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Brown made his sales pitch doubly tough by deciding that to make his kind of defense work he needed fresh players in the game at all times. He routinely uses 10 men in the first half, resting even Cunningham and Caldwell, who in the past have often played 48 minutes a game. At guard, where Brown considers freshness particularly important, he has rotated four men, giving each equal playing time in almost every game. Consequently, defense-oriented Littles and McClain have seen far more action than they might have on other clubs, and former All-Stars Mack Calvin and Steve Jones have seen less. But even though he has played only 28 minutes per game, Calvin has averaged 17.8 points and, in a 110-97 victory over the Nets last Tuesday, Jones appeared for just 25 minutes but scored 30 points by making 14 of 17 shots.
"Sure I'd love to play more," says Jones, who came to Carolina from Dallas in November. "I've always scored a lot and it's difficult getting used to having so little time to hit your average. But what can I say? I've scored 20 a game on other teams and lost. Here I'm averaging 13 and we're winning. That's, the man's answer to any complaints I might have."
Brown does not claim that he found the answers all by himself. He says his pressure tactics came straight from the playbook of his former UNC boss Dean Smith, and the Cougars' zone press is one that Caldwell remembers from his days with Atlanta in the NBA. Brown has played for many distinguished coaches, including McGuire, Smith, Henry Iba, Alex Hannum and Al Bianchi, and admits he stole from every one.
"I don't believe I'm smart enough to think up anything myself," he says. "I've sat with pieces of paper and tried to lay out things with Xs and Os and I never get any place. One thing I think I've come to realize that maybe some others haven't is that you've got to be willing to try different ideas no matter where they come from. Too many pro coaches think there is only one way to play, that they've got to go with seven guys doing it all for 80 games. But you can't risk tiring them out.
"This is especially true for us. We don't have that much rebounding, particularly after our starting center, Mike Lewis, ripped his Achilles' in the 16th game of the season. So we've got to go out and force other teams into doing things they don't want to do. Pro players are too talented to be allowed to get into their offense. If that happens, they'll kill you. So you stop it by gambling, by trying something new."
Caldwell and Cunningham have both shown a past willingness to try something new—the ABA, for example. Caldwell jumped from the Hawks to Carolina two years ago and five months later suffered an injury that required surgery on his right knee. Last season, as he slowly rounded into shape, he was subjected to considerable pressure from management, which suspected him of malingering, and from Cougar fans, many of whom believed he was washed up. One newspaper suggested that a rocking chair be placed at each end of the floor so that Caldwell could rest between his infrequent dashes downcourt. It was not until the final 10 games of the season that he began to exhibit the tough defense and fast breaks that had been his strength as an NBA All-Star. This year Caldwell is the Cougar who needs the least assistance guarding his man, and he is the only forward in the ABA who regularly "does a job" on Virginia's Julius Erving, the league's top scorer.
According to the terms of a contract he signed in 1969, Cunningham was scheduled to hop from the NBA's 76ers to the Cougars two seasons ago. Before his departure date, he charged Carolina with failing to meet part of the agreed bonus provision and signed a new contract with Philadelphia. A Federal District Court supported his contention. "After that decision was made, I thought there was no way I'd ever play in Carolina, even though I knew the Cougars were appealing the ruling," he says. One day last spring, while Cunningham was en route to make a paint commercial, his plane landed in Baltimore and a stewardess brought him a note from the terminal. "You're now a Cougar," it read. After recovering from his surprise, Cunningham realized that Carolina's victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals was a blessing in disguise. Last season was his first on a losing pro team and his prediction that Philadelphia's record was not likely to improve has come true.
"I didn't want to experience a year like that again," he says. "It's just as easy to be a loser as a winner. Once you get used to it, it becomes too easy to accept. Last season was no fun. We had no chance after midseason to make the playoffs. For the first time it became hard work to play well, and I didn't want it to get that way permanently."
As soon as the court decision was announced, the Cougars pasted up signs reading BILLY C IS BACK on outgoing mail, billboards, car bumpers and outhouse walls. Tar Heel fans remembered Cunningham as a crashing player under the boards. The Billy C who returned is that and more. During his stay in Philadelphia he had become a confident outside shooter and an extraordinary passer. He is currently the most valuable player in the ABA, ranking fourth in scoring and rebounding, sixth in assists, second in steals and ninth in blocked shots. He leads the Cougars in all these categories, but not in the one in which he often used to dominate the NBA: technical fouls. An accomplished ref baiter, Cunningham has accumulated 11 technicals thus far, a goodly total but not enough to outdo his coach, whose boyishness apparently goes unappreciated by the officials. They have nailed him 17 times.
Even though their winning streak was broken in a sloppy 105-93 loss at New York last Wednesday, the Cougars have had little to get technical about since mid-December. Their string of victories, five of which were by six points or less, allowed them to hold off the surge of the East's preseason favorite, Kentucky. The Colonels have won 20 of 24 since late November, but still trail the Cougars by three games. And Carolina looked as if it might be off on a new streak after a 129-106 victory over Dallas. Even with Caldwell out of the lineup nursing another sore knee—his left—the Cougars won in their typical fashion. Dallas pulled down eight more rebounds, but Carolina outstole them 15-3, the thefts resulting in flurries of uncontested baskets for Carolina, which shot 60% for the game. Cunningham had seven steals to go with his 23 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, while Calvin, getting slightly more playing time than he usually does, finished with 30 points in 29 minutes. All of which left Brown—who had spent the game alternately badgering the refs with words as blue as his nifty cut-velvet suit and laughing at them—happy to be home again, even if it was a home away from home.