When Tedd Munchak, a portly carpet executive from Atlanta bought the Carolina Cougars from Jim Gardner and the Southern Sports Corporation in 1970, he inherited a 32-year-old attorney and former agent who had worked in the NBA league office named Carl Scheer as President and General Manager.
If there has been a motif to professional basketball in Charlotte, it's been Carl Scheer. His experience with the Cougars and later with the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers made him first choice to lead the Hornets when the NBA came to Charlotte. Currently, he serves as Senior Advisor for Community Relations for the Bobcats.
You could that say Scheer was born into basketball. A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, he grew up about 10minutes from where the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame stands now. The Hall was established in 1959. By that time, Scheer had finished playing college ball, first at Colgate and then for Middlebury College in Vermont and was hitting the books in law school at the University of Miami.
He had every intention of staying in Florida but when his father died in an automobile accident, he returned to Greensboro where his parents had moved. Coincidentally, that was also his where his wife Marsha was from. They had met after his first year in law school working at a summer camp in the Poconos.
Setting up a law practice in Greensboro, Scheer kept close to the game as the radio play-by-play man for Guilford College basketball and football teams. That’s where he met Bob Kauffman, a forward for the Quakers who would be the No. 3 pick in the 1968 NBA draft. Kauffman asked Scheer to represent him in his negotiations with Seattle.
Through that opportunity he got to know NBA personnel and was asked to interview for a job in the NBA office as assistant to the commissioner.
Working for Walter Kennedy in the league office, he had to deal with the ABA going after the same college stars they coveted as well as keeping established players from jumping ship. When the Cougars drafted Pete Maravich, Scheer helped sign him to the Atlanta Hawks. That would soon change when Gardner offered him the chance to run a team. Players switched leagues for the green; why did Scheer go?
“I thought the ABA had a real chance. They had very interesting owners, very exciting players, a very good and open view of how the game should be played and marketed to fans.”
Scheer admired what the league brought to the game. “We had an exciting game designed for fan enjoyment. We had nothing to lose and we felt if we changed the game around a little bit and maybe shake up the NBA, we may get noticed and that’s what ultimately happened. We wanted to move the game faster up and down the court. At that time we had Julius Erving, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel. We wanted to display their talent in the best possible way so we maneuvered around with the rules in order to give our players the best chance to be successful.”
He admitted his job choice wasn’t without trepidation. “There were certain challenges if you jumped into the ABA, you could very well have been out of basketball in a very short time.”
Not soon after, Gardner sold the team to Munchak who was more than happy to keep Scheer in charge.
The first two seasons were tough. From 42 wins before he got there, Scheer saw the team win just 34 and 35 games his first two seasons. But the parts were coming together.
When a federal court ruled that Caldwell's rights belong to Carolina because Atlanta violated the NBA reserve clause, the Cougars swooped in to sign him.
If the NBA was conservative pinstripes and suits, the ABA was outlandish plaid and bellbottoms. It gave Scheer a license to innovate. Beginning with the ABA, he’s credited with installing the slam dunk contest into the All-Star festivities and hired Billy Packer to one of his first broadcasting jobs calling Cougars games on TV with Dick Stockton. With the Hornets, he took in-game entertainment to new, and louder, levels, something that spread quickly through the league.
“I always felt there was more to the evening than just 48 minutes of basketball. The game was more an experience than it was strictly just an athletic contest. And that we wanted to give our fans the best opportunity for enjoyment.”
Scheer hired Larry Brown, an ABA All-Star who had just retired after five seasons in the league to be his rookie head coach for the 1972-73 season along with Doug Moe, another UNC grad and a player in the Cougars first season, as an assistant coach.
Brown would often play four guards at a time and press for 48 minutes.
The competition off the court was perhaps more frenetic than on with the ABA aggressively going after the top college players as well as established NBA stars. Scheer and the Cougars focused on one in particular, Billy Cunningham, the Kangaroo Kid, a four-time NBA All-Star in seven seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers.
It was a very big deal because Cunningham, who won the 1967 NBA title with the Sixers, was a former UNC star, an All American who averaged 24.8 points and 14.5 rebounds over his career in Chapel Hill. To Scheer, he was “genuinely a superstar who played like a superstar. He changed the whole character of our acceptance here in North Carolina. We were fighting just to stay alive and doing whatever we could to influence fans to come. When Cunningham came, we became a very competitive basketball team. It was a pretty darn good team.”
It wasn’t that easy though. After signing a contract to join the Cougars at the expiration of his Sixers deal, Cunningham had second thoughts about leaving the relative stability of the NBA. But when a Federal Appeals Court ruled his Cougars contact valid, Cunningham reported and large buttons celebrating “Billy is Back” adorned fans across the state.
Cunningham ABA would be the league MVP in ’73 and the Cougars with fellow All Stars Caldwell, and Mack Calvin along with stalwarts Steve “Snapper” Jones, Ted “Hound Dog” McClain, Jim Chones and a slew of former local college stars such as Tom Owens (USC), Mike Lewis (Duke), Gene Littles (High Point) and Dennis Wuycik (UNC) would go 57-27 winning the Eastern Division before losing in the semifinals to Kentucky.
That would be the zenith. With Cunningham limited to 32 games by kidney ailments, the Cougars would go 47-37 the following season before Munchak sold the franchise to a group that moved them to St. Louis. Scheer, Brown and Moe never made it to Missouri, opting further west to join the Denver Nuggets. That’s where he would be when four - the Nuggets, Nets Pacers, and Spurs - of the ABA’s seven remaining teams would be folded into the NBA.
“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be here when basketball was introduced on the professional level and to see it sustain itself through difficult times, through peaks and valleys. Now in the twilight of my career, Michael Jordan is my boss and it could not have worked out any better for me.”
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