007 at age 82. The normally snark-free Sports Business Journal headlined his obituary thusly: “Stepien, Successful Businessman, Bad Owner, Dies at 82″
Continental Basketball Associations Media Guides
Continental Basketball Associations Programs