Carolina Jim McDaniels: ‘I’m Talking About a Championship, 1971

[In 2011, author Gary West published the book Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association: The Real Story of a Team Left Behind, with the franchise’s former trainer Lloyd Gardner. The book covers lots of familiar ABA ground but takes a sharp turn on page 286 to tell the story of Jim McDaniels, who signed with the ABA Carolina Cougars in 1971 and almost immediately jumped to the NBA Seattle Supersonics. In this candid interview, McDaniels alleged that his agent Al Ross talked him into renegotiating his guaranteed, multi-year contract in midseason for an unguaranteed deal worth more money. Two weeks later, the SuperSonics cut him.

I called West to confirm the whole sordid tale of Ross teaming up with Seattle’s coach/general manager Bill Russell to dupe McDaniels and, as time would tell, ruin his pro career. West, a real gentleman, was happy to talk and described the intense, at-times tearful, interview, adding that McDaniels reviewed the write-up of their conversation before publication and declared it accurate. 

But I still wanted to confirm the story with McDaniels, hoping to mention it in my book with NBA great Archie Clark titled Shake and Bake. I made a few phone calls and was eventually patched through to McDaniels, who was in failing health in a Kentucky hospital. Our conversation started slowly but picked up when the names Al Ross, Bill Russell, and the SuperSonics came up. McDaniels confirmed the story in West’s book and rued several times, “I should have never left Carolina. Everything went downhill for me when I went to Seattle.” McDaniels died about a month later.

That’s what makes the article below a little chilling. McDaniels is still one of the ABA’s big rookie catches, and his new coach Tom Meschery, a former NBA star, compares his 6-foot-10 franchise player to Bill Russell, the man who will soon destroy his career. In fact, Meschery’s opinion of McDaniels would wax and wane until his rookie’s midseason jump to Seattle. Meschery still claimed after McDaniels departed, “I saw, with some hard work, the makings of another Bill Russell.” 

This article, published in Complete Sports’ 1971 Pro Basketball special edition, was written by Bill Hass, a sportswriter with the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. And oh yes, if only McDaniels had stayed in Carolina!]

McDanels meets with the press after signing with the Carolina Cougars.

Is Jim McDaniels worth twice as much money as Lew Alcindor?

Roughly speaking, Alcindor or Kareem Jabbar was supposed to have received $1.4 million for signing with the Milwaukee Bucks, and McDaniels is somewhere between $2.5 million and $3 million to ink with the Carolina Cougars. 

Of course, Jabbar signed two years earlier, before the bidding war between the American and National Basketball Associations escalated. The ABA didn’t really start whipping out the checkbooks until the next year, when it landed the likes of Dan Issel, Rick Mount, and Charlie Scott. 

With the crop of rookies available after last year’s college season—for McDaniels, Artis Gilmore, Sidney Wicks, Austin Carr, and Howard Porter, for instance—the money really flowed. McDaniels got the best contract of all. 

No one, of course, is claiming McDaniels is worth twice as much as Jabbar. Jim simply benefitted from an advantageous situation. The point is, for the kind of money the Cougars laid out for McDaniels, they should have gotten themselves a gem of a ballplayer.

They just might have, at that. 

One player can often turn things around for a basketball team. Jabbar made the Bucks instant contenders his first year and champions his second. The Cougars are gambling that McDaniels will do something like that for them. The team finished a sorry last in the ABA’s Eastern Division last year. Tedd Munchak, the man who bought the team a year earlier, is not the kind of person who likes to finish last in anything. A self-made millionaire (in the carpet business), Munchak wanted drastic improvement in the Cougars—and wanted it fast. The signing of McDaniels was the first step. 

The 23-year-old rookie is under a lot of pressure to produce. He knows that, and it doesn’t seem to bother him. “I have confidence in my ability and, even though I’m a rookie, I think I can do well against anyone,” he said. “I have a lot of things to prove to myself. I know I’m not going to have a great game every time on the floor, but I place a burden on myself to do certain things every night. 

“I haven’t thought much about statistical goals, although I would like to lead the team in rebounding, and I think I probably will. The main thing is to help make the Cougars a winner. If I’m in there and doing my job, scoring, rebounding, playing defense, averaging about 15 or 16 points a game—and we’re winning—I’m happy. That’s better than me averaging, say, 35 a game, and the team having the same record it did last year. I want to win, that’s the reason I’m here.”

The will to win is strongly instilled in McDaniels. In high school, his teams lost just a handful of games. At Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers twice made it to the NCAA playoffs, finishing third last year. 

“His burning desire to win reminds me of Bill Russell,” Cougars’ coach Tom Meschery said. “Sometimes I can close my eyes and listen to McDaniels, and he sounds just like Russell.”

Meschery is impressed with McDaniels’ willingness to learn and become a top-notch all-around player. “He can be as good as he wants to be,” Meschery said. “With some guys, there’s always going to be one area in which they’re weak. Earl Monroe, for example, is never going to be a great defensive player. But McDaniels can be a superb all-around player. What’s more, he knows the areas in which he’s weak and needs improvement. And he knows his strengths. He is extremely mature for a rookie.”

At Western Kentucky, McDaniels gained the reputation as an excellent outside shooter, despite his seven-foot height. The reputation was deserved. He can flick in a 20-footer with ease and accuracy of a guard. 

“We used to get in these backyard games at home,” McDaniels recalled, “and I was always the biggest guy. So, they’d draw a circle about the distance of the foul line, and I’d have to shoot from out there. Well, I wanted to win, so I learned to shoot from there.”

