The Heart of the City
Matthew Kreisher was born and raised in the North Carolina with a love of writing, basketball and music. You can find him at The Fadeaway or follow him @makreish.
Sunday morning is my favorite time to walk along Hargett Street. There’s no traffic; most of the sound comes from brunch-goers on makeshift patios, and an unsettling quiet surrounds downtown Raleigh. Sunday neither belongs to the week nor to the weekend; past and present become one, and time slows to a crawl.
It was on one of these mornings, a few weeks back, that I walked into Father and Sons vintage shop and found myself staring at two game-day programs from the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, this state’s first foray into professional basketball. I was born and raised in Charlotte, and can attest to the fact that this state’s cult of hoops isn’t just about UNC and Duke. I recently admitted to a friend that I had owned a life-sized poster of former Hornets star Alonzo Mourning, a revelation that led to a contentious debate over whose vault of Hornets memorabilia was greater. The Cougars are forgotten traces of my state’s NBA heritage; Sunday was the perfect time to find myself thinking of how far North Carolina has come since the days of the red, white and blue ball.
In 1968 the Houston Mavericks, like most ABA franchises, were struggling to turn a profit, a problem they (like most ABA franchises) chalked up to their current market. They were sold and then relocated to North Carolina. In hopes of capitalizing on the state's fertile basketball soils, the newly-named Cougars became a regional franchise, splitting home games between Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte.
In theory, the regional approach made a certain amount of sense. At that point, the state was without a major metropolitan city, and the North Carolina basketball tradition was a statewide thing. But the plan backfired, as the Cougars never got enough of a local footing in any city. North Carolina has always been a hot-bed of rivalry between four schools (NCSU, Duke, Wake Forest and UNC); hoops was a matter of particularism, not the universal. With each city hosting roughly thirteen games a piece, the local pride so key to the state’s rabid hoops culture was never able to take root. The Cougars were built upon the supposition that North Carolina’s basketball history had built unity, when nearly the opposite was true.
In 1905 Wake Forest University was the first to bring basketball to the state of North Carolina, followed quickly by Trinity College (later named Duke University after Washington Duke, owner of Bull Durham Chewing Tobacco Co.). The two schools played the first collegiate basketball game south of the Mason-Dixon line on March 2, 1905. NC State and UNC followed, both forming teams in 1911. It was Carolina who, in 1945, became the first of the four teams in make it to the Final Four, led by NC State transfer Bones McKinney. In 1946 Chuck Taylor, then a traveling salesman for Converse, suggested Everett Case for the job as head coach at NC State. Case built a 12,000 seat arena and recruited nationally, caused Duke and Carolina to revamp their programs and planted the seeds of today’s Tobacco Road mega-rivalry.
The Mavericks were bought by a conglomerate of North Carolina businessmen hoping to add professional basketball to this history. They hired Bones McKinney as the franchise’s first coach in 1969; the team finished 42-42 and were swept by the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. The team regressed in their second year; McKinney was fired halfway through the season, replaced by Jerry Steele and the Cougars finished 35-50. Steele was promptly fired at the end of the season to make way for third year coach Tom Meschery, (Russian immigrant, former NBA player, today a member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame). In those first few years the Cougars made a habit of hiring homegrown talent, like All-Rookie guard Gene Littles, in his first year out of High Point College, and former Duke All-American guard Bob Verga. This practice led to one of the biggest coups in ABA history as the Cougars signed former Tar Heel star Billy Cunningham away from the NBA Philadelphia 76ers while Cunningham was still under NBA contract.
The Cougars signed Cunningham during the 1969-70 season to a 4-year $455K contract starting with the 1970-71 season. The contract called for a $125K signing bonus of which $45K was paid upon signing and Cunningham, who was getting old but still very capable, was to receive the remaining $80K upon turning down his option year in Philadelphia to join the Cougars; however, the Sixers star orally agreed to play out his option year in the NBA after claiming to have never received the full bonus. There is speculation as to whether a miscommunication took place or Cunningham was hedging his bets after fully realizing the financial instability of the league; either way he attempted to return the $45K bonus and then signed a new, 5-year contract with Philadelphia. Cunningham returned to the NBA for two seasons while a series of court cases decided his fate. Ultimately an injunction handed down from the US Court of Appeals barred Cunningham from playing for any team but the Cougars until his ABA contract expired. Cunningham would not join the team until the start of the 1972 season. In 1971, Joe Caldwell, not playing in the NBA but technically under contract to the Atlanta Hawks, jumped to the Cougars without spending the obligatory year in limbo. Five years before the Oscar Robertson suit, Caldwell and the Cougars circumvented the reserve clause, in effect inventing free agency. Caldwell was later traded when he attempted to hold the organization to the terms of his deal, and ended up causing so much trouble that he was blackballed.
In 1972-73, recently-retired ABA guard Larry Brown -- a UNC alum -- took Meschery’s place. It was Brown’s first-ever coaching job of any kind. The combination of Brown and Cunningham sparked the Cougars, who went 57-27 and became the first ABA team to shoot over 50% from the field. Cunningham earned MVP honors and Caldwell, no longer expected to carry the entire franchise on his back, flourished. The Cougars went on to win their only playoff series, sweeping the New York Nets, before losing in the second round to the Kentucky Colonels. Unfortunately, this success was short lived. Cunningham was plagued by kidney problems throughout the Cougars’ fourth year and they were eliminated again in the first round of the playoffs. The franchise was sold for $1.5 million to two New York brothers, Ozzie and Daniel Silna, and their lawyer Don Schupak, who moved the team to St. Louis.
