CBA Basketball From The Horse’s Mouth – Steve Idelman On The Omaha Racers

The Omaha Racers were a CBA basketball team that played in Omaha from 1989 to 1997.

I started going to Racers games in 1989. As a then 9-year old who was obsessed with basketball, there was NOTHING cooler than going to a Racers game and seeing former, current, and future NBA players.

I still remember the thrill of buying a season ticket package with my then, and still, best friend Eric Hoffman and going to all the games.

The coolest guy in the “room” of Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum on game day was Racers’ owner Steve Idelman.

Seated courtside for every game, I don’t remember seeing him wear anything other than a black t-shirt and pants – he just looked cool, and was invested (in every sense) into every play of every game.

Almost 30 years later, I reached out to Steve and we collaborated on a custom run of Omaha Racers t-shirts.

Since then, we’ve had great conversations about business, CBA basketball, and the business of basketball, and this article was born out of one of those conversations. The 9-year old inside of me was and is still stoked to write this piece.

Why did you want to own a professional sports franchise?

Steve Idelman: Never had a desire. I’m a crazy old athlete and sports fan, but definitely not my vision. I just wanted to have a job where I could support my family.

One day I read the CBA is coming to town and it was the old Wisconsin Flyers (founded in 1982) owned by Terren Peizer and they were struggling financially. The second it was announced, I called the number to buy season tickets. I’m from Chicago and have always been a huge Bulls fan, went to the first Bulls game ever played. I split a pair of Bulls season tickets for years before I moved to Omaha in 1981.

My wife Sheri and I missed pro sports. The seats we got were right next to the opposing team’s bench. And we hadn’t even gone to a game yet, just read about it in the World Herald. The team was brought here for the 89-90 season. We had these 4 season tickets and there was hardly any time left in the season, and we had yet to go see a game. I’m buying to support the team and community, and just hadn’t made it.

I got a call from the then-GM Mike Cole, and Gretchen MacCallum and tasked if they could visit with me about the Racers and their place in CBA basketball.

They asked us to come watch a game, so Sheri and I went to a game against the Rapid City Thrillers coached by Eric Musselman. We go to that one game, barn burner of a game, we were impressed. Quality of play was high level, 2nd only to the NBA.

The team had Roland Gray. We had Al Wood. Corey Gaines. A lot of talent that played high level basketball for years. The team wanted us to sponsor a group night for Idelman Telemarketing, a business we owned at the time. And we agreed to it. 5,151 was a sellout. Whole arena sat 6,102. The phone number ended in “5151” so they made that published capacity.

Went to the game, agreed to throw a group night, and it was a big success. We loved it. So we agreed to throw one more night and it worked again. Front office told me the present owner wanted to sell that team after one year. And asked if I was interested in buying it. They believed that with a local owner, things would be different.

Next thing, I get a call from City Hall. Question was, “Why don’t you buy the Racers? You could turn it to gold.” My dream was to PLAY pro sports, not OWN a pro sports team. It had never entered my mind. You were talking many millions to buy an NBA team. But the cost of a CBA team the was far less and affordable, unlike the cost of an NBA team.

At first we were like, we’re lucky to already have a business. Dance with the lady that brung ya, never got to far from the well, on the way down you see the people that that you saw on the way up.

But, I’m a lifelong basketball junkie and we decided to take advantage of the opportunity. We thought it would be a lot of fun and we thought it was really good for the city.

Origin of the Racers name – what is the story behind it? Where did the name/idea of Roadie come from? Tell me it’s a Road Beer!

Steve Idelman: It is not. The whole deal, the name Racers, and Roadie the racehorse. It all tied directly to Ak-Sar-Ben. It was a racetrack. A highly successful racetrack, one of the top tracks in the US. The team was named in a fan contest. It all related back to the racetrack.

Who do you consider the poster child of the Racers/best Racer of all time?

Two different answers. Tim Legler, that’s pretty clear. And our president and coach Mike Thibault.

Mike is now the head coach of the Washington Mystics, the defending WNBA champions from last year, and we’re still dear friends. He was the first bench coach for one of those Lakers championship team in the early 80s, became a scout for the Bulls and was the guy who INSISTED they take Michael Jordan over Sam Bowie. One of the nicer relationships we’ve ever had with another family, still great friends. He was our coach for the entire time we owned the franchise. He won us a championship in 1993 and made it back to the CBA basketball Finals that we lost in 1994.

Tim is now the perfect guy for ESPN. Watching him on TV is the same as sitting down with him and just talking. So we consider both Tim and Mike the collective face of the Racers.

What was the name of the PA announcer that used to say, “Two minutes, TWO MINUTES” at the end of the 2nd and 4th quarters? How did you find him?

Chuck Ashby. I didn’t own the team the first year it was in town, I bought it from an absentee owner who lived in San Diego. Chuck was already the PA guy. To me he’s “Two-Minute Chuck.” Real good guy, always a straight shooter.

What was your #1 revenue generator as an owner?

Ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, together, and it wasn’t enough. We had to make up the shortfall personally. Two different reasons.

While this is a wonderful sports community, it is very centered on high school, college, amateur sports – for example, the Olympic trials, NCAA, Memorial Stadium. The passion here for amateur sports is a long tradition, but it has always been a tougher environment for pro sports.

Most of all, I never had a real plan of how to make this work before I bought the team – I just loved basketball.

Who was the best player you ever saw play in the CBA?

Three guys:

Henry James – he killed us every time he played us. Didn’t play defense, didn’t need to, strongest guy on the floor.

Michael Curry. He played for us. A monster of a player. Went to Detroit and played for the Pistons and had a 11-year NBA career.

Tim Legler. Not only was he the face of the Racers, but he was just a great basketball player. Won the NBA Three Point shootout. He led the NBA in three point shooting percentage one year, had a nice career before a knee injury ended it.  Pure basketball those other two guys are 1 and 2, Legler is third.

What’s the weirdest experience you ever had as an owner?

Losing by 70 points to Sioux Falls. This was the year we won the CBA Championship.

Opening night, a Saturday night at Ak Sar Ben against the Sioux Falls Skyforce that were loaded with talent. This was CBA basketball at its finest, from top to bottom.

Flip Saunders was coaching. Henry James. Phil Henderson, Melvin McCants, Tracy Mitchell. Ricky Blanton, Chad Gallagher from Creighton, Cedric Hunter from Omaha. Jimmy Oliver from Purdue. Bart Kofoed from Kearney. Earl Cureton, Chris Harris, Tito Horford, Adonis Jordan, Tony Watts, Tony Farmer from Nebraska – they had some players!

During the 1992-93 season playing at home in Omaha. They had a 19-point lead with under 4 minutes to go and lost to us. EVERY break went our way and they just committed so many errors both forced and unforced.

At the end of the game, Sioux Falls had to walk across the court to get to their locker room. When the buzzer went off, they were trudging off the court right in front of our seats.

Our PG Dwyane Cooper, former Lakers first round draft pick, rushes over and he is crouched down giving them the choke sign, every one of them. And I’m screaming “Coop, DON’T! We gotta play there next week!”

Flip was PISSED and so were the players. Since Sioux Falls was a relatively short drive, we went to many of the games there. Their owner, Greg Heineman, called me during the week and strongly suggested that we don’t come to this game. Because Flip has got the entire town whipped into an angry frenzy.

The Sioux Falls community was completely behind them. Every fan was given a picture of Tim Legler’s head on a popsicle stick. Every time he came within ten feet of the ball – small gym, sold out, could hardly hear our announcer. They were up by 47 halfway thru the fourth. Flip called a timeout and put his starters back in and they just destroyed us. I think we set a record for largest deficit loss by anyone on the planet in any league in the galaxy, EVER!

I remember the team got off to a bad start the year it won the championship. How did the team make it to .500 and eventually win the championship?

We started that year 1-0. Then we were 1-12. Then we made it to 14-26. Then we won 11 straight.

The roster morphed over the year. We got Alex Stivrins, Steve Colter. Kofoed. Greg Wiltjer. The team had a meeting and went on a tear. We won 14 of our last 16 games. The only two games we lost were a one point loss to the defending champion La Crosse Catbirds. Followed by a two point loss to the Fort Wayne Fury.