At 230 pounds, McDaniels is strong enough to muscle past a defender in close. He is still working to improve his moves to the basket, though, to make himself more effective. 

So there’s no doubt about McDaniels’ ability to score. How about rebounding and defense? And how about making the transition to forward (the Cougars have 6-foot-11 rookie Randy Denton of Duke in the middle)?

“I really thought forward would be my position in the pros,” he said “But a lot of small things have taken some adjustment. A center, for instance, usually just goes from foul line to foul line, but a forward covers the whole court. Defensively, it’s sometimes hard for me to pick up my man, especially when he’s fast and comes down the court a different place every time.”

The holding and bumping of the pro game were expected by McDaniels—and even welcomed. He knew before the season started that he would be thoroughly tested. But opposing centers and forwards found out fast that he wasn’t going to be intimidated. 

McDaniels was often rapped in college because he didn’t seem to get enough rebounds. Well it’s true he didn’t rebound like, say, Gilmore, he didn’t do badly, either. He averaged 13.5 for his career and 15.1 his senior season. General manager Carl Scheer is counting on him to average about that many this season. Meschery thinks he has improved greatly in his board work. 

Defense is something at which McDaniels has worked hard. In high school and college, he often had to slack off defensively, particularly when he got in foul trouble, because his team couldn’t afford to lose him. In the pros, he can be more aggressive. 

“The object of the game is to make the other guy miss his shot,” he said. “I can block shots, but I don’t like to swipe at them and knock them back into the seats five rows. Then the other team just gets it right back. I’d rather tip the ball and make it fall short, then get the rebound, or tip it to a teammate.”

One of the best things about McDaniels is his zest for the game. He describes himself as a “fanatic” about basketball. In the offseason, rarely a day goes by that he doesn’t work out a couple of hours. “I look upon pro basketball as a job,” he said, “and I want to do my job as well as anybody. If my job is sweeping off steps, I want to get every corner. My job happens to be playing pro basketball, and that’s something I love. What can be more enjoyable than doing something you love?

“When I lose my love of the game, it will be time to quit. I don’t want to just go out there and play for the money. When it gets to be real drudgery, I think it’s time to get out. I’d like to go out at my peak, like Jim Brown. I haven’t thought much about how long I’d like to play. Ten years is a nice round figure, but who knows how I’ll feel five or six years from now?”

McDaniels is friendly and easy to talk with. He’s sensitive and aware of what’s going on outside the world of pro basketball. Sit down and talk with him, and he’ll give you his view on certain situations and he’ll listen to yours. 

The money he got for signing doesn’t seem to have affected his personality. He hasn’t turned into an extravagant person. “I’m still pretty conservative,” he said. “I don’t have to prove to anybody that I have a lot of money. Why should I buy a $200,000 house and four Cadillacs? I don’t like playing that role.” 

He does live comfortably, of course. He bought a nice, but hardly extravagant, home in Greensboro, N. C. He drives a Cadillac because it offers a lot of leg room. 

The oldest of seven children, McDaniels hasn’t forgotten his family, either. He bought his mother a home in Indianapolis where she can raise the younger members of the family. He’s going to see to it that everyone gets a college education, something on which he places a high value. 

“When I went to college, a lot of people back home didn’t think I was going to make it,” he reflected. “That put a drive in me to succeed. I went back to get my degree last summer because I only lacked three hours. Why should a guy throw away what he’s worked for for four years? I had to get that degree, and now I have a desire to go on and get my master’s. 

“I’m going to see that my brothers and sisters go to college. You’ve got to have an education in this world to get what you want. I’m lucky because if I hadn’t been tall, I wouldn’t have played basketball and gotten a scholarship to college. Without that scholarship, there’s no way I would have gone to school. The other kids, especially my sisters, wouldn’t have that advantage, so that’s why I’m making sure they’ll go to school.”

McDaniels doesn’t see himself as a controversial person, although there’s enough in his background to cause considerable discussion. There was the matter of someone allegedly seeing a contract signed by McDaniels as early as December of his senior year. Then there was the unusual circumstances of his signing with the Cougars. 

He’s reluctant to talk about either subject. His answers are ones he has given many times to the same questions. Just because Howard Porter signed early doesn’t mean he did, he says. He didn’t want to live in Utah, wanted to remain in the South, so he signed with the Cougars and let the clubs work it out. 

That’s about as far as he’ll go. It would be easy to make him a controversial man, but McDaniels just won’t add any fuel to the fire. 

There’s going to be controversy if the Cougars fall flat on their faces. The critics will immediately speculate that the money spent on McDaniels was the biggest waste since the SST. 

The Cougars are unlikely to win a championship this year, but they should be improved enough to make the playoffs. There are two other fine rookies in Denton and guard Ted McClain, plus some veteran talent that includes Joe Caldwell. It will probably take this year for everyone to learn to play together and for Meschery to learn the intricacies of coaching. 

After this year, the Cougars could well be among the elite teams of the ABA. At least, that’s what the owner, management, and McDaniels have in mind. “I’d rather be on a team like the Cougars then on Utah,” McDaniels said. “Utah won everything last year, so if I joined the team and it came in second, what would I have done? There’s more incentive to see what you can do to help a team come from last place to . . . whatever. That way you can tell how valuable you are. I’m talking about a championship for us. After all, that’s the reason I’m here.”

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