This is a story about my baby. I'm warning you—if you don't like people babbling on about their baby, push on, although I hope that you will at least pause long enough to examine the snapshots I have also provided. If you won't see for yourself, I will explain (at length) how handsome my baby is and how much bigger, stronger and smarter he is than other babies. Naturally, I expect him to grow up to become no less than champion of the world.
Actually, the baby is really not mine any longer. I put him up for adoption last year, and he was taken in by some people who were much more capable of providing for him than I was. They have nourished him and educated him and given him a name—Carolina Cougars, or Kahlahnah Koogahs, as the team is known in the loving vernacular.
The Carolina Cougars are the newest team in the American Basketball Association. More important, they are the first regional sports franchise in history, and they have enjoyed such an auspicious debut that their example is bound to cause repercussions through the whole of professional sport. The Cougars have proved that a regional franchise—one that plays a regular schedule in several "home" cities—is not only interesting but downright practical. The team is outdrawing all but Indiana in the ABA as well as several NBA franchises, and it is making money, which is a claim very few one-town basketball franchises can make during the football season, if ever.
The reason I take more of a paternal than journalistic interest in these proceedings is that I originally outlined the thesis of the regional franchise—citing Carolina as a specific possibility—in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED issue of Oct. 21, 1968. Briefly, I contended that the sports that schedule many games in a season—notably baseball and basketball—were expanding to the point of nationwide saturation. There were too many teams playing too many games, while scheduling was still based on the demographics of the 1890s, when the automobile and television were not factors and when concentrated population was found only in a few large "center" cities. I suggested that many franchises should be organized on a regional basis so that several cities share one team. There are any number of regional arrangements that can be constructed, but as a classic prototype I cited North Carolina, an area that could immediately embrace a regional franchise since there is no real conflict with other pro teams. The state has never had even a high minor league franchise in any sport.
This is deceiving, because the Tar Heel State is the 11th most populous in the nation, with more than five million residents. Like most Southern states, however, Carolina does not possess any single large city. Simple geography plus its early development—agrarian rather than industrial—conspired instead to create many small cities. Today these are all spaced comfortably along major highways, forming something of a triangle, with the largest three metropolitan centers—Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh—roughly at the points. There are other urban centers, making up a linear population pattern instead of the single-ringed metropolitan giant that is most often found elsewhere.
Now, while all this is significant, it is also a fact that virtually every town in North Carolina has a modern arena, and the whole state is batty over basketball. So, when I proposed it as the perfect area for a regional franchise, I was not just whistling Dixie. I was pretty sure I was playing with a stacked deck.
At about the time I wrote that article, a young man named Don DeJardin was in the market for angels. DeJardin, 33, a 6'2" former West Point basketball captain, was working for Westinghouse, but he had served in 1967 as part-time director of player personnel for the ABA's first champion, the Pittsburgh Pipers. The experience encouraged DeJardin to get into the business of running an ABA team and, with characteristic military flair that he makes no effort to conceal behind a crew cut and West Point class ring—both vintage 1958—he sat down and formulated, over a two-month period, a detailed outline of how such a team should be organized. He met with about 25 different group and individual prospective owners, and in New York a member of one large group, Bob Gardner, allowed as how his cousin down in High Point, N.C. might also be interested in DeJardin's prospectus. The cousin was James Gardner, a former Congressman who had just lost a close election for governor of North Carolina. Only 37, Gardner is a millionaire by virtue of his hamburger stands, called Hardee's. Armed with copies of my article that Cousin Bob had sent him, Jim Gardner met with DeJardin, liked his proposal and introduced him to his partners, Bob Gorham and Leonard Rawls, two other successful young Rocky Mount businessmen.
They planned to go for an expansion franchise, but in January, when the Houston Mavericks caved in altogether, DeJardin advised that they were better off picking up this "distressed merchandise." He has since unloaded every player on that team, managing, in a series of trades, not only to acquire some Carolina players for local interest, but enough good players to make the Cougars a respectable playoff contender. Management of the team has fallen almost entirely to DeJardin, because hardly had the team been shifted to Carolina last spring when Gardner became de facto ABA commissioner. The two men worked together, though, to achieve their biggest goal—giving the state what it wanted, Bones McKinney as coach.
