The man ran fast. in college he did 100 yards in 9.7 seconds and 440 in 46.9. He is 38 now and still running. Occasionally he returns to the track at his alma mater, San Diego State, burns a quarter without warming up and figures he is still in shape if he does it in less than a minute. He recently was clocked in 54 flat. And he plays basketball the same way—all out. One-on-one. Full court. It is a game few people play or would care to. In fact, it isn't really basketball; it's a nonstop footrace and the man never loses. His victims include Speedy Duncan, who is one of the best kick returners in pro football history. Not bad for a 5'9" orthodontist.
Like those literary runners, Rabbit Angstrom and Sammy Glick, Leonard Bloom D.D.S. has other pursuits. For instance, collecting money. He has a huge accumulation, which has enabled him to buy a hillside home replete with a swimming pool, a tennis court equipped with a Coca-Cola vending machine, a basketball court and a pad for his personal helicopter. He began amassing his fortune as a bill collector for magazines in high school, buying his first piece of San Diego real estate—an apartment house—when he was 16. Bloom is now an orthodontist in title only. He straightens teeth one day a week and spends the rest of his time running around tracks, gyms and the offices from which he operates his businesses—land development and management, computers and, for the past three months, basketball. Five-on-five. Full court. Professional.
Bloom calls his ball club the San Diego Conquistadors, a polysyllabic olla podrida that begs to be intoned to the strains of a mariachi band. Without musical accompaniment it's a mouthful, however, so the team has been called everything but Conquistadors—Cons, Cors, Cues and Qs, which also happen to fit headlines.
And headlines, astonishingly, are what the Qs have been making. They won five of the first six games they ever played and led the Western Division of the American Basketball Association by two games before they lost two in a row to Utah, the defending Western champion. San Diego's success is doubly surprising because it is not merely an expansion team, but one which was hastily thrown together. Late last spring the ABA's weakest franchises, Florida and Pittsburgh, folded, leaving the league with only nine teams. Shortly thereafter some mathematical whiz realized that since eight teams qualify for the playoffs, one division would play the entire season without eliminating a single club from postseason play. Suspecting that this situation might bring on both ridicule and a lack of competitive spirit, the ABA decided to add a team. San Diego, which had lost the NBA Rockets to Houston the year before, was the lucky city.
November 6, 1972
At first, Bloom, who earlier in the year had tried to bring the Cincinnati Royals to his hometown, didn't bid for the ABA franchise. Two other San Diegans—one of them was Peter Graham, who operates the only indoor arena within the city limits that has more than 5,999 seats—met in July with the league board, which wasn't impressed with either. It was then that Earl Foreman, the owner of the Virginia Squires, brought up the name of his cousin the dentist. Foreman called cousin Lenny one night at 11:30 and within an hour Bloom was on the red-eye to Chicago, polishing his forthcoming remarks to the board. By noon that day Bloom had been awarded the franchise for $1 million. "His presentation was the finest I've ever heard," said no less an orator than Charlie Finley, who owns, among other things, the Memphis Tarns.
Bloom started hiring—the team's original two employees were a professional ice skater and a commercial artist. They were followed by the first all-ABA-trained front office in the league. From General Manager Alex Groza, who had been business manager of the Kentucky Colonels, to the publicity man, the sales and promotion director, the assistant coach and the trainer, all had got their experience in the new league. Even Secretary Kay Moore had been in on some league meetings when she worked as a barmaid at an Indianapolis saloon owned by former Pacer Bob Netolicky.
The only exception is Coach K. C. Jones, the old Celtic who assisted Bill Sharman with the Lakers last season. Until he sips a couple of Cuttys and water and is invited onto the bandstand at one of his favorite bistros to croon Sunny, K. C. is certainly the quietest coach, if not the quietest man, in all of pro basketball. Many of his friends were worried when they heard that Jones had taken the job with the Qs. His head coaching experience was minimal: three seasons at Brandeis University where his record was three wins over .500. It was also predicted that since the players made available to expansion clubs inevitably include malcontents, kindly, silent K.C. Jones would be eaten alive by members of his own team.
