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The penchant of good old boys with New York accents and deadly jump shots to head for the Old South—specifically the Carolinas—to bring the local citizenry strange new words and all manner of fancy trophies has long been an accepted phenomenon of college basketball. Now that Carolina has a professional team, gussied up in green and blue, called the Cougars, perhaps it was only a matter of time before a pair of those same fellows went back down there to see if a certain 6'3" Carolinian was right, that you can't go home again.
The two gents who made the trip, Larry Brown and Billy Cunningham, are transplanted New Yorkers who once starred for the University of North Carolina. They returned this year after lengthy absences to join the Cougars and they found that, indeed, things have not changed. Carolinians are as fond as ever of Northerners, just so long as they put the ball in the hole.
After half a season with Brown coaching and the 6'7" Cunningham playing forward, the Cougars seem likely to get a whole passel of awards, among them Coach of the Year, Most Valuable Player and the ABA's Eastern Division championship trophies—just the sort of hardware needed to set Carolina fans calling their team the Big Green Machine.
In their three previous seasons playing in various cities across North Carolina, the Cougars were the Big Green Blob. Their record at this time last year was almost the reverse of their current 33-15 mark, the best in the ABA. And, while the team finished next to last in the Eastern Division in 1971-72, this season it has not been out of first place since opening night. Before losing one of its three games last week, Carolina had run off 11 straight wins.
All of which is threatening to make the Cougars a Long Green Machine. As the first of pro basketball's regional franchises, Carolina had been a financial flop and until this year the viability of the regional concept was still much in doubt. But despite a "blizzard" (5½ inches of snow) that closed schools in Greensboro all last week and cut into Cougar attendance, the team could make money for the first time if it gets as far as the second playoff round. Attendance is up almost 45%. Two weekends ago, when the Cougars and the University of North Carolina played on successive nights in the Greensboro Coliseum, the pros drew more than 10,000, the Tar Heels only 6,400.
The Cougars' turnabout has been engineered by the 32-year-old Brown, whose previous coaching experience came during five years as a counselor at Camp Keeyumah in Orson, Pa. and two with the UNC frosh. Brown himself still looks like a freshman—in high school—except for the dark circles under his eyes and his exquisitely tailored clothes.
There long has been reason to expect that Brown would be an excellent coach, for he so neatly fits the stereotype of how coaches are supposed to develop. A 5'9" guard, he became a star at North Carolina, an Olympian and, finally, an accomplished pro by using smarts and guts to make up for lack of size and speed. Last spring, when he retired as a player from the Denver Rockets after five seasons in the ABA, Brown held the unofficial league records for dribbles dribbled and passes passed. No ABA player has had more assists (2,509) or more ball-handling errors (1,447). As those figures indicate, Brown was both a fine playmaker and an inveterate gambler, a parlay that once prompted his college coach, Frank McGuire, to tell him, "I searched the whole country [to McGuire searching the whole country meant he looked in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn—in the wilds of which he found Cunningham—and Queens before he discovered Brown at Long Island's Long Beach High] for a good Jewish guard because I know they're the smartest. I thought I had found just what I wanted when I got you. Now you come down here and play like an Irishman."
As a coach, Brown's style remains one of high risk, particularly on defense. The Cougars' defensive language is full of terms—trap, man-to-man press, run-and-jump in, double, one-pass-away deny, front, zone press, overplay, weak-side sag, rotate in the direction from which help comes, offer the lob—that translate into a single function: pressure. In the pros it is widely held that gambling defenses, especially full-court presses, should be used only in desperate situations late in games, since experienced professionals know all too well how to break a press and get open for easy buckets.
The Cougars have found that by alternately playing zone (legal in full-court situations and illegally used by most pro teams in some half-court defenses) and man-to-man configurations, and by applying them in predetermined circumstances over half, three-fourths or the entire court, they can confuse opponents. The constant changes generally have prevented the opposition from scoring breakaway baskets, and the wholesale aggression has made up for Carolina's rebounding inadequacies by forcing a league-leading 1,146 turnovers. Four Cougars—Cunningham, Joe Caldwell, Gene Littles and Houndog McClain—are among the ABA's top 10 in steals made.
"I've never seen a team use this much pressure and get away with it except Boston," says Cunningham, "and the Celtics always had Bill Russell backing them up if their gambling didn't pay off. When I got to training camp and Larry told me what he planned to do, I thought there might be a few things loose in his head. To run a defense like this means concentrating and working all the time. If one of our guys fails to do what he should, the whole thing falls apart. It demands lots of extra energy, but Larry's been able to sell us on it. That's the best thing he's done as a coach."