The penchant of good old boys with New York accents and deadly jump shots to head for the Old South—specifically the Carolinas—to bring the local citizenry strange new words and all manner of fancy trophies has long been an accepted phenomenon of college basketball. Now that Carolina has a professional team, gussied up in green and blue, called the Cougars, perhaps it was only a matter of time before a pair of those same fellows went back down there to see if a certain 6'3" Carolinian was right, that you can't go home again.
The two gents who made the trip, Larry Brown and Billy Cunningham, are transplanted New Yorkers who once starred for the University of North Carolina. They returned this year after lengthy absences to join the Cougars and they found that, indeed, things have not changed. Carolinians are as fond as ever of Northerners, just so long as they put the ball in the hole.
After half a season with Brown coaching and the 6'7" Cunningham playing forward, the Cougars seem likely to get a whole passel of awards, among them Coach of the Year, Most Valuable Player and the ABA's Eastern Division championship trophies—just the sort of hardware needed to set Carolina fans calling their team the Big Green Machine.
In their three previous seasons playing in various cities across North Carolina, the Cougars were the Big Green Blob. Their record at this time last year was almost the reverse of their current 33-15 mark, the best in the ABA. And, while the team finished next to last in the Eastern Division in 1971-72, this season it has not been out of first place since opening night. Before losing one of its three games last week, Carolina had run off 11 straight wins.
All of which is threatening to make the Cougars a Long Green Machine. As the first of pro basketball's regional franchises, Carolina had been a financial flop and until this year the viability of the regional concept was still much in doubt. But despite a "blizzard" (5½ inches of snow) that closed schools in Greensboro all last week and cut into Cougar attendance, the team could make money for the first time if it gets as far as the second playoff round. Attendance is up almost 45%. Two weekends ago, when the Cougars and the University of North Carolina played on successive nights in the Greensboro Coliseum, the pros drew more than 10,000, the Tar Heels only 6,400.
The Cougars' turnabout has been engineered by the 32-year-old Brown, whose previous coaching experience came during five years as a counselor at Camp Keeyumah in Orson, Pa. and two with the UNC frosh. Brown himself still looks like a freshman—in high school—except for the dark circles under his eyes and his exquisitely tailored clothes.
There long has been reason to expect that Brown would be an excellent coach, for he so neatly fits the stereotype of how coaches are supposed to develop. A 5'9" guard, he became a star at North Carolina, an Olympian and, finally, an accomplished pro by using smarts and guts to make up for lack of size and speed. Last spring, when he retired as a player from the Denver Rockets after five seasons in the ABA, Brown held the unofficial league records for dribbles dribbled and passes passed. No ABA player has had more assists (2,509) or more ball-handling errors (1,447). As those figures indicate, Brown was both a fine playmaker and an inveterate gambler, a parlay that once prompted his college coach, Frank McGuire, to tell him, "I searched the whole country [to McGuire searching the whole country meant he looked in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn—in the wilds of which he found Cunningham—and Queens before he discovered Brown at Long Island's Long Beach High] for a good Jewish guard because I know they're the smartest. I thought I had found just what I wanted when I got you. Now you come down here and play like an Irishman."
As a coach, Brown's style remains one of high risk, particularly on defense. The Cougars' defensive language is full of terms—trap, man-to-man press, run-and-jump in, double, one-pass-away deny, front, zone press, overplay, weak-side sag, rotate in the direction from which help comes, offer the lob—that translate into a single function: pressure. In the pros it is widely held that gambling defenses, especially full-court presses, should be used only in desperate situations late in games, since experienced professionals know all too well how to break a press and get open for easy buckets.
The Cougars have found that by alternately playing zone (legal in full-court situations and illegally used by most pro teams in some half-court defenses) and man-to-man configurations, and by applying them in predetermined circumstances over half, three-fourths or the entire court, they can confuse opponents. The constant changes generally have prevented the opposition from scoring breakaway baskets, and the wholesale aggression has made up for Carolina's rebounding inadequacies by forcing a league-leading 1,146 turnovers. Four Cougars—Cunningham, Joe Caldwell, Gene Littles and Houndog McClain—are among the ABA's top 10 in steals made.
"I've never seen a team use this much pressure and get away with it except Boston," says Cunningham, "and the Celtics always had Bill Russell backing them up if their gambling didn't pay off. When I got to training camp and Larry told me what he planned to do, I thought there might be a few things loose in his head. To run a defense like this means concentrating and working all the time. If one of our guys fails to do what he should, the whole thing falls apart. It demands lots of extra energy, but Larry's been able to sell us on it. That's the best thing he's done as a coach."
Brown made his sales pitch doubly tough by deciding that to make his kind of defense work he needed fresh players in the game at all times. He routinely uses 10 men in the first half, resting even Cunningham and Caldwell, who in the past have often played 48 minutes a game. At guard, where Brown considers freshness particularly important, he has rotated four men, giving each equal playing time in almost every game. Consequently, defense-oriented Littles and McClain have seen far more action than they might have on other clubs, and former All-Stars Mack Calvin and Steve Jones have seen less. But even though he has played only 28 minutes per game, Calvin has averaged 17.8 points and, in a 110-97 victory over the Nets last Tuesday, Jones appeared for just 25 minutes but scored 30 points by making 14 of 17 shots.
