The Kentucky Colonels held a comfortable 13-point lead late in the sixth game of their ABA Eastern Division finals against the Carolina Cougars in Louisville's Freedom Hall, when Wendell Ladner lunged toward the sideline to intercept a Cougar pass, flipping the ball in bounds as he headed out of bounds in the posture of a man leaving a saloon not of his own free will. So far it was a typical play by the indomitable Ladner, except this time he misjudged his landing pattern. Winging along three feet off the floor, he laid a firm block on the five-gallon bottle atop the Cougars' water cooler. The jug flew onto the concrete apron behind the bench, closely followed by Ladner, who made a gear-up landing in a bed of shattered glass, paper cups and water. To that mixture he immediately added quantities of blood from deep cuts in his left arm, his back and both legs. Kentucky fans had 30 seconds to decide whether to cheer or weep, for by then Ladner was back on his feet, a bloodstained towel wrapped around his arm, heading toward the locker room. A minute or two later, as his teammates rolled to a 119-100 win to tie the series at three victories apiece, Ladner was ordering the Colonels' physician in his deep Mississippi drawl, "Patch me up, Doc. Patch me up. I gotta get back in there."
Even though Ladner's heroics eventually landed him in the hospital where 42 stitches would put him back together for the series finale, his zest for action was only marginally above average for these playoffs. There was a game in which as many as 63 fouls were called, and Kentucky often played a front line composed mostly of guys with no teeth. It was a series in which Colonel Coach Joe Mullaney sounded about as subtle as Woody Hayes when he talked of establishing his inside game early. There was a game during which Carolina's Larry Brown coached the fourth quarter with his sport jacket tied around his waist because he had ripped the seat out of his black velvet trousers while objecting to an out-of-bounds call, and another game during which a car salesman, fresh from the lots of Jim Booher Chevy, briefly swung the series Kentucky's way. One Colonel guard, Mike Gale, had an eyeball knocked out of alignment when a stray elbow fractured the floor of his left socket, and another guard, Lou Dampier, returned to action even though he had cracked a bone in his left foot only three weeks earlier. Meanwhile, Cougar Owner Ted Munchak threatened to move his team out of Carolina if fan support did not improve, while Colonel fans sounded ready to run their team right out of Kentucky if it did not win.
Dissatisfaction with the Colonels has been prevalent ever since last season when Kentucky compiled the best record in ABA history (68-16) and then was clobbered early in the playoffs by the lowly Nets. New York did it by smothering the Colonels' monster inside offense, built around a pair of 240-pounders, 7'2" Artis Gilmore and 6'9" Dan Issel, both of whom are natural centers. At the start of the current season Mullaney attempted to add mobility to the Kentucky attack by using Issel as a more orthodox forward. The experiment failed, the Colonels losing 12 of their first 19 games before reverting to their old offense. Attendance dropped from an average of 8,600 a game last season to 7,400 this year, even though the Colonels had the best record in the ABA after mid-November and finished 56-28, just a game behind the Cougars in the Eastern Division.
"Apathy set in," said Colonel President Mike Storen. "People said no matter how well we played, no matter how much we won, we'd fold sooner or later."
Kentucky began the playoffs determined to avoid another el foldo. It won its opening round against Virginia in five games and then took the home-court advantage away from the Cougars by winning the first game at Charlotte 113-103. In that victory Ladner, a 6'5" substitute forward, scored two three-point goals in the closing minutes to help bring the Colonels from behind. He added three other three-pointers during the second half of Kentucky's sixth-game victory.
"I don't care where Wendell shoots from once he's over half court," says Mullaney. "He's so strong that he can get the ball to the basket with the proper rotation on it from almost anywhere as long as he remembers to shoot with his body in balance. Of course, the way he plays he sometimes forgets about balance." Mullaney may have had in mind a bit of action earlier this season during which Ladner crash-landed in his coach's lap. Mullaney survived, but the chair in which he had been sitting had all four legs broken off it.
The outside shooting of Ladner and Rick Mount, who led Kentucky's scorers with 31 and 25 points in its first and third wins, gave the Colonels an offensive weapon they lacked in last season's playoffs. Their strategy is to go inside early, particularly to Issel, force defenses to sag into the middle and then pop in medium-range jumpers. Against Carolina, Issel and Gilmore scored 60% of their points in the first half; Issel, who averaged 27.8 for the six games, thrice had 20 or more points by the close of the second quarter.