The only ones who have been chewed up so far have been San Diego's opponents. Like the six other former Celtics who have become pro coaches, Jones is committed to the Red Auerbach philosophy of rugged team defense and a nonstop, fast-break offense. The Qs already have one of the most cohesive defenses in the ABA, and they have lent credence to the maxim that the best offense is a good defense. San Diego's offense is the most productive in the league and many of the baskets have resulted from loose balls, deflected dribbles, blocked shots, steals and interceptions.
"There is not the same fantastically high level of intensity on this team that there is on a Sharman team," says Larry Miller, a guard who has played for both men. "But then K.C. has us more relaxed than I ever was with Bill. Neither of them ever shouts, but where Bill disciplines by pushing you, K.C. does it with wryness and cynicism. We were at a banquet a couple of weeks ago and Kase introduced the players one by one and gave a little scouting report on each of us. For instance, when he brought up Stew Johnson he said, 'Here's Stew Johnson who will shoot for us, and shoot for us and shoot and shoot and shoot.' He was giving the audience a pretty accurate idea of what each of us does and doesn't do well and at the same time he was leaving a message for each of us to think about.
"In the huddle during a time-out, K.C. will stand quiet for a moment and then look at the guy or guys who have been messing up the most. He'll say something like, 'That guy too much for you?' And you say, 'Well, er, ah, na, he's not.' Then he'll look you right in the face and say very clearly in that soft voice, 'Why don't you do something about it?'
"Kase had instantaneous respect when he got here just because he had his reputation as a great player, but I think he gets extra respect because he's a brother, a brother who's made it. Most of the players in the pros are brothers now, and I don't think there's any more logical thing for a team to do than hire a good black coach," concludes Miller, the Qs' only white starter.
Jones has benefited from the fact that the ABA's expansion draft yielded far more talent than had previous affairs of that sort in the NBA. In NBA drafts the existing teams were allowed to freeze seven players; in the ABA, the number was six. The Qs were also drafting alone while most prior expansions involved two or three teams. And the players from Florida and Pittsburgh had been redistributed among the older ABA clubs, making their rosters more talent-laden than usual. In addition, K.C. gave try-outs to a number of walk-ons and NBA rejects. In all, he looked at nearly 75 players during what may have been the longest training camp in pro basketball history. It began in early September and continued with barely an interruption until the season opener on Oct. 13. The Qs were able to schedule but two exhibition games and perhaps the only thing that saved the players from total boredom was the nude beach adjacent to their Point Loma camp.
Expansion teams are usually patsies because they lack two essentials: a superstar and depth. The Qs have no big-name players, and just one, Guard Chuck Williams, could be described as indispensable since he is the team's only accomplished ball handler. But the Qs do have depth. Six Conquistadors were full-time or frequent starters last season, and in their first six games San Diego's reserves scored more points and grabbed more rebounds per minute played than the starters. In the final halves of those games, the Qs out-scored their fatigued opponents by an average of 10 points.
"I think we've got something going for us that's hard to measure," said Williams last week. "If you go out in the parking lot and look at our cars you'll see we're driving things like my VW Squareback instead of the Continentals and Eldorados other teams have. Our guys either don't care about those things or can't afford them. As far as I know, there's only one no-cut contract on the team. We all know if we don't perform we can be thrown off. The younger guys like me want to prove we can play well to show up our old teams, which didn't give us that much of a chance, and the older guys, I guess, know they've got to make it here or forget it. I'd guess we're just hungrier all the way round."
They are no hungrier than are the sports fans of San Diego for a winner. Of the four-big-league franchises that have been based in the city, all but the football Chargers have been expansion clubs and, except for the Chargers in the early days of the AFL, none of San Diego's teams has been even modestly successful. The city's most frustrating experience has been with basketball. The Rockets were just beginning to play well when the team was sold, leaving behind a huge profit for the man who had owned it and an equally large dose of skepticism for the fans who had cheered for it.
