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This is a story about my baby. I'm warning you—if you don't like people babbling on about their baby, push on, although I hope that you will at least pause long enough to examine the snapshots I have also provided. If you won't see for yourself, I will explain (at length) how handsome my baby is and how much bigger, stronger and smarter he is than other babies. Naturally, I expect him to grow up to become no less than champion of the world.
Actually, the baby is really not mine any longer. I put him up for adoption last year, and he was taken in by some people who were much more capable of providing for him than I was. They have nourished him and educated him and given him a name—Carolina Cougars, or Kahlahnah Koogahs, as the team is known in the loving vernacular.
The Carolina Cougars are the newest team in the American Basketball Association. More important, they are the first regional sports franchise in history, and they have enjoyed such an auspicious debut that their example is bound to cause repercussions through the whole of professional sport. The Cougars have proved that a regional franchise—one that plays a regular schedule in several "home" cities—is not only interesting but downright practical. The team is outdrawing all but Indiana in the ABA as well as several NBA franchises, and it is making money, which is a claim very few one-town basketball franchises can make during the football season, if ever.
The reason I take more of a paternal than journalistic interest in these proceedings is that I originally outlined the thesis of the regional franchise—citing Carolina as a specific possibility—in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED issue of Oct. 21, 1968. Briefly, I contended that the sports that schedule many games in a season—notably baseball and basketball—were expanding to the point of nationwide saturation. There were too many teams playing too many games, while scheduling was still based on the demographics of the 1890s, when the automobile and television were not factors and when concentrated population was found only in a few large "center" cities. I suggested that many franchises should be organized on a regional basis so that several cities share one team. There are any number of regional arrangements that can be constructed, but as a classic prototype I cited North Carolina, an area that could immediately embrace a regional franchise since there is no real conflict with other pro teams. The state has never had even a high minor league franchise in any sport.
This is deceiving, because the Tar Heel State is the 11th most populous in the nation, with more than five million residents. Like most Southern states, however, Carolina does not possess any single large city. Simple geography plus its early development—agrarian rather than industrial—conspired instead to create many small cities. Today these are all spaced comfortably along major highways, forming something of a triangle, with the largest three metropolitan centers—Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh—roughly at the points. There are other urban centers, making up a linear population pattern instead of the single-ringed metropolitan giant that is most often found elsewhere.
Now, while all this is significant, it is also a fact that virtually every town in North Carolina has a modern arena, and the whole state is batty over basketball. So, when I proposed it as the perfect area for a regional franchise, I was not just whistling Dixie. I was pretty sure I was playing with a stacked deck.
At about the time I wrote that article, a young man named Don DeJardin was in the market for angels. DeJardin, 33, a 6'2" former West Point basketball captain, was working for Westinghouse, but he had served in 1967 as part-time director of player personnel for the ABA's first champion, the Pittsburgh Pipers. The experience encouraged DeJardin to get into the business of running an ABA team and, with characteristic military flair that he makes no effort to conceal behind a crew cut and West Point class ring—both vintage 1958—he sat down and formulated, over a two-month period, a detailed outline of how such a team should be organized. He met with about 25 different group and individual prospective owners, and in New York a member of one large group, Bob Gardner, allowed as how his cousin down in High Point, N.C. might also be interested in DeJardin's prospectus. The cousin was James Gardner, a former Congressman who had just lost a close election for governor of North Carolina. Only 37, Gardner is a millionaire by virtue of his hamburger stands, called Hardee's. Armed with copies of my article that Cousin Bob had sent him, Jim Gardner met with DeJardin, liked his proposal and introduced him to his partners, Bob Gorham and Leonard Rawls, two other successful young Rocky Mount businessmen.
They planned to go for an expansion franchise, but in January, when the Houston Mavericks caved in altogether, DeJardin advised that they were better off picking up this "distressed merchandise." He has since unloaded every player on that team, managing, in a series of trades, not only to acquire some Carolina players for local interest, but enough good players to make the Cougars a respectable playoff contender. Management of the team has fallen almost entirely to DeJardin, because hardly had the team been shifted to Carolina last spring when Gardner became de facto ABA commissioner. The two men worked together, though, to achieve their biggest goal—giving the state what it wanted, Bones McKinney as coach.
Born in Lowland, raised next door to Duke in Durham, educated at NC State and UNC, once the pastor of a Baptist church in Raleigh, coach at Wake Forest, director of rehabilitation for the state's prison system, TV commentator for ACC games, Bones is only less ubiquitous than tobacco and, perhaps, Hardee's hamburgers.
DeJardin traded for Doug Moe, a certified ABA star and former Tar Heel as well. He picked up Bob Verga, the ex-Duke hero; two local pro rookies, Gene Littles and Bill Bunting; and last month took Larry Miller and his large salary away from the Los Angeles Stars' budget. Miller, the handsome All-America from UNC, was one of the most popular athletes ever to play in Carolina. It was Bones, however, that every mother's son in the state knew; it was Bones they needed to make the Koogahs genuine Kahlahnah flesh and blood.