"He does not know the meaning of the word fear. But then he also does not know the meaning of many other words either," said one Memphis observer of Ladner, who recently declared bankruptcy at the age of 23. McCarthy, who has known Ladner since the player was 15 years old, visited him once at college and noted that he was overweight and playing poorly. "Son, you're too fat," said McCarthy. "Coach, I know it," replied Ladner. "I'm gonna get in shape as soon as the season's over."
Meanwhile, the team's first high-priced rookie finally came off the bench to earn a starting position. He is Memphis-born Johnny Neumann, who received more than $500,000 to drop out of the University of Mississippi after leading college scorers with a 40.1 average as a sophomore last year. Neumann seemed to prove McCarthy's theories about overpaid rookies by playing poorly early in the season, but in recent weeks he has shown signs of increasing maturity. An extraordinary shooter, particularly when closely guarded, Neumann has even begun to demonstrate a mild capacity for playing defense, a function he had previously disdained. His on-court presence is marked by an unlikely combination of freewheeling openness and acute insecurity. During a foul-shooting break in a game against Denver recently he calmly chatted with Rocket Coach Alex Hannum about Denver's shooters and later patted Referee John Vanak on the rear end in order to avoid being called for a technical foul. But on virtually every play in which he is involved he stares toward the bench, apparently hoping for coachly forgiveness or approbation. McCarthy purposely tries ignoring Neumann, hoping to break him of the habit—a situation that occasionally leaves the rookie looking at his coach as his man glides in for an easy basket. Escape is not always possible for McCarthy; in a game earlier in the season, Neumann drove down the lane and was jostled rudely, yet no foul was called. "They're hitting me, Coach," he whined to McCarthy. "Do tell, John, do tell," Babe drawled back.
Such soft humor long ago earned McCarthy the nickname of Magnolia Mouth. His accent is pure hominy grits, his similes all corn pone. Like Hallmark, he has a message for every occasion. To a player being badly beaten on defense: "Boy, Ah gotta tell yuh, yuh gotta come out at 'em like a bitin' sow." Urging his team on when trailing at the half: "Nawh, let's cloud up and rayn all over 'em." Or trying to pull the team out of unhappiness over a long losing streak: "Mah ole pappy usta tell me the sun don't shine on the same dawg's butt ev'ry day."
McCarthy's approach to basketball is similarly slow and easy. Like Dick Motta of the NBA's Chicago Bulls, McCarthy usually builds a stronger record than expected through controlled play. The strategy is useful because it inhibits the fast break used by the better teams. Last year the Pros finished only two games under .500 and could do just as well this season. McCarthy's players are better than their obscure college backgrounds would indicate, largely because the Babe is, more than anything else, a sharp judge of talent. Kentucky President Mike Storen, who tried to lure McCarthy away from Memphis last summer to coach the title-contending Colonels, says, "Babe is an extraordinary judge. I never pick up a guy he cuts. He measures them for speed, even though that's not his game. If they're not fast enough to run the break, he won't have them."
McCarthy has run a few fast breaks himself, despite his mother's Presbyterian guidance. Most of the stories he tells—and he tells them endlessly—start with the phrase, "One night we was havin' a few high bawls and...." Although he remembers few days in the past 20 years when he did not sip a bourbon or more, a few weeks ago he went on the wagon. "Ah haven't had a drink since Christmus," he said on New Year's Eve. "Ah can't remember when Ah've felt as good. Mah liver was kickin' up, and Ah had to stop. One problem though, 'til this week we'd won six out of our last seven games, but since Ah quit drinkin' we lost four in a row."
So much for clean living, except when it comes to parsimony. McCarthy does not think the money problems will be important in the future.
"Ah've struggled with what we've had," he says. "Ah think it'll last the way it has for a few more months, and then Ah'll have weathered the storm. Why panic at five in the mornin' because it's still dawrk out? But if this all works, Ah'll have brought a good ship home in a good town. Ah'll be able to compete on even terms. And if there's no merger, Ah won't worry because there won't be any pro team for me to coach."
If the Pros do make it, it may then be time to change the name. It was a hasty choice, selected because it would fit on the uniform jerseys over the old nickname, Bucs, and the price of a felt S could be saved on each one. Originally, a contest was to be held to choose a new name, but nothing has happened yet, so there is still plenty of time to change it to the Memphis Miracles. Or, more likely, the Bluffers.