"Sure I'd love to play more," says Jones, who came to Carolina from Dallas in November. "I've always scored a lot and it's difficult getting used to having so little time to hit your average. But what can I say? I've scored 20 a game on other teams and lost. Here I'm averaging 13 and we're winning. That's, the man's answer to any complaints I might have."
Brown does not claim that he found the answers all by himself. He says his pressure tactics came straight from the playbook of his former UNC boss Dean Smith, and the Cougars' zone press is one that Caldwell remembers from his days with Atlanta in the NBA. Brown has played for many distinguished coaches, including McGuire, Smith, Henry Iba, Alex Hannum and Al Bianchi, and admits he stole from every one.
"I don't believe I'm smart enough to think up anything myself," he says. "I've sat with pieces of paper and tried to lay out things with Xs and Os and I never get any place. One thing I think I've come to realize that maybe some others haven't is that you've got to be willing to try different ideas no matter where they come from. Too many pro coaches think there is only one way to play, that they've got to go with seven guys doing it all for 80 games. But you can't risk tiring them out.
"This is especially true for us. We don't have that much rebounding, particularly after our starting center, Mike Lewis, ripped his Achilles' in the 16th game of the season. So we've got to go out and force other teams into doing things they don't want to do. Pro players are too talented to be allowed to get into their offense. If that happens, they'll kill you. So you stop it by gambling, by trying something new."
Caldwell and Cunningham have both shown a past willingness to try something new—the ABA, for example. Caldwell jumped from the Hawks to Carolina two years ago and five months later suffered an injury that required surgery on his right knee. Last season, as he slowly rounded into shape, he was subjected to considerable pressure from management, which suspected him of malingering, and from Cougar fans, many of whom believed he was washed up. One newspaper suggested that a rocking chair be placed at each end of the floor so that Caldwell could rest between his infrequent dashes downcourt. It was not until the final 10 games of the season that he began to exhibit the tough defense and fast breaks that had been his strength as an NBA All-Star. This year Caldwell is the Cougar who needs the least assistance guarding his man, and he is the only forward in the ABA who regularly "does a job" on Virginia's Julius Erving, the league's top scorer.
According to the terms of a contract he signed in 1969, Cunningham was scheduled to hop from the NBA's 76ers to the Cougars two seasons ago. Before his departure date, he charged Carolina with failing to meet part of the agreed bonus provision and signed a new contract with Philadelphia. A Federal District Court supported his contention. "After that decision was made, I thought there was no way I'd ever play in Carolina, even though I knew the Cougars were appealing the ruling," he says. One day last spring, while Cunningham was en route to make a paint commercial, his plane landed in Baltimore and a stewardess brought him a note from the terminal. "You're now a Cougar," it read. After recovering from his surprise, Cunningham realized that Carolina's victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals was a blessing in disguise. Last season was his first on a losing pro team and his prediction that Philadelphia's record was not likely to improve has come true.
"I didn't want to experience a year like that again," he says. "It's just as easy to be a loser as a winner. Once you get used to it, it becomes too easy to accept. Last season was no fun. We had no chance after midseason to make the playoffs. For the first time it became hard work to play well, and I didn't want it to get that way permanently."
As soon as the court decision was announced, the Cougars pasted up signs reading BILLY C IS BACK on outgoing mail, billboards, car bumpers and outhouse walls. Tar Heel fans remembered Cunningham as a crashing player under the boards. The Billy C who returned is that and more. During his stay in Philadelphia he had become a confident outside shooter and an extraordinary passer. He is currently the most valuable player in the ABA, ranking fourth in scoring and rebounding, sixth in assists, second in steals and ninth in blocked shots. He leads the Cougars in all these categories, but not in the one in which he often used to dominate the NBA: technical fouls. An accomplished ref baiter, Cunningham has accumulated 11 technicals thus far, a goodly total but not enough to outdo his coach, whose boyishness apparently goes unappreciated by the officials. They have nailed him 17 times.
Even though their winning streak was broken in a sloppy 105-93 loss at New York last Wednesday, the Cougars have had little to get technical about since mid-December. Their string of victories, five of which were by six points or less, allowed them to hold off the surge of the East's preseason favorite, Kentucky. The Colonels have won 20 of 24 since late November, but still trail the Cougars by three games. And Carolina looked as if it might be off on a new streak after a 129-106 victory over Dallas. Even with Caldwell out of the lineup nursing another sore knee—his left—the Cougars won in their typical fashion. Dallas pulled down eight more rebounds, but Carolina outstole them 15-3, the thefts resulting in flurries of uncontested baskets for Carolina, which shot 60% for the game. Cunningham had seven steals to go with his 23 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, while Calvin, getting slightly more playing time than he usually does, finished with 30 points in 29 minutes. All of which left Brown—who had spent the game alternately badgering the refs with words as blue as his nifty cut-velvet suit and laughing at them—happy to be home again, even if it was a home away from home.