To make a profit of his own, Lenny Bloom will have to overcome that attitude. Bloom looks more Southern Californian than a Denny's restaurant. His tan is just this golden and his curly hair just that long. His smile is so dazzling that only his dentist knows for sure where he got it. He wears white shoes and white pants; he hates neckties and usually leaves the top two buttons of his body shirts open, the better to show off that bronzed chest. He has a personal staff of five—all women, all knockouts. At games Bloom is the same old cheerleader he used to be at Hoover High and San Diego State. He greets fans at the door, sits right up front, whistles with his fingers in his mouth, jumps up, pirouettes, sits down, applauds, shakes his fist and screams. When the Qs win, he skips off the floor toward the locker room, his smile adazzling and his hands afluttering. Give him a beanie and he is basketball's Pinky Lee.
But mention his family or the inner workings of his businesses and another Bloom blossoms. "I'm not a public person," he says. "I'm secretive. I think in order to lead a normal life, to make it so I can go out and raise hell without a photographer on my tail, I have to keep my personal life and my personal business covered over."
All of which would have been a cinch except for the great San Diego Arena imbroglio, which has a suspicious populace poking into his affairs. After obtaining the franchise, Bloom was unable to reach an agreement with Peter Graham to play in his San Diego International Sports Arena. Even though the Sports Arena has lost money, Bloom announced he would build his own coliseum. And typically, Bloom was not thinking of moving slowly. His $20 million arena is to be part of a $200 million, 2,100-acre sports and residential development located in a sandy, scrub-filled canyon south of San Diego. The coliseum—which will seat 20,000 for basketball, making it the second largest of its type in the country—will be finished by the opening of next season, or so Bloom says.
Balderdash and other things, say San Diego financiers. "I've talked to a lot of the bankers around here and they all tell me there's no way Bloom will get the financing," says San Diego Union Sports Editor Jack Murphy. "I'm really not sure what to think, but I know this much—either Leonard Bloom is as rich as Howard Hughes or as imaginative as Clifford Irving."
Says Bloom, "I've got the money. There are people who have confidence in me and I'm not disturbed by the opinions of bankers. They tend to be quite conservative." Where will the money come from? Bloom will not say. He claims he already has over 300 events scheduled for his arena next year. What are they? Bloom will not tell.
One thing is for sure—the Qs cannot play for long in their present home, San Diego State's 4,200-seat Peterson Gym. Even the school's team no longer performs there, possibly because the players cannot find it, tucked off as it is atop a remote mesa. There are no refreshment stands in the building, no backs on the pullout bleachers and very little wattage in the P.A. system. There are also no turnstiles, a convenience that allows Groza to invent the attendance figures; Alex obviously thinks some fans are coming disguised as empty seats. When the gym is half full, which has been the case at most of the Qs games so far, the place has a jayvee flavor. Spectators mill around the edge of the floor as the players race past inches away, and much of the crowd is made up of Conquistador friends and relatives. Even if Bloom sold every seat for every game, he would still lose $500,000 this season, and the deficit will more likely be in excess of 5750,000.
A near-capacity crowd did show up last Friday and with good reason. The ABA schedule makers were generous to the Qs, who played their first seven games at home, four of them against weak teams. San Diego won all four, no small achievement for an expansion team, and then downed the first good club they met, the Eastern Division-leading Carolina Cougars. The Qs won easily 123-109, as former NBA All-Stars Joe Caldwell and Billy Cunningham were outplayed by two guys named Ollie Taylor and Jerry Chambers. The big crowd last Friday came to see Utah try to cut the Qs' division lead. The Stars did just that, 123-107, but San Diego stayed close until four minutes to play when Utah broke a 100-100 tie. The loss showed that San Diego is a typical expansion team in another sense—it doesn't have a center to match the likes of Zelmo Beaty, who scored 32 points and drew 10 fouls from the three men who attempted to guard him.
Still, with only one team to beat in its division, the Qs should make the playoffs, in itself a pleasant change for San Diego fans, and if Dr. Bloom's track record holds they may get a new arena too, whether or not they can fill it.