First Cats Were Carolina Cougars
February 6, 2012
It was Charlotte's first taste of the big time.
More than 25 years before hawking Hardee’s hamburgers helped Jerry Richardson bring the Carolina Panthers to Charlotte, the fast-food joints that originated in Greenville and Rocky Mount, North Carolina had a hand in bringing big-time professional basketball to the Tarheel state.
Two seasons after the upstart American Basketball Association took to the hardwood in 1967 with a fresh take on the pro game, former North Carolina congressman Jim Gardner, who according to namesake and founder Wilber Hardee won controlling stake in the burger company in a poker game, joined with Don DeJardin to buy and relocate the Houston Mavericks to Greensboro in 1969. High-flying dunkers, the 3-point shot and that red, white and blue ball were coming to Carolina.
While the rechristened Carolina Cougars, or as Sports Illustrated writer and UNC grad Fran Deford phonetically spelled them the “Kahlahnah Koogahs”, were based up yonder where I-85 meets I-40, they would be a regional team with three home courts playing close to half their games in Charlotte and others in Raleigh, as well.
Deford claimed credit for the regional team concept, having originally outlined the thesis of the regional franchise and citing Carolina as a specific possibility in the October 21, 1968 issue of SI. He contended that the sports with many games in a season, particularly baseball and basketball, were expanding to the point of nationwide saturation and suggested that “many franchises should be organized on a regional basis so that several cities share one team.”
In a January 1970 follow-up story, Deford wrote how Gardner’s cousin Bob up in New York with Deford’s regional story in hand had met with DeJardin, who wanted to run a basketball team. DeJardin was a former West Point basketball captain, then working for Westinghouse but who had served in 1967 as part-time director of player personnel for the ABA's first champion, the Pittsburgh Pipers. Bob Gardner suggested he talk to his cousin Jim down south. Forrest Gump would have called them peas and carrots. They formed the Southern Sports Corporation with several other investors.
When the two year old Houston franchise became available, they pounced and moved the club to North Carolina. They paid $350,000. By comparison, later that year they would offer former Tarheel and then NBA star Billy Cunningham a $400,000 contract over two years to join the team when his deal with the 76ers expired in 1972. Dumping most of the previous roster, Gardner and DeJardin hired the very popular Bones McKinney, a native son who studied at both NC State and UNC before coaching at Wake Forest, where he once used a seat belt to keep himself from wandering onto the court. He was also director of rehabilitation for the state's prison system and a TV commentator for ACC games. Deford said, “Bones is only less ubiquitous than tobacco and, perhaps, Hardee's hamburgers.”
McKinney, like most coaches, had a penchant to converse at times with game officials. As legend has it, good ol’ Bones had taken umbrage with a ref’s call. He didn’t yell or scream even though he had a booming voice, choosing to quietly inform the official, "You are either a thief or incompetent," at which point the referee immediately tossed him from the game.
“Why,” the coach protested, asking for a reason.
"Because you called me a thief," said the ref, surprised at the question.
To which Bones replied succinctly, "Oh my goodness, no indeed. I gave you a choice."
The first commissioner of the ABA was NBA legend George Mikan. When he resigned in 1969, the league asked the Cougars’ Gardner to step in as acting commissioner. With Gardner helming the league, DeJardin ran the team. He traded for former Tarheels Doug Moe and Larry Miller, both certified ABA stars as was Bob Verga, the ex-Duke hero. He signed two local rookies, Gene Littles of High Point College (now University) and Tarheel Bill Bunting. They went after Celtics stalwart John Havlicek but he declined to jump leagues.
In their first season, the Cougars were middle of the pack, going 42-42, finishing third in the Eastern Division and losing in the first round of the playoffs in four-straight games to the Indiana Pacers.
The only thing consistent about the Cougars, and the ABA in general, was change. Gardner and his group sold the team to Tedd Munchak, a retired carpet executive from Atlanta. Before that, Gardner hired a young attorney, a former agent who had worked in the NBA league office, named Carl Scheer as president and general manager.
Scheer, the current Senior Advisor for Community Relations for the Bobcats, is the common thread for Charlotte’s professional basketball history. He was also president of the Charlotte Hornets in their early years.
For 1970-71 season, drafted LSU magic man Pete Maravich who opted to sign with the Atlanta Hawks. They took one back luring “Pogo” Joe Caldwell - famous for jumping over cars well before Blake Griffin was born - away from Atlanta and traded with the Miami Floridians for former Campbell sharpshooter George Lehman. Caldwell would hit for 56 points against Kentucky and Lehmann 40% of his threes but wins were scarce. Jerry Steele replaced McKinney as coach and the team digressed going 34-50 and falling to sixth place.
It wasn’t much better the next season. Tom Meschery took over as coach. Larry Miller, another Tarheel star, scored an ABA-record 67 points against Memphis. The Cougars signed underclassman Jim McDaniels, a talented but mercurial center, from Western Kentucky but he wouldn’t last the season, jumping to the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics after 58 games. Caldwell was limited by injuries and the team missed the playoffs going 35-49. The good news was that a Federal Appeals Court ruled that Cunningham, who was wavering, had to honor his contract with the team.
With Cunningham in the fold, along with Caldwell, Mack Calvin and the new coaching tandem of Larry Brown and Doug Moe on the bench, the 1972-73 Cougars leapt to the top of the table, winning the eastern division with a 57-27 record. Cunningham averaged 24 points and he, Calvin and Caldwell played in the All-Star game with Brown coaching. They dispatched the New York Nets, 4-1, in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Kentucky Colonels, 4-3, in the division final.
Expectations were higher for 1973-74, but it would end with Munchak selling the team to owners who would move the franchise to Missouri as the Spirits of St. Louis. But what might have been. They had drafted underclassmen Bobby Jones (UNC) and Tommy Burleson (NC State) but both decided to remain in school. Burleson would win the NCAA title with David Thompson but glory would elude the Cougars with Cunningham limited to 32 games by kidney issues that resulted in two surgeries. In their last season in Carolina, the Cougars fell back to third place in the division with a 47-37 record in and lost in first round play to the Colonels.
The ABA would only last two more seasons with St. Louis, Kentucky and Virginia dissolving while the Pacers, Spurs, Nets and Nuggets were absorbed by and carry on in the NBA.
Though not listed on the roster, there was another person courtside for the Cougars who would later impact the Bobcats. Fred Whitfield, the Bobcats president, was a ball boy for the Greensboro games.
Over five seasons, the Cougars would create lasting memories, go 215-205 in the regular season, win a division title, make the playoffs three times, and lay the groundwork for professional basketball in North Carolina that would lead to the Charlotte Hornets and now the Bobcats.
Pretty cool for cats.
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