The Pressure on Pistol Pete

[Today, Pete Maravich is remembered as one of the iconic NBA figures of the 1970s. Less well known is that Maravich entered the 1970 NBA draft as the college superstar whom nobody wanted. For most NBA general managers, drafting Maravich seemed about as dangerous as volunteering to stand blindfolded before a firing squad. The danger came not from Pistol Pete. He was considered a good kid. It was the double-barreled barrage of attention behind him that would be unsurvivable. 

How’s that? NBA general managers assumed the media’s obsession with all things Maravich would overwhelm their front offices. So would the public pressure to hand the ball to Maravich, the maestro, and get out of his 40-point-a-night way. The NBA consensus was winning with the ball-dominant rookie would be impossible. For those crazy enough to try, the reward would be a woeful team and non-stop dissension in the locker room.

The source of this NBA group think is the late-Marty Blake, general manager of the Atlanta Hawks in 1970. Blake shared with me the behind-the-scenes, front-office grumbling, including his own “hell no” opposition to Atlanta drafting of Maravich. Blake said he’d assembled a veteran team that was close to vying for an NBA championship. Bringing the disruptive Maravich to town would unravel all his hard work.

But Atlanta owner Tom Cousins forced Blake’s hand. Cousins, a prominent Atlanta real-estate developer, believed his Hawks would need a world-class attraction to pack the Omni, the city’s soon-to-be-completed, multi-million-dollar downtown arena and architectural showpiece. Maravich would be its resident Houdini of the Hardwood.

Into this toxic situation walked Maravich and his then-gaudy rookie contract, reported at $1.9 million. In year one, Maravich would be dogged by the media, hounded by the public, shunned by his teammates, and labeled by some “told-you-so” basketball purists to be an overhyped NBA bust. A college superstar whose skills didn’t translate to the pros.

This week, the blog will revisit Maravich’s trying rookie campaign, starting with this excellent overview of the challenges ahead for the famous LSU grad. The article was written by George Cunningham, a perceptive senior sportswriter for the Atlanta Constitution. Cunningham penned the piece for Basketball Annual, 1970-71]

Whispering above the almost inaudible drone but the jet engines, the passenger made his way down the aisle of the giant aircraft collecting autographs of the Atlanta Hawks who had just been eliminated for the National Basketball Association playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers. 

His salutation was one of consolation as he murmured to one Hawk, “wait until next year when you have Maravich. You’ll go all the way then.”

The half-asleep Hawk snapped awake and replied, “how many championships have Oscar Robertson and Jerry West won?”

No guard, of course, who’s ever won his team it professional championship. And that includes Bob Cousy who found out about such things only after bill Russell showed up in Boston. 

Pete Maravich, the Hawks’ No. 1 draft choice, he’s being heralded in Atlanta as if he were the second coming of [golfer] Bobby Jones. And the fans are doing more than just talking. By the first of June, four months before the season began, they had purchased 2,000 season tickets to Hawk home games and that’s an Atlanta record. At the same time, 12 months before, the Hawks had sold zero season tickets. 

“One of my first thoughts after purchasing the Hawks in 1968,” owner Tom Cousins recalled, “Was it that young man that I’ve been hearing about down in Louisiana. But all contests it was a surprise when I learned this year