Fact Friday 44 - Carolina Cougars - Charlotte's First Taste of Pro Basketball
Happy Friday everyone!
To celebrate our Charlotte Hornets making the playoffs this year, last week we gave some history on the origination of the team’s name, highlighting that the first Charlotte Hornets team actually played baseball. Well, staying in the same lane, I thought it would be good to also highlight the fact that professional basketball in Charlotte didn’t start with the Hornets in 1988.
The Carolina Cougars were a basketball franchise in the former American Basketball Association (ABA). The original ABA was founded in 1967, competing with the well-established National Basketball Association (NBA), until the ABA–NBA merger in 1976. The Cougars began when then-future Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina Jim Gardner bought the Houston Mavericks and moved them to North Carolina in 1969. At the time, none of North Carolina's large metropolitan areas -- Charlotte, the Piedmont Triad and the Triangle -- were large enough to support a professional team on its own. With this in mind, Gardner decided to brand the Cougars as a "regional" team. The Cougars were based in Greensboro and played most of their home games at the Greensboro Coliseum, the state's largest arena at the time. However, some games were also played in Charlotte at the (original) Charlotte Coliseum (now Bojangles’ Coliseum), Raleigh at Dorton Arena and Reynolds Coliseum, and in Winston-Salem at the Winston-Salem Memorial Coliseum.
Early on, the Cougars were not especially successful on the court, posting a 42-42 record in the 1969-'70 season, a 34-50 record in '70-'71, and a 35-49 record in '71-'72. Only the '72-'73 Cougars managed to make the ABA playoffs but lost in the Eastern Division Semifinals (first round) to a much stronger Indiana Pacers team. In spite of this, the Cougars had a good fan following, particularly in Greensboro.
Carolina Cougars Floor Logo
Carolina Cougars Logo
Carolina Cougars Uniform and Warm-Up Shooting Shirt
In his first year as a professional basketball coach, 32-year old Larry Brown (above middle-right) guided the 1972-73 Cougars to 57 victories and first place in the ABA's Eastern Division. The team was one of the most powerful in ABA history. Carolina shattered over 30 existing club records, including most wins in a row (11), most consecutive home (15) and road (6) victories, most road wins in a season, and biggest margin of victory (126-78 against the Nets on October 14, 1972), and of course their best all-time record (57-27).
While Carolina's newfound success depended on an overall team concept, the three players pictured here provided most of the team's firepower. Newcomer Billy Cunningham (above far left, #32) sliced through ABA defenses and dominated the boards, averaging 24.1 ppg and 12.0 rpg. That performance was enough to gain ABA MVP honors above players like Julius Erving and George McGinnis. "Pogo Joe" Caldwell (above far right, #27) thrived playing pressure defense, wowing Carolina fans with multiple steals and breakaway dunks. With Caldwell driving to the hoop from the right and Cunningham driving to the hoop from the left, Carolina's offense was feared around the ABA. But the true sparkplug behind the Cougars' offense was feisty 6'0" guard Mack Calvin. (above middle-left, #20). Picked up by Carolina in the dispersal draft of former Floridians players, Calvin displayed his usual lightning-quick drives, floating layups and no-look passes. Cunningham, Caldwell and Calvin all played in the 1973 ABA All-Star Game.
Following the 1973-74 season, the team was sold and moved to St. Louis by its new owners. The ABA would only last two more seasons with St. Louis, Kentucky and Virginia dissolving while the Pacers, Spurs, Nets and Nuggets were absorbed by and carry on in the NBA.
Over five seasons, the Cougars would create lasting memories, go 215-205 in the regular season, win a division title, make the playoffs three times, and lay the groundwork for professional basketball in North Carolina that would lead to the Charlotte Hornets.
Until next week!
Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
Information taken from:
Some content reworded or updated. Additional commentary added.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass