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

March 08, 1987|ANDY ROSE | Times Staff Writer

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."

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