Born in Lowland, raised next door to Duke in Durham, educated at NC State and UNC, once the pastor of a Baptist church in Raleigh, coach at Wake Forest, director of rehabilitation for the state's prison system, TV commentator for ACC games, Bones is only less ubiquitous than tobacco and, perhaps, Hardee's hamburgers.
DeJardin traded for Doug Moe, a certified ABA star and former Tar Heel as well. He picked up Bob Verga, the ex-Duke hero; two local pro rookies, Gene Littles and Bill Bunting; and last month took Larry Miller and his large salary away from the Los Angeles Stars' budget. Miller, the handsome All-America from UNC, was one of the most popular athletes ever to play in Carolina. It was Bones, however, that every mother's son in the state knew; it was Bones they needed to make the Koogahs genuine Kahlahnah flesh and blood.
Bones has made speeches all over the state, carrying what DeJardin calls "the Cougar Message," and this in itself would fulfill his salary. But, starting with 7:15 a.m. training-camp workouts, Bones also whipped the chattels DeJardin provided him with into a .500 club. The main problem was at center, and the team went through more than a dozen pivot candidates before DeJardin obtained George Peeples from Indiana. Subsequently, the middle was strengthened even more when the Cougars signed 7' Rich Niemann after he was cut by the Boston Celtics.
The team still lacks all-round depth but is bound to remain a contender since opponents must play half their games against the Cougars before the wild Carolina fans. "Our boys have to play here," Bones says. "They got to play. They got to face these people afterward."
Bones himself has not mellowed at all. He used to employ a seat belt to keep him on the Wake Forest bench, but, relieved of that restriction now, he wanders far afield, hitching up his pants, jingling his change, pursing his lips, mopping his brow and exhorting his troops or castigating the officials with an arcane tongue. The ball, for instance, is a " 'tater"; the ball game is a "Jessie." Hence: "All right, we need that 'tater to get back in this jessie."
Recently in Raleigh, playing Los Angeles, Bones suddenly called to Verga, who was waiting for an opponent to shoot a foul at the far end of the court. "Bob!" Bones cried desperately. "Bob!" Everybody in the place stopped to listen as Verga, who never changes expression, turned to acknowledge his coach. The man at the foul line paused. The whole arena fell silent to accommodate Bones.
"Bob," Bones cried, pulling up his trousers. "Bob, you can git it." Verga nodded slightly. The next time down the court he broke loose on the Cougars' only uncontested breakaway of the game. How the message that achieved this was transmitted, no man or beast knows.
A few games before, Bones had taken offense at an official's judgment. Being an ordained man of the cloth, Bones was restrained. "You are either a thief or incompetent," he quietly informed the referee.
"You're out of the game," the official replied.
" 'Taint no need for that," Bones said. "Why?"
"Because you called me a thief."
"Oh, my goodness, no indeed. I gave you a choice," Bones said.
DeJardin made no effort to put out a dragnet for all ABA players who have come out of Carolina, because he appreciated that he would be even better off having a few come back as opposition. "Part of it all is a great sense of pride," he says. "These people think this is the best basketball state in the country, and they haven't liked it that they never before had a chance to see their players once they left college."
Carolinians have some basis for their claim. The Dixie Classic, for instance, was the fountainhead of the sport in the South, so enthralling a spectacle that Christmas—which preceded the Classic by a few days—became a mere excuse to exchange tickets. "That was the best part of Christmas," Cougar Trainer Tracey James recalls fondly.
The Classic was killed in 1961, a victim of the scandals, and while interest in basketball has never been so concentrated on one event again, it has not diminished but only become more diverse. Since students and privileged alumni are the lucky ones able to get in for the Big Four college games, there are plenty of anxious fans left outside. Little Davidson College proved this when it suddenly became a national power a few years ago and started packing the 11,666-seat Charlotte Coliseum with grateful townspeople. The Cougars may be falling heir to a whole state of fans who have been frustrated for so long in their efforts to obtain good tickets to their favorite sport. Peeples, the team's erudite center, was with the ABA's showcase franchise, Indiana, when it started two years ago. "Yes, I would say there's more enthusiasm here—and better crowds, too, if you want to check the figures—than Indiana had at this comparable stage in its first season," he says.
