The others wanted to cut their losses and get out. Bassett said he'd go it alone. He moved the Toros to Birmingham and renamed them the Bulls, shifted the Northmen to Memphis and renamed them the Southmen; he sold off shares in both teams to local investors.
The Bulls took hold, and by the time the NHL absorbed the WHA in 1979, Birmingham was a solid franchise. Bassett received a nice settlement in the merger. That plus returns from real estate and other investments kept him afloat and helped pay off nearly half a million dollars in WFL debts.
A byproduct of the arduous episode was that Bassett was now operating south of the border. He reveled in the looser social structure of the U.S. and, for a freewheeling businessman, it was the major leagues. He was on his own now, adrift from the family and the patrician set back in Toronto.
At about this time Bassett learned he had skin cancer. He dismisses the whole thing now as inconsequential, but back then he was frightened, and the scar that covers a quarter of his back indicates his condition was serious. He needed a second operation, a bad sign, and came home a different man. Says a friend, "He realized his only roots were his family."
Bassett grew a beard, forgot about business for a while and turned to sailing. Most of his time was spent at his home in Sarasota, where he could look out his back window at palm trees, a snow white beach and the Gulf of Mexico. If you ask him what else he did while he was recuperating he says, "Nothing." But his real project was Carling.
She had taken up tennis at the age of nine, when her grandmother gave her a $5 racket purchased in a drugstore. She had short hair, big teeth and bit her lower lip when she swung. Tommy Terrific she was called, because she was a tomboy and because she had guts. Bassett admits, "Carling had an almost psychotic fear of failure."
Late in 1979 Carling lost in the first round of the main draw of a 12-and-under tournament and then blew her first match in the consolation flight. She came home with a rueful look on her face. "I want to be a real tennis player," she told her father. Years before someone had asked Rod Laver what advice he could give a Canadian who wanted to learn tennis. Laver answered, "Get out of Canada." Bassett deposited Carling on Bollettieri's doorstep. In fact, she moved into his house. In the beginning, the feeling around the tennis academy was that Carling was good but would fade. She was cute and wealthy. Life was too easy. Tennis would be too hard.
"That's where people were wrong," says Bollettieri. Bassett had given Bollettieri a mandate. "Make her ground-strokes perfect," he told him. He also donated a bus so the academy would have tournament transportation, helped out with scholarship money and even put in a tennis court at Bollettieri's home. Bollettieri in turn gave Carling a four-page, single-spaced letter, a manifesto for the road to Wimbledon. It spoke of love, dedication, sacrifice, and "destroying your best friend on the court."
Carling went through tennis shoes as though the soles were butter. She worked hard and didn't give up. Kathy Rinaldi, six months older, won 12 straight games from her. "But," her father remembers, "Carling came home and said, 'A lot of the games went to deuce.' " She worked harder. Her schedule from 1979 to '82: up at 6:30 a.m.; breakfast at 7; school at 8:30; on the bus back to the academy at 12:30 p.m., lunch on the way; practice from 1:30 to 5; jog three to five miles; do sprints; perform agility drills; do 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups; take a shower; eat dinner at 6:15; hit the books. No TV. No radio. No phone calls. Lights out at 10 p.m. after an hour's break for snacks and gossip. She told a reporter, "I know other kids have more fun, but I want to be somebody when I'm older."
People like Wayne Gretzky, one of her heroes, sent her telegrams of encouragement. Her mother told her that when she made Wimbledon, she could have her ears pierced. And one day she beat her father for the first time. It was about then that John stopped combing his hair forward to cover a receding hairline. It was as if he was saying, "I'm older now. Why fight the inevitable?"