"I was so sure we would win the championship last year," admits one member of the Kentucky Colonels' front office, "that I had my ring size checked." His attitude was understandable: with a 68-16 regular-season record, the Colonels won more and lost less than any team in ABA history—until they were beaten by the Nets in the playoffs. "To most people our record meant we were a powerhouse, but we weren't," Coach Joe Mullaney says modestly. "We just didn't let the bad teams beat us." Modesty aside, Kentucky should be nearly unbeatable in its division again. Center Artis Gilmore and Forward Dan Issel accounted for 54 points and 29 rebounds a game last year with their double-post-offense. This year, Dan will play more at a standard forward position and spell Artis in the pivot. At the other forward slot, a battle continues between Walt Simon and rookie Claude Virden, back from military service. He is very welcome: Kentucky president Mike Storen claims Virden is "quick as a cat and can run all night." At guard are old-timer Louie Dampier, Rick Mount from Indiana, Mike Gale and Jimmy O'Brien, clever at quarterback but deficient in scoring. "I need to use either Louie or Rick all the time for scoring punch," says Mullaney. "But I'm trying for more quickness and diversity."
The New York Nets also start with two natural centers, rookie Jim Chones and Billy Paultz. "We had assumed all along that Rick Barry would not be with us," says Coach Lou Carnesecca. "And we have changed our offense accordingly." Paultz will keep the center job, with Chones at forward, and how far the Nets go depends on how well that setup works. George Carter, last with the Carolina Cougars, was acquired over the summer, but he does not appear to take kindly to Carnesecca's disciplined style. At guard, Carnesecca will shuffle Bill Melchionni, John Roche and rookie Brian Taylor, all first rate.
If the Nets falter, an eager Carolina team will be right on their heels. The Cougars have a crop of new players and a rookie coach, Larry Brown, who is the youngest in the pros at 32. The Cougars needed a center to replace Jim McDaniels, and the best they could find was Mike Lewis, who comes from Pittsburgh in the dispersal draft. They needed a rebounding, hot-handed forward and, lo, as their new promotion piece proclaims—"Billy C. Is Back!" In three exhibition games Cunningham tallied 57 points and 34 rebounds. Mack Calvin, late of Florida, a fiery little guard in the Nate Archibald mold, will give Cunningham competition in the scoring column. With him in the backcourt are Ted McClain, Gene Littles and Bob Warren—a trio of which Brown has been made proud by preseason performances. Up front with Cunningham is Joe Caldwell, who will have to spend some time on the bench nursing a troublesome knee. Sound, he is among the best in pro ball. It remains to be seen whether Brown can assert strong enough leadership to harness Caldwell's talents. Cunningham, close in age to Brown and his old buddy from North Carolina, also may resist authority. If the rookie coach can run his team his way, he may have a division contender.
Meanwhile, if anyone is in the market for a real collector's item, the Virginia Squires have a promotion film up for grabs. It features Charlie Scott and Julius Erving. The sound track says that the ball moves so fast it disappears. When Scott crosses the screen, the narrator interjects: "And some players even disappear." Scott already has; Erving is trying to vanish, but has not. A Federal court order has barred him from playing for any team other than the Squires—so Coach Al Bianchi presumably will have the fabulous Dr. J. back playing forward. But one of Erving's attorneys has sought a stay of the injunction at a higher legal level and the case might be back up in the air again soon. Meanwhile, "I am juggling the lineup," says a helpless but hopeful Bianchi, "waiting for someone to jump out."
Memphis has a new owner ( Charles O. Finley), president ( Adolph Rupp), coach ( Bob Bass), nickname (TAMs) and division (Eastern). It also has holdouts, Wendell Ladner and Gerald Govan. Either Dave Lattin or rookie Bob Ford could take Ladner's starting position, and Wilbert Jones, the team's lone All-Star last year, is in the other forward slot. Johnny Neumann, despite a year's experience, still looks immature, but the addition of George Thompson, acquired from Pittsburgh, should help. The front office will probably be more fun to watch than the team, a familiar situation to Memphis fans.