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Omaha Magazine

The Omaha Racers

Feb 21, 2024 03:17PM ● By Tamsen Butler
omaha racers 60+ nostalgia march april 2024

Photo Provided.

Those who didn’t live in the Omaha area during the 1990s may be surprised to discover that the city was once home to a popular minor league basketball team named “The Omaha Racers.” The team, oftentimes affectionately referred to simply as the “Racers,” called Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum their home and competed in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), the predecessor to the NBA G League. 

Neither the team nor the venue exist anymore, but the memories are still vivid to those who were involved in the organization. It was, after all, a team the people of Omaha could rally behind, at least from 1989 until 1997.

For owner Steve Idelman, who said he never dreamt he would own a sports team, the Racers were so much more than a minor league basketball team he just so happened to own. “The Racers were family entertainment, but the most entertained family was the Idelmans,” he said, reminiscing about sitting courtside with his wife and daughter for every game.

Although the Racers ended their run in 1997, Idelman said he is still frequently approached by strangers with, “Hey, you’re the Racers guy. Can you bring them back?”

A “Save the Racers” campaign during the 1990s made an attempt to extend the life of the team, but eventually, team ownership was too costly to maintain for Idelman. Despite an exciting championship win in 1993, the lure of college sports simply proved too strong for local spectators, dwindling the fan base for the Racers and making the team unprofitable. 

Does Idelman regret buying the team since it wasn’t maintainable and he lost money in the long run as the owner? 

“I wouldn’t take it back for all the tea in China,” he said with a laugh. “I thought we were buying a basketball team, but we got so much more than that. More than anything, it was a blessing to me and my family.”

Other people involved with the team agree that there was something special about the Racers. ESPN’s Tim Legler, an NBA player who spent time on the Racers early in his career, said, “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the years I spent in Omaha were a very important part of my life. Certain teams you play on make it more special and more fun. Omaha was one of those teams. The people I met became lifelong friends—and became family.”

Legler fondly remembers Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum, which was demolished in the mid-1990s, and remembers the kindness of the people of Omaha during his time on the team.

Racers coach Mike Thibault, who later made a name for himself as the winningest WNBA coach, said that, like Idelman, he still encounters Racers fans in public. He was once approached at the airport in Paris by a couple who surprised him by calling out, “Hey, coach! We’re Racers fans!”
Both Legler and Thibault expressed a debt of gratitude to Omaha and Idelman alike. “Everyone involved in the Omaha Racers owes a debt to Steve and Sheri Idelman,” said Thibault. “It was a labor of love for everyone who did it, but we had such a great group of people. As a coach, I got to experiment and try things, and Steve was behind me the whole time.”

As for Idelman, he learned a couple things he wasn’t expecting. First, he discovered that he truly enjoyed owning a professional sports team. Secondly, the Omaha native realized that he truly loved living in Omaha, despite earlier reservations on the city. “I wouldn’t trade Omaha for the world,” he said. 

The former Omaha Racers owner has no plans to buy another team, although he said he’s been approached by people asking if he would ever consider buying an NBA team. 

The answer to that, Idelman said, is a firm “No.”

Nonetheless, the legacy of the Racers endures. The team was inducted into the Omaha Sports Commission Hall of Fame in 2023, and although the team’s run may feel to some like it was a long time ago, Idelman retains his fond memories. 

“The championship and relationships last forever. It was the most fun we’ve ever had.” 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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