Here’s one of the really nice things about getting older. Every once in awhile, you run into an old combatant, put down your swords, kick up your feet and talk about how much fun you once had together.
Earlier this week I found myself going to see Steve Idelman, the former owner of the Omaha Racers. We were going to talk about this weekend’s Racers reunion at Ralston Arena.
Once I stepped out of the elevator and into his office, it was like walking into a time tunnel. Circa 1993.
Idelman still wears jeans to work. And running shoes. His office is still a sports clubhouse, with trinkets and sports figurines and posters, a collection of golf clubs. And, yes, an old giant Omaha Racers sign.
Once upon a time, from 1989 to 1997, Idelman owned the pro basketball team in Omaha. Such a different Omaha.
The men who played for the Racers came from all over. Most from college basketball, some stars, some not. Some were professional journeymen. All had one singular dream: the NBA.
The Racers played in the old Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum, in front of a few thousand hardcore fans. They played against teams from Yakima, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Oklahoma City. The games were fun. Idelman sat in the front row, sort of a cross between Jerry Jones and Jack Nicholson. Sometimes he would put on a show. I don’t know how many times he got tossed by the officials. It may have just been once. It could have been more.
Idelman was a genuine character, with a genuine love for the Racers and the CBA. Occasionally, I would poke fun at it. We would cross swords. At times it would get heated. It was never boring.
Anyway, we went through it all the other day and it was fantastic. A ton of former Racers are coming in Friday night for the weekend. On Friday, they will gather at one of their old hangouts, the Pipeline Tavern. On Saturday at 10 a.m. they will have a free kids clinic, lunch, then a 3-point contest and old-timers game at Ralston Arena. There will be a private dinner at night, with inside jokes and stories on the menu.
I really enjoyed seeing Idelman again. Over the years, as Creighton basketball boomed and Omaha changed, I thought about him occasionally. I wondered what he would have thought about this. I thought he’d moved to Chicago.
I was surprised to learn that he and his wife, Sheri, never left Omaha. They have a place in Chicago and spend weekends there. But the Idelmans got out of telemarketing and started the next phase, a cyber security company called Solutionary. They still live in the same house, near 99th and Center, where they lived during those Racer years.
Those were fun times. I can speak for myself in saying I appreciate those days now more than I did then. I told Idelman that. There was a look of pride on his face. And then, as always, he got going.
Q: Could the Racers make it in today’s market?
A: I don’t know. I can tell you, we never stopped talking about, ‘Could we do it again?’
You know what? I screwed it up. I screwed it up the first time. The timing back then was actually good because Nebraska basketball was up and down and Creighton was going through tough times. I made a lot of mistakes with the Racers, starting with, I tried to go it alone instead of enlisting a lot of limited partners who grew up here and had friends and groups in Omaha.
Since then, Creighton has done the most astounding job. Bruce Rasmussen and that team are my heroes. I think they would tell you they use some of the Racers’ in-game production for halftime.
Could it happen again? Yes. The thing that changed drastically is there’s no CBA. Now with David Stern’s developmental league, local ownership gets a piece of it. But the days of hiring your own coach and having him install his own offense are gone. Those teams run what the teams in the NBA want them to run.
Q: You wish you would have had Ralston Arena?
A: Gosh, I wish we would have had that when we were here. I don’t blame Ak-Sar-Ben. We had some great crowds there. The one playoff game, we had 6,102. I had to go visit privately with the fire marshal because he was going to shut down the game because we had too many standing room people. I persuaded him to keep the game going.
Q: How did you do that?
A: No comment.
Q: How much do you remember about the finals that year? (In 1992-93 the Racers defeated the Grand Rapids Hoops four games to two for the CBA championship.)
A: Everything. I can see the games. I can feel the emotions.
I remember Rod Mason making the reverse one-handed layup, we’re up 16, time out Bruce Stewart and the Hoops. We’re going to win the championship in front of our biggest crowd, season ticket sales are going to go through the roof.
Then we blew it. And Darren Henrie couldn’t miss. He made all those 3s. The last one, at the buzzer, was a good five to seven feet behind the line. I can still see Bart Kofoed just straining with every bit of his athletic ability, trying to rotate to this guy. He had no chance.
Q: Then you clinched the title in game six at Grand Rapids.
A: I still see JT (Jim Thomas) cutting through three guys for a layup. I remember that like it was yesterday, five minutes ago. Broke their back. I knew we had it won.
Q: Do you ever go through Ak-Sar-Ben and try to imagine where the Coliseum used to be?
A: That’s not far from where we live, and I stop in at the Wohlner’s once in awhile. When I drive down there, I swear, it’s like a movie. I can still see the things that happened, and hear the crowds and the games. It’s not a broken-hearted feeling. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Q: Have you ever had any offers or feelers from anyone who wanted to bring pro basketball back to Omaha?
A: A couple times, yes. But never to the point of seriousness. We did lose a significant amount of money with the Racers. It was a labor of love, but it was hard, too. And now the market has changed. I’m confident it could work again, but you’d need to find a broad base of investors and I don’t have the time to look.
Q: Who are some of the guys coming in? What are they doing now?
A: Everybody’s coming. Greg Wiltjer can’t make it. But most everyone is back. Mike Thibault (who leads active WNBA coaches in career victories) is with Washington now in the WNBA. Tim Legler works at ESPN. You know him. Chip Engelland is the shooting coach for the San Antonio Spurs. JT is an assistant coach at Atlanta. Rod Mason does marketing for a health care company in Oklahoma. Sean Gay works for the city of Houston. Phil Handy works for the Cleveland Cavs. Bart Kofoed has a ministry (in North Carolina). Jerome Coles is a teacher and coach for Millard schools. His son, Jarek, plays for Omaha Central.
Q: What kind of turnout do you think you’ll have? You think a lot of people remember the Racers?
A: Yes, I do. I was talking with Pat Lawlor and he said he could sell the heck out of the old Racers logo. He gets requests all the time. We always had about 3,500 hardcore Racers fans, who were loyal to us. The community was so great to us.
Q: Has anyone ever recognized you since those days?
A: Oh my gosh, yes. You hear comments. People are so nice. One day, I’m at a stoplight in a convertible with the top down. A woman gets out of her car, comes up to my car, scares me, I don’t know what’s going on. She says, “Mr. Racer! Mr. Racer!” And she gives me a big hug and kiss.
She said, “I just want to say thank you. You gave me the time of my life.”