When the New Orleans Jazz got Pistol Pete Maravich from Atlanta last spring in return for a batch of future draft picks, the reaction around pro basketball was that the expansion team had peddled its future for instant boffo at the box office. The justification for the deal was that when you have invested $6.1 million to join the league, and you are hip-deep in everybody else's unwanted reserve centers, you have to dangle something in front of prospective customers. The joker in this line of reasoning, it was suggested, was that last place is always last place, and that after watching Maravich do his act a few times, the people of New Orleans would soon go back to spending their depressed dollars on Oysters Rockefeller.
Now, heading toward the final third of the season, it seems that the smart guys were right about some things and wrong about others. As predicted, the team with the wonderful name opened with a woeful performance and, at 7-44, still has incontestably the worst record in pro basketball, with at least a mathematical shot at surpassing Philadelphia's '72-'73 season mark of 9-73. But in recent weeks the Jazz have been making passes at mediocrity, actually winning two of their last four games and four of their last 14. The Celtics aren't exactly quivering just yet, but a team that can win even that infrequently in the NBA without a legitimate starting center can't be all bad. At least, not all of the time.
Moreover, far from fleeing from the scene of the disaster as their team stumbled to a record of 1-12, 2-17, 3-24 and then 4-34, the fans became, if anything, even stronger in their support—and under extreme hardship. The Jazz have had some odd arenas to play in. They opened in the Municipal Auditorium, a dark place, ill-constructed for watching basketball, located in a run-down section of the city and holding only 7,800, with 1,000 of the seats having only a partial view of the proceedings.
After the Mardi Gras season descended in December, the team shifted to the field house at Loyola, which seats 1,300 fewer and has a court raised three feet above floor level so that spectators sometimes have the impression they are watching a game being played on a stage. Well, it is quite a show. The NBA Players Association, conjuring visions of their dues-paying members hurtling off the edges, made the Jazz lay out $5,000 for restraining nets, which may preserve the players but do not help visibility one bit. And there is never any parking, even for the contestants. But the Jazz-men profess to love the awful place. "It's our snake pit," says Maravich. The arena is neither heated nor air-conditioned, but things could be worse. The Jazz have won three of nine at Loyola.
Maravich is enjoying life much more now than when he first arrived in town. He was upset that Atlanta let him go, although he shed few tears over leaving Hawk Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. He had averaged 24.3 points for Atlanta, but the team had only one winning season in the four he was there and so far as the papers were concerned, he was the reason. After Atlanta lost to New Orleans last Saturday night—it was the Jazz' first win on the road after 28 defeats—Atlanta's record was 23-35, and this year Maravich can be blamed for only two of the losses, the two games New Orleans won from them.
The season started badly for Maravich. First he suffered from severe tendinitis of the right ankle and a pulled hamstring. Then came the tragic death of his mother. Stories that the Jazz had given up too much to get him—in truth they probably could have had him for less—didn't help much, either.
Last Friday afternoon in Milwaukee, Maravich was looking back rather than ahead, where he could probably predict what would happen. That night the Jazz would play the Bucks, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominating New Orleans' two centers, Otto Moore and Mel Counts. Milwaukee would win 119-98.
"That trade," said Maravich. "I didn't make the trade. Why do people ask me about it? People have to criticize something and when I'm around, it's usually me.
"I can't understand why everything is negative, negative, negative. I guess it says a lot about human nature that people would rather read about Pete Maravich the ball hog, not Pete Maravich the ball hawk. I shoot 30 times a game and I'm a gunner. I shoot only eight times and I'm over the hill. What really slays me is that people actually believe all that stuff written about me. They don't know me, yet they think they do.
"Look," he said, "I'm just one share. There are 12 shares on a team. One man never has won nor ever will win a championship by himself. Yet people say, 'You can't win with Pete Maravich.' Win where? Lord knows, I came into the pros with a lot of pressure on me. No matter what I did it would never be enough. But put me on the Celtics and suddenly everyone would think I was the greatest player alive. Look, Pete Maravich has grown up. Well, it would still be me, the same Pete Maravich playing the same way."
Maravich began to get his game together on Jan. 10. He scored 38 against Houston that night, and had 11 rebounds and eight assists. Seven days later he scored 42 against Seattle, with 10 rebounds and 17 assists. Seventeen assists from a ball hog? On Jan. 19 he scored 40 against Buffalo, with 14 rebounds and 13 assists. Fourteen rebounds from a guard? In New Orleans' last 14 games, Maravich has averaged just under 30 points while making 86 rebounds and 110 assists. In the whole season at Atlanta last year he registered only 396 assists.
With Maravich operating in the style to which he is apparently becoming accustomed, there is some hope for the Jazz. And that is more than they had a few months ago when they were trying to turn it around with players like Neal Walk.
Walk is another of the game's tall and erratic vegetarian centers. To get Walk from Phoenix, the Jazz were beguiled into giving up Dennis Awtrey, Curtis Perry and Nate Hawthorne. Awtrey and Perry moved immediately into the Suns' starting lineup. Walk arrived in camp as the fifth center on the Jazz roster. He had an injured knee and soon strolled into three doctors' offices. The consensus was two to one against an operation, perhaps because the doctors felt New Orleans needed five centers.
On a meatless diet, Walk's weight had dropped from 240 to 220 but he said he had found new strength through kung fu and yoga. And, he suggested, maybe his knee wasn't injured after all. "It might have been the power of suggestion. Some people have told me I look gaunt, I look weak. It's not how you look, it's how you feel."
Walk also suggested to New Orleans reporters that perhaps it would be better if scoring were eliminated from basketball. "Maybe it's Utopian, but wouldn't it be something if the fans could approach a professional basketball game as others approach ballet?" he asked. "You go to a ballet to see artists work. It should be the same in basketball. Bob McAdoo is an artist. And there's plenty of others. Why not appreciate their moves? Their gifts? Why is the score more important than the artists?"