At the end of the game Rod Mason made a clear three pointer that was called a two – there were only two officials back then.

By then we were the scourge of the league and finished the season 28-28. Standings were determined by “quarter points.” Which was something that is another example of how innovative the CBA basketball was.

Each quarter was a game unto itself. Each point mattered. We didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the second half of the final game against Yakima. Our scorer’s table was on the phone with the scorers table from OKC. We wound up winning – a point for each quarter, 3 for winning a game – and we learned OKC had lost two quarters, we had won ours, and we were in the playoffs.

Game 5 against Wichita Falls was one of the greatest endings to game, ever. David Wesley was their PG, Steve Bardo opposite him. Really a good team. They had the lead, and we had the ball with a few seconds left to play. Jim Thomas, our player coach and the best point guard in the world who wasn’t in the NBA, lost the ball. In a scramble, Mario Donaldson picked it up, missed the shot. It looked like the game was going to end there, but he miraculously followed his shot through 4 guys, and banked it in with less than two seconds to play. They call timeout to get the ball at half court. The ball goes to David Wesley. Wesley cuts into lane, has what appears to be a wide open 15-foot shot, a shot you know he is not going to miss. And Sam Johnson literally FLEW over and just as Wesley released it, SWATTED it away. It was wonderful. We went NUTS.

The most memorable experience was the whole of that season, beginning with that 70 point loss to Sioux Falls. Then going 1-12, playing in front of 300 fans. To a game in the championship series sold out to 6,000 fans. The other part was the sadness of having to close.

How did the 10-day contract come to be?

I don’t know, because it started before me. But the CBA was the official development league of the NBA – that was literally the slogan.

The 10-day contract came out of some negotiations between the two leagues, but it was negotiated by the NBA and the NBA players union.

How did the NBA D-League come to replace the CBA?

When we purchased the Racers franchise, there were 16 teams and the whole subsidy from NBA was $1 million. There was a salary cap but no one adhered to it, thanks to bonuses or “working for the company you owned.”

The NBA Developmental League as you know it now, is pretty much the proposal that the CBA’s NBA Relationship committee made to the NBA. Mike Thibault had a lot to do with that for the league. But the NBA didn’t want to support the CBA, because the old CBA had a sketchy rep — players hitting fans, coaching hitting referees.

The CBA was the oldest professional basketball league on the planet, the original Eastern League. Had a “contractual relationship only” with the NBA. The three-point shot, the tearaway rims, 3 officials, training officials – all of that was tested in the CBA. The head of NBA officiating today is Monty McCutchen who got his start as a referee in the CBA. Monty was a good friend and still is.

David Stern didn’t like the old image of the CBA. He had a vision for the NBA to own its own feeder system.

Did Isiah Thomas destroy the Continental Basketball Association?

Isiah – did he really kill the league or was it dead before? CBA basketball as a league had a long history of franchise turnover.

There were 16 teams when we first entered the league. I suspended operations. Maybe 12 total when the league went away? You could only draw so many fans with so many dollars in “C Markets.”

We did well through the playoffs, had a “Save the Racers” campaign, starting to do well, but then it dried up.

What I would have done differently with the Racers; I’ve had time to think about it.

I got to Omaha on April Fool’s Day 1981. My wife and daughter didn’t get here until August, and I worked 7 days a week. Sheri hadn’t worked for the first 5 years our daughter Alie was alive. In general, all I knew was my business.

My social life existed, but it never dawned on me to make a plan to get to the whole community involved– but I should’ve.

When we bought the team, I should have in hindsight brought in 5-10 limited partners from the community, a broad-based community ownership, broad-based sales force. ALthough there was nothing we did wrong with our game day productions, and we also heavily marketed our halftime entertainment and a family environment,  I could have done a lot better job of getting the entire community involved.

We did everything right from a pure basketball standpoint. However, the chief mistake I made was not seeking out a broad-based community partnership.

What’s your one memory of ownership that sums up the entire experience?

It is the single most fun I’ve ever had, my family and I together. Just the greatest fun, and memories, and bonds. Blessed is an understatement.

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