The Cougars won the second game 125-105 in Greensboro, N.C., but the attendance figure (5,103) left Munchak growling about taking the franchise, perhaps to Philadelphia, where ex-76er Billy Cunningham and a team that wins more than nine games might be appreciated.
After the Colonels' 108-94 victory in the third game at Louisville, the Cougars looked as if they belonged in Philadelphia. Kentucky's toothless twosome split the game and Carolina in half. Issel, who plays without part of his upper bridgework, scored 25 points in the first two periods on his way to a 34-point game. Then Ron Thomas, a rookie with an equally gappy grin, appeared for 15 minutes in the second half, poured in 15 points and added 10 rebounds and three steals. Thomas, who played for the University of Louisville last year, was selling OK Used Cars out on Shelbyville Road when the Colonels hired him in December to fill in for injured squad members at practices. After three sessions, Thomas was signed to a contract and he now does endorsements for Jim Booher.
Kentucky's third-game victory put the Cougars, who had led the Eastern Division for every day of the regular season, in a precarious position. In the locker room Brown, the 32-year-old ABA Coach of the Year, talked of the defeat in his usual solemn tones. "Hey, don't blame this one on me. Jews aren't supposed to coach during Passover. You know, Sandy Koufax didn't pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, and I don't coach in the playoffs on Passover. I could've refused, too, but somehow I didn't feel I was in Sandy's bargaining position."
Billy Cunningham describes the Cougars—and that includes Brown and Assistant Coach Doug Moe—as the loosest and most tightly knit team he has ever played for. The Cougars go to the races—flats and trotters—together, to restaurants together, drink beer together and even took a midseason vacation in Las Vegas together. All of which is a departure from the dictum that coaches are asking for trouble when they socialize with their players.
"We're like a fraternity," says Brown, "although I guess we're a pretty liberal one because we've got a lot of members who are black as well as a Jew."
Along with camaraderie, Carolina has two superb forwards in Cunningham, the league's Most Valuable Player and a 24.1 scorer, and Joe Caldwell, and four first-rate guards whom Brown deploys in shifts. What the team seemed to lack going into the playoffs was a center capable of contending with Gilmore. Last season the Cougars had 7-foot Jim McDaniels, who subsequently jumped to the NBA. They began this year with Mike Lewis, who promptly tore his Achilles tendon. They brought in Ira Harge, who quit after four games to go to law school. Like it or not, the Cougars were stuck with 6'10" Tom Owens. But in the playoffs, it was Gilmore who was not liking it all that much.
In grade school the gangling Owens was a guard. In high school and at the University of South Carolina he was a forward who shot a two-handed, knuckleball jumper. After McDaniels' hasty departure last year, Owens played a little back-up center and did the same early this season behind Lewis.
In the first three games of the playoffs the Gilmore-Owens matchup was a surprising standoff. In the fourth contest at Louisville, when the Cougars badly needed a win, Owens outscored his opponent 10 to 6 and outrebounded him 17 to 7. Although Owens received little defensive help from his teammates, Gilmore was unable to maneuver into the middle for his high-percentage jump hook. "A number of times early in the series I went hard to the basket and they called fouls on me," said Gilmore. "I got so I was playing rabbit ball. I was timid."
After practice before the fifth game at Greensboro where, for a change, 11,988 fans showed up, Gilmore worked on his moves to the basket for an hour and a half. He then hit 10 of 12 shots against Owens and scored 26 points, but was outrebounded again as Carolina won 112-107. The game was a ragged affair marked by an extraordinary second-half performance by Carolina Guard Steve Jones, who hit three of four crucial outside shots late in the fourth period and added three foul shots in the final 55 seconds. By that time Brown's pants were in disrepair. In another of his succinct post-game analyses, he said, "They're Pierre Cardin, the boutique line."
The next night in Louisville an ABA-record crowd of 16,892 distinctly un-apathetic Colonel fans finally saw Gilmore dominate Owens on the boards, as well as Ladner's crash landing. It all added up to a shattering experience for the Cougars, who still had the opportunity to go back home and get in one last good rip of their own.