No one in New Orleans had an answer, and a few weeks ago the Jazz dealt Walk and Guard Jim Barnett to the Knicks for Henry Bibby, a guard three years out of UCLA. So now only three of the Jazz' artists remain from the expansion draft: Forwards E.C. Coleman and Bud Stallworth and Guard Louie Nelson. The others have come from the college draft (Aaron James, a promising 6'8" forward out of Grambling) or in trade (Bibby, Nate Williams from Kansas City-Omaha) or by purchase (Counts from the Lakers). Plus, of course, Maravich. Two others, Moore and Guard Bernie Fryer, came aboard as free agents.
"And what do you tell them? What do you tell a team with just seven victories and no chance at the playoffs?" sighs Butch van Breda Kolff, who replaced Scotty Robertson as coach 15 games (1-14) into the season. Robertson was fired by Fred Rosenfeld, who was himself fired as president only a few weeks later. So far, the team has had 26 players, two coaches, two arenas, two assistant coaches (Sam Jones and Elgin Baylor, who remain), two presidents and a partridge in a pear tree.
This is van Breda Kolff's eighth coaching job, his fifth in the pros. He still wears a jacket bearing the seal of Princeton, which he coached to four Ivy League titles in five years, 1962-67. All but one of his first seven posts van Breda Kolff quit, usually in disgust.
"You know you have to be a little crazy to be a coach," he says. "If you weren't a little crazy, you'd be doing something else. It's like hearing someone say that you have to have good judgment to be an official. If they had good judgment they wouldn't be officials."
Van Breda Kolff fires up another in an endless succession of cigars, which he carries around in glass tubes. "But I love this game," he growls—his voice is never anything but a growl. "The movement, the good passing, the movement without the ball, the finesse, cleverness. This is the game I like to teach: the fluid game. And this is the game the fans like to see. Fans are sophisticated enough to deserve something more than just pure scoring and bulling around. When do you hear the loudest cheers? Always over one of two things: a little extra hustle or that real good passing play. Bulling your way for a layup doesn't impress anybody."
When van Breda Kolff arrived, the Jazz went back to work on fundamentals. He believes there is only one way to win: to be sound in the fundamentals and to play as a unit.
He bites down hard on his cigar. "It used to be that a pro coach was there to refine," he says, "to get the guys to play together, to keep them happy. Now it's a teaching job. Players coming into the pros now are weak in fundamentals. You can blame it on the pro games on TV. The kids try to emulate the pros without learning the basics. They are all trying to skip high school and college and go straight into the NBA. Where are all the teachers? I want everyone on my team sound, and to be involved. Not that I want a bunch of robots. No I want flair—that's part of the game. But it has to be at the right time. You can't go wild with four guys waiting for the ball. That's where intelligence comes in, another ingredient lacking in the pros."
Could Maravich be coached by van Breda Kolff? No way, said the wise money. Maravich flairs almost as naturally as he breathes. And almost as often. The two sat down and talked. It has not been easy after years of being a free spirit on the court, but Maravich is becoming van Breda Kolff's kind of player.
"I do what I'm told to do and I play the way I'm told to play," Maravich says. "I get paid the same, no matter what. Management is what determines whether you're a winner or a loser, and management feels that is the style that will win for us—eventually. I can play any style of ball anybody wants. My job is to slow things down and set up our so-called offense. Then if the shot goes in, well, that's leadership."
Last summer Maravich did some teaching himself, putting on clinics in the Pacific Northwest. Each clinic lasted three hours, and to enliven them he added a running string of jokes plus a song-and-dance act. He loved it. Until he tried to get from Forks, Wash. to Seattle.
"I was all over the place. Even in a little village called Humptulips," he said. "Don't ask me what they do there. Then one day I had to get to Seattle from Forks and they told me it was a 5½-hour drive through the mountains. Some logger said he was flying there and offered me a ride. He was a big guy with a shaved head and he looked mean."
When they got to the airport, it turned out to be a cow pasture, and the plane was so small Maravich didn't see it until it was pointed out to him.
"It looked like it was left over from World War I," Maravich remembers. "We had to run around the pasture a couple of times to get up enough speed to get over the trees. I thought, Oh my God, I'm going to die in the woods and they'll never find my body. The mountains were at 7,000 feet and we're dodging around them at 6,500. And the guy is leaning out the window pointing out things to me. Mountain goats. Bears.
"One time we're going straight at a mountain and the guy is looking out of the side window. Finally I couldn't stand it. I reached over and pulled the wheel up gently, and we just missed crashing. The guy looked up and said, 'Oh, thank you.' When we got down, I kissed the ground."
Maravich made it, and so perhaps in time will the Jazz. In Coleman they have a fine young defender, and under the tutelage of Elgin Baylor he is coming along as an offensive threat. James, the rookie, and Nelson and Stallworth have all shown potential, and Bibby is a sound if not spectacular performer. And there is the Louisiana Superdome, which will perhaps solve the team's arena problems next season. While the Jazz may have lost their top draft pick to Atlanta (as part of the Maravich deal) they still have two lesser first round choices through trades. And a couple of thirds.
The world isn't ending. A friend told Maravich as much last week. "Like you could be a truck driver," he said.
"What's wrong with that?" Maravich said. "There's a lot of money in it. Look at Claude Akins. In Movin' On."
Mel Counts waved so long to the Lakers.
Maravich gets thumped, but has it together.
Aaron James rambled in from Grambling.
Otto Moore was signed on as a free agent.
In his fifth pro coaching job, van Breda Kolff still is explaining the basics to his players.