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Jerry Kirshenbaum
January 27, 1975
When Owner Nick Mileti spouts old-country sayings, three Cleveland pro teams must listen
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January 27, 1975

He Has The Word From Sicily

When Owner Nick Mileti spouts old-country sayings, three Cleveland pro teams must listen

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In point of fact, Mileti stumbled into sport by accident. Practicing law in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, he served as a public prosecutor and as president of the Jaycees, then founded a consulting firm that specialized in low-cost housing for the elderly. In 1967, to raise money for Bowling Green, his alma mater, he promoted one of the school's basketball games at the Cleveland Arena. "It drew 11,000," he recalls. "I figured if I could get 11,000 one night, I could get 8,000 every night." The first person singular tends to obscure the fact that Bowling Green's foe that evening was a major attraction, Calvin Murphy-led Niagara.

Bitten by the promotional bug, Mileti contacted a Wall Street banker named Leo McKenna, an old Army pal. McKenna managed investments for the heirs of inventor Charles F. Kettering, and Mileti persuaded him to put up half the $1.9 million needed to buy the Cleveland Arena and the Barons, the city's minor league hockey team. "We closed the deal on Sept. 27,1968, at 6:10 p.m.," says Mileti, investing the moment with where-it-all-began importance. Since neither property was exactly a bonanza, it was obvious he was playing for bigger stakes.

While continuing to tap the Kettering riches, Mileti also began invading Cleveland's banks and boardrooms for support. When the Cavaliers, an NBA expansion club, were born in 1970, he helped finance the $3.7 million deal by making an innovative $5-per-share offering to the fans. This was followed in 1972 by an extraordinary six-month splurge. First, Mileti paid $5.5 million for NBC's local AM and FM radio affiliates. Next he shelled out $10 million for the Indians. Finally, he paid $250,000 for the then playerless Crusader franchise. A deal had been in the works to have the Indians play part of their "home" schedule in New Orleans, but Mileti scotched it, flying to that city on a disengagement mission reminiscent of Eisenhower's journey to Korea.

"I told them in New Orleans I was sure they had a dynamite city," Mileti says. "I also said 1 didn't want to know them."

Clevelanders might well have imagined they were witnessing the second coming of Bill Veeck, the Indians' supershowman of the 1940s. But unlike Veeck, Mileti had trouble transferring his knack for self-promotion to his teams. With Mileti and a small staff running three newly acquired big-league teams at once, the Indians solicited season tickets on stenciled letters riddled with misspellings. Nor did it create much goodwill on Bat Day when kids were required to present coupons from Burger King in order to receive "free" bats.

"Everything happened too fast," says Mileti, acknowledging early mistakes. "But other people waited till the timing was right, and that's why Cleveland, the eighth largest market in the country, didn't have major league hockey or basketball. That's why the Indians were leaving. Think of it! Pittsburgh had hockey. Seattle had basketball. Seattle !"

Mileti's go-man-go enthusiasm sometimes results in his getting truly carried away. Although he had almost no personal involvement in the Indians' decision to hire Frank Robinson, he phoned the deposed Ken Aspromonte and said emotionally, "I went to bat for you, Ken, but I was outvoted." He told others, "It was time for a change. Frank Robinson became manager because I wanted him to." Another attack of hyperenthusiasm recently led him to buy an estate, a 46-acre spread with a rambling Tudor house set among orchards, stables and fountains in the suburb of Gates Mills. Mileti paid $500,000 for the place, presumably drawing on the windfall from his WFL franchise killing.

"Since I'm not home very much, the next best thing is to make life easy for my family," Mileti says. He does not mention the possibility that he might better have applied the $500,000 to reducing his substantial business debts.

None of his wheeling and dealing, however, prevents Mileti from solemnly attesting to his own essential integrity. "If your name is Mileti and you make 50 cents, everybody right away says Mafia," he complains. "Well, I've been checked out a thousand times now." Ted Garver, Mileti's attorney, says, "Forget Nick's swinging image. He's the squarest, straightest guy you'll ever meet." Aides confide that Mileti was urged at midseason a year ago to sell Lenny Wilkens, the Cavaliers' star guard. Without him, it was reasoned, the club might finish last and thus qualify for the coin toss for UCLA's Bill Walton, then considered a super plum.

"It's not right," ruled Mileti, shutting off debate. "Things like that have a way of coming back and biting you." Wilkens left at season's end. He is now player-coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, which also wound up with Walton.

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