In six wondrous days early last year 5,000 Tennesseans, most of them wheeling and dealing with $5 bills, purchased more than 100,000 shares of stock in the Memphis Pros. The securities came printed on red, white and blue certificates and did not bother with the usual legal jargon about par values and negotiability. Instead, they read like broadsides from the Chamber of Commerce:
The bearer of this certificate stepped forward and participated in what was described, nationwide, as the MIRACLE OF MEMPHIS by participating in a drive to allow Memphis Area Sports, Inc. to keep Tennessee's only major league franchise THE MEMPHIS PROS in the Bluff City
Bluff City, indeed. This unusual issue was sold over the counter in the Pros' office to mostly novice investors, including a syndicate of shoeshine boys who obviously thought the initials SEC stood for the athletic conference, and a cigar-smoking bulldog, presumably willing to collect his dividends in Alpo or Tiparillos. Under the circumstances, it is not too hard to guess who in Memphis are the bluffers and who are the bluffees.
The Pros, founded five years ago as the American Basketball Association's New Orleans Buccaneers—and transferred a season ago to Memphis—have gone through more trials than Raymond Burr. To survive all the mishaps, the team's down-home coach, Babe McCarthy, has had to be something of a fakir. He needed near-mystical powers merely to remain the only one of the ABA's original coaches still with the same club, yet his achievements range far beyond simple resourcefulness. Working with low-paid, largely unknown players, he has consistently guided his teams into the playoffs and gained a reputation as one of the best professional coaches in the game today.
January 24, 1972
In its first year, before other ABA clubs began signing high-salaried players New Orleans could not, or would not, afford, McCarthy's team won a division championship, and the local citizenry seemed as enthusiastic over this early success as they were in 1815 when the British arrived in town. Then, after three seasons and hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses, the team was driven up-river to Memphis—where the fans reacted in much the same manner. With crowds averaging 2,000, the Pros' last individual owner stayed around for only two months before solving his dollar drain by returning the franchise to the league office—gratis. Unable to find a major investor to buy the team, the ABA then sold it to the Memphis man in the street, who got up the $700,000 for the fancy certificates.
One would think a successful stock sale might boost attendance. It did, but not a whole lot. The stock provided Memphis with funds to make it through the close of this season and no farther, thus making the Pros strong contenders in the ABA's San Diego Bowl. This is the contest among the poorer teams to see which will be the first to vacate its present city and move to the one left last summer by the NBA Rockets.
The dearth of gate receipts has left little money for hiring exceptional players. The franchise has signed only one first-draft choice in history—and that move came in the ABA's initial season, when the bidding war with the NBA had not yet begun. The team's best players in recent years, Guards Steve and Jimmy Jones, have fled to better-paying jobs in the Dallas and Utah backcourts.
Still, slim attendance is not the only reason for the mostly nameless starting lineup in Memphis. McCarthy dislikes making large offers to procure young talent—a dubious philosophy in the present inflated basketball personnel market. Born in the small town of Baldwyn, sandwiched between Guntown and Wheelers in northeast Mississippi, McCarthy was raised during the Depression, and his mother was a devout Scotch Presbyterian. He has never been known for his largesse. "Ah like to be happy with what Ah have," he says. "It's just as easy to make yuhself happy with an unpleasant situation as it is to complain. Our players know we're in a difficult situation and yuh'd think they'd be glad to take a good honest offer from us, but they're always looking toward other teams to see what they could make."
McCarthy's starting lineup is largely a collection of nobody's All-Americas who run his methodical shuffle and stack offenses well and lead the league in rebounding—but who are the ABA's worst shooters, all but one earning less than $30,000 a year. The team's best-known starter was Bobby Warren, who once made second-string All-Southeastern Conference when he played for Vanderbilt. But Warren was traded to Carolina two weeks ago, packaged with Wendell Ladner and rookie Thomas Owens, in exchange for Warren Davis, George Lehmann and Randy Denton. The switch didn't seem to accomplish much, either way. Another Memphis guard, Charlie Williams, was expelled from the NBA for fringe involvement in the 1965 college basketball scandals. Center Gerald Govan attended St. Mary's of the Plains and is the only professional first-stringer who wears glasses. "I tried contacts, but they bothered me," he says. "These glasses take away from my aggressiveness. I'm afraid of breaking them because if I do I got to pay for them myself." The Pros' most consistent player and rebounder, Wilbert Jones, attended Albany State in Georgia.