The scene is wildest in Raleigh, where North Carolina State, suddenly scared of the pros, reneged on an earlier promise and prohibited the Cougars from using Reynolds Coliseum (capacity 12,400), where the old Dixie Classic was played. The Cougars shifted to 7,500-seat Dorton Arena, where the frantic fans are smack on top of the action. Greensboro is next in excitement, Charlotte the most restrained. At each stop there are bands playing fight songs and Cougarettes rattling tambourines and leading cheers. Store-bought pennants and now homemade ones, too, are everywhere and a general good-natured chaos pervades almost every inch of the state, thanks to a 32-station Cougar radio network presided over by an intellectual rascal named Bill Currie.
"The Mouth of the South" (SI, Jan. 29, 1968), as he is called, Currie blends Gospel with more down-to-earth observations, so that Bones hustles home after some games to pick up a rebroadcast. "I got to know what Currie's saying 'bout me," he explains.
"Well, everybody's surely behaving improperly by big-city standards," Currie says. "Never having seen a sophisticated Yankee pro game, though, we are left to our own instincts, which means that everybody acts like this was a college or high school game and has a whole lot of fun."
So far, all three cities have average attendance above the break-even point of about 5,000 per game, but Raleigh leads with an average of 6,749, ahead of Greensboro with 5,837 and Charlotte with 5,074—a point DeJardin is not bashful about making in Charlotte. There has been only scattered resistance to the regional idea, and most problems are attributable to growing pains. DeJardin has so far failed to obtain a TV contract, but he says this is only because every offer is tied up with long-term options, and the Carolina future is too bright to be casually bartered. Indeed, in less than a year the Houston Mavericks franchise, perhaps the weakest in all of professional sport, has been transformed to a point where it is on the threshold of becoming one of the most valuable properties in the game and the fulcrum on which merger negotiations between the two pro leagues may turn.
The table is nearly all set. Billy Cunningham, UNC '65 and now a Philadelphia 76er, will be a Cougar no later than '71. He already owns a piece of a new Gardner enterprise, Lobsteer, and his wife, a local girl, has been house hunting in Greensboro. Gardner says he is ready to test the NBA reserve and/or option clause and suit up Cunningham as a Cougar next year. In Baton Rouge, Pete Maravich of LSU has confided to friends that he wants to play for Carolina. He grew up in Raleigh, where he was the state's outstanding high school player. To accommodate this situation, the ABA has, officially or otherwise, given the Cougars Maravich's draft rights.
It is a good bet that next fall the Cougars will open with a lineup that includes Cunningham and Moe in the front court with Peeples or Niemann, and Maravich and Verga at guard, with Miller as a swingman. It is lucky that the Greensboro Coliseum is being expanded to 16,500, for that many seats will probably be needed for the Carolinians who want to see such a team.
Obviously, a great deal of the Carolina success story is in no way related to the fact that it happens to be a regional franchise. Nevertheless, where it is possible to isolate the regional factor, the evidence indicates that it is a powerful contributor. The NBA is determined to expand next season. The ABA is considering adding one more team. The Carolina success should encourage an examination by both leagues of regional possibilities. Virginia, with new arenas across the state in Norfolk, Richmond and Roanoke, offers the closest parallel to Carolina. Upstate New York—Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse—has smaller stadiums but more tradition. And the next big step must be a franchise encompassing cities farther apart, such as Kansas City-Omaha-Des Moines. Finally, what should certainly come is a joining of existing franchises: San Francisco-Oakland; Washington-Baltimore; Cleveland-Cincinnati.
Last year I blew all this smoke as a dreamy theorist. Now I am a hardheaded advocate. I have seen Carolina, and it works.