The Cougars may have been doomed, but they stood for something bigger. The ABA was rife with experimentation -- even if most of was in the service of financial desperation. The NBA had not challenged its own conventional wisdom since the introduction of the shot clock in 1954; it was conventional wisdom that said players were bound to an NBA team for life unless the team said otherwise. It was this spirit of departing from the norm that allowed the Cougars to experiment, and ultimately fail. That is Raleigh’s legacy of professional basketball. In retrospect, that they failed to establish a regional franchise is less important than the fact that they tried at all.
I was born and raised in Charlotte, but now call Raleigh home. When I was growing up, Charlotte was a small banking city, whose goal of becoming a nationally recognized banking city unified a community. In 1989 the NBA rewarded the Queen City with the Charlotte Hornets. By the mid-nineties, Charlotte was somewhere between a small Southern past and a future of financial growth, an identity that took hold just as the Hornets took off. New NBA teams succeed when they’re integrated into the culture of the city, and capitalize on civic pride. This was why the Hornets succeeded at first -- that and Charlotte’s determination, as a mid-level city fighting for national recognition, to make sure they succeeded. Then George Shinn happened, and by the time the Hornets moved to New Orleans in 2002, the community was unified behind its dislike for one of the NBA’s worst owners (and worst people).
When the Bobcats started life in 2004, Charlotte was the worst kind of city for an NBA franchise. Today, the state is a very different place. The struggle for recognition that once galvanized the people of Charlotte ended in 1998 when the Bank of America merger turned it overnight into the nation’s second-largest banking city. With the struggle for recognition over, the civic pride that manifested during the city’s period of growth quickly eroded. Charlotte is now defined by the corporations that now call the city home. The NBA's second attempt to tap the basketball gold mine that is North Carolina now perennially ranks toward the bottom of the league in attendance levels. With the CBA negotiations going nowhere, David Stern has begun talking contraction; many point to Charlotte as the most logical team to cut.
However, Charlotte wasn’t the only growing North Carolina city. Raleigh has quickly risen to second largest metropolitan population in the state and along with Durham and Chapel Hill forms the Triangle part of the Research Triangle Park. In 1973, Cougars owner Tedd Munchak wanted Raleigh cut from the regional plan because attendance numbers lagged dramatically behind both Charlotte and Greensboro, where the Cougars were once attacked by bugs left over from the previous day’s cattle show. Raleigh now grows at a rate of 22% a year. The Research Triangle Park (RTP), located between Raleigh and Durham, has become a destination for technology firms. Since RTP was located on what was once farmland, away from the heart of Raleigh, there was no need to bend to corporate will in the way Charlotte did. Instead, Raleigh responded by renovating historical buildings in attempt to preserve the past. Small businesses began forming where once there were only government jobs and local culture was allowed to flourish and evolve. The New York Times recently described Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill as North Carolina's "Axis of Cool."
What makes the area unique is the strong sense of culture and community within each city. Chapel Hill is Chapel Hill, and Durham built a culinary empire around local, individually owned restaurants like Magnolia, Nana’s Steakhouse and Vin Rouge. Not coincidentally, that’s also the UNC and Duke binary. Raleigh, though, has found its own way, one whose strong local culture and love of basketball could make it a Southern version of Portland.
A few years ago, Ivan Howard of The Rosebuds invited me to a regular pick-up game at some outdoor courts tucked away behind Peace College. I play there regularly, along with Victor Lytvinenko, founder of high-end denim brand Raleigh Denim; writers like Grayson Currin, music editor of The Independent, co-creator of Hopscotch Music Fest; and musicians like Howard, Megafaun’s Brad Cook, and Steve Popson, bassist of FD favorite Polvo, who after his time in Chapel Hill moved back to Raleigh to open King’s Barcade. I’m close to convincing him to buy NBA Jam ‘93 for King’s. It’s people like these -- hoops fanatics who also now make Raleigh such a vital city to live in -- who remind me of the legacy of the Cougars.
The Bobcats will continue to have my support, but every time I watch them play in front of an empty stadium, I feel like I’m watching a wasted opportunity -- for the NBA and for my state. My whole life I have been proud to call North Carolina home. The glory years of the Hornets left a stamp on my childhood -- I experienced Larry Johnson’s rookie year, witnessed Jordan in the ’98 playoffs, and fought back tears after hearing the news of Bobby Phill’s crash -- and created a lifelong NBA fan. It was hard to embrace the Bobcats at first, mainly because of the once-strong ties to the Hornets, but ultimately I couldn’t resist. Yet they play in a city that barely cares, and part of me wonders what could have been had NBA officials ignored the conventional wisdom that has become Charlotte’s mother tongue.
Thirty years ago, Raleigh was home to an ABA franchise that challenged the norm, however disastrously. With labor negotiations stuck in the mud and the possibility of a lockout on the horizon, it appears both sides have lost. The spirit of the ABA and the changes it provided are needed now more than ever. The Bobcats are indicative of all that’s gone wrong with the NBA; we may never know how different things would be if, instead, they had followed in the footsteps of the Cougars.
(You can view both programs in their entirety here)