Last year McCarthy seemed to have made a brilliant low-overhead find in Ladner, the rookie from Southern Mississippi. A 6'5" forward who is built like a linebacker, Ladner terrorized opponents and stampeded photographers, cheerleaders and front-row spectators with his unbridled displays of strength as he dove headlong into bleachers, over press tables and across playing floors. He made the All-Rookie team, but his second season began unevenly, which may have had something to do with the fact he was traded. Basically, Ladner is a man apparently unable to fathom the complexities of life off the court.
"He does not know the meaning of the word fear. But then he also does not know the meaning of many other words either," said one Memphis observer of Ladner, who recently declared bankruptcy at the age of 23. McCarthy, who has known Ladner since the player was 15 years old, visited him once at college and noted that he was overweight and playing poorly. "Son, you're too fat," said McCarthy. "Coach, I know it," replied Ladner. "I'm gonna get in shape as soon as the season's over."
Meanwhile, the team's first high-priced rookie finally came off the bench to earn a starting position. He is Memphis-born Johnny Neumann, who received more than $500,000 to drop out of the University of Mississippi after leading college scorers with a 40.1 average as a sophomore last year. Neumann seemed to prove McCarthy's theories about overpaid rookies by playing poorly early in the season, but in recent weeks he has shown signs of increasing maturity. An extraordinary shooter, particularly when closely guarded, Neumann has even begun to demonstrate a mild capacity for playing defense, a function he had previously disdained. His on-court presence is marked by an unlikely combination of freewheeling openness and acute insecurity. During a foul-shooting break in a game against Denver recently he calmly chatted with Rocket Coach Alex Hannum about Denver's shooters and later patted Referee John Vanak on the rear end in order to avoid being called for a technical foul. But on virtually every play in which he is involved he stares toward the bench, apparently hoping for coachly forgiveness or approbation. McCarthy purposely tries ignoring Neumann, hoping to break him of the habit—a situation that occasionally leaves the rookie looking at his coach as his man glides in for an easy basket. Escape is not always possible for McCarthy; in a game earlier in the season, Neumann drove down the lane and was jostled rudely, yet no foul was called. "They're hitting me, Coach," he whined to McCarthy. "Do tell, John, do tell," Babe drawled back.
Such soft humor long ago earned McCarthy the nickname of Magnolia Mouth. His accent is pure hominy grits, his similes all corn pone. Like Hallmark, he has a message for every occasion. To a player being badly beaten on defense: "Boy, Ah gotta tell yuh, yuh gotta come out at 'em like a bitin' sow." Urging his team on when trailing at the half: "Nawh, let's cloud up and rayn all over 'em." Or trying to pull the team out of unhappiness over a long losing streak: "Mah ole pappy usta tell me the sun don't shine on the same dawg's butt ev'ry day."
McCarthy's approach to basketball is similarly slow and easy. Like Dick Motta of the NBA's Chicago Bulls, McCarthy usually builds a stronger record than expected through controlled play. The strategy is useful because it inhibits the fast break used by the better teams. Last year the Pros finished only two games under .500 and could do just as well this season. McCarthy's players are better than their obscure college backgrounds would indicate, largely because the Babe is, more than anything else, a sharp judge of talent. Kentucky President Mike Storen, who tried to lure McCarthy away from Memphis last summer to coach the title-contending Colonels, says, "Babe is an extraordinary judge. I never pick up a guy he cuts. He measures them for speed, even though that's not his game. If they're not fast enough to run the break, he won't have them."
McCarthy has run a few fast breaks himself, despite his mother's Presbyterian guidance. Most of the stories he tells—and he tells them endlessly—start with the phrase, "One night we was havin' a few high bawls and...." Although he remembers few days in the past 20 years when he did not sip a bourbon or more, a few weeks ago he went on the wagon. "Ah haven't had a drink since Christmus," he said on New Year's Eve. "Ah can't remember when Ah've felt as good. Mah liver was kickin' up, and Ah had to stop. One problem though, 'til this week we'd won six out of our last seven games, but since Ah quit drinkin' we lost four in a row."
So much for clean living, except when it comes to parsimony. McCarthy does not think the money problems will be important in the future.
"Ah've struggled with what we've had," he says. "Ah think it'll last the way it has for a few more months, and then Ah'll have weathered the storm. Why panic at five in the mornin' because it's still dawrk out? But if this all works, Ah'll have brought a good ship home in a good town. Ah'll be able to compete on even terms. And if there's no merger, Ah won't worry because there won't be any pro team for me to coach."
If the Pros do make it, it may then be time to change the name. It was a hasty choice, selected because it would fit on the uniform jerseys over the old nickname, Bucs, and the price of a felt S could be saved on each one. Originally, a contest was to be held to choose a new name, but nothing has happened yet, so there is still plenty of time to change it to the Memphis Miracles. Or, more likely, the Bluffers.