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Original Issue

Charlie is their darling

Down in Virginia, anyway, as he leads the scrappy Squires toward a title a year ahead of schedule

The legend is that Ichabod Crane disappeared one eerie night in Sleepy Hollow, his lank, loose frame flapping as he faded away, his whereabouts evermore a subject of speculation among those taken by witchcraft and general devilment. Lately, in another of the old colonies, the Commonwealth of Virginia, a man has appeared whose presence might put an end to the mystery. His head, so thin that it could have been compressed by several hearty whacks from the flat of the Headless Horseman's sword, teeters precariously on the tip of a long, narrow neck. As he moves about, speedily, his protruding Adam's apple bobs and his gangling arms beat the air like the wings of a large bird. His name is Charlie Scott and, while he is every bit as loose-jointed and elongated (6'6", 175 pounds) as old Ichabod, the resemblance ends there; he is a long way from disappearing into the night. As a matter of fact, Charlie Scott has led the Virginia Squires to first place in the American Basketball Association's Eastern Division by displaying more tangible assets than any other rookie in either professional league.

Next season was supposed to have been the Squires' year. Formerly the Washington Caps, and before that the Oakland Oaks, the team was hastily transformed last summer into a regional franchise operating in Norfolk, Richmond, Hampton and Roanoke. During the off season two highly talented but injury-prone and controversial players—Rick Barry and Warren Armstrong—were traded away for first-round picks in this year's college draft. According to Owner Earl Foreman's plan, the new stars Virginia selects in the draft would join with Scott to give his team the 1972 ABA championship. Foreman's timing would have been perfect because the Squires are due to move into three new arenas next year.

Only the handsome 10,000-seat Hampton Roads Coliseum, a cupcake-shaped structure of glass and concrete surrounded by fountains and a small tidal basin, has provided Virginia with a home court glittery enough to match the team's performance this season. The Squires' other "home" games have been played in a retired trolley-car barn in Richmond, in a small college gym in Norfolk where eating, smoking and drinking are prohibited and in a cramped 6,500-seat hall near Roanoke. These inadequate facilities are largely responsible for Virginia's attendance being well under 5,000 a game.

At the beginning of next season the other three cities will have arenas similar to Hampton's, but by then the Squires' carefully drawn plans for winning the title in 1972 may have to be changed to defending it. Before a mild, late-season slump—not unexpected, since Virginia was under no pressure after building a 10½-game lead over the second-place Kentucky Colonels—the Squires had the best record in the ABA. In the playoffs that begin in two weeks only the rapidly improving New York Nets seem likely to threaten Virginia's chances of making the finals. The Western Division representative in the championship round should be either Utah or Indiana, which have engaged in a season-long battle for first place. Against either team Virginia will be the underdog, but underdogs have won before.

Along with the instant maturity of Scott, who leads the team in assists and scoring (27 points a game), the Squires' unplanned success is a result of balance and depth—the latter highly unusual in the ABA—and the low-key coaching of Al Bianchi. A brawling backcourt man for 10 NBA seasons and a bawling coach in both leagues for three years prior to this one, Bianchi has calmed down considerably. He has cut his technical fouls in half and has yet to be ejected from a game, a regular occurrence in the past. He sets few rules for the Squires and rarely harangues them. Forward Neil Johnson, who played in the NBA under Dick McGuire in New York and Red Kerr in Phoenix—two coaches who lost their jobs supposedly because they failed to maintain team discipline—feels Bianchi has struck a fine balance. "Al tries to psych us with kindness," Johnson said. "He doesn't yell a lot. We have serious talks, more like teaching situations. Al is a nice guy, but you can't mess with him. He does get mad and he will yell. One of the few rules he set was that we aren't supposed to drink on planes. Well, one guy had a drink and AI found out about it and fined the guy $200. It's from incidents like that that everybody knows he can be tough."

Bianchi has toughened Virginia in other ways. Last season, as the Caps, the team had the worst defensive record in the league. At this year's training camp Bianchi installed an aggressive team defense similar to the New York Knickerbockers', and the Squires now have one of the league's best to go along with their ABA-leading offense. But Virginia's defense is not limited to switches, double-teams and traps; there also have been punches, gouges and a few hammerlocks, which have gained the Squires a reputation as the scrappingest team in the league. They established that claim at Indianapolis early in the season. With the Squires ahead by 21 points in the second quarter, a shoving match between the Pacers' Mel Daniels and Virginia's Mike Maloy broke out under the basket. Before it all cooled down, 10 policemen and nine squad cars were used to cart Bianchi, Scott and Center Jim Eakins off to jail on charges of assaulting police officers and resisting arrest. The three Squires say that the police entered the melee on the side of the Pacers. When the police attempted to sweep the suspects off to the station house while the game was still in progress, they refused to go. Their case was due to be heard in Indianapolis this week.

"If I can keep my team out of jail, we should do all right in the playoffs," says Bianchi. Resisting arrest is not his only problem. Reserve Center Ray Scott, who jumped from the NBA to the Squires this year, must go to court to hear the final disposition of his contract about the time the final round begins. Charlie Scott has a case pending in Norfolk concerning a hassle with a policeman about a parking violation.

It would have been more in character had Scott been nabbed for speeding. He is an extraordinarily quick player. His speed and jumping ability more than offset his slender physique and have made him a rarity among All-Americas—a player who is even more productive as a pro rookie than he was in college. Scott played most of his organized basketball at prep school and college in North Carolina, but the essence of his game is straight out of Harlem, acquired on playgrounds with names like The Pit and The Battleground. It is a penetrating, passing, moving game, the prototype from which the whole pro style developed. Scott plays it particularly well, easily absorbing the special pressures of breaking in as a guard. His adaptability, aided by those Ichabodian limbs and limberness, make him the best all-round player among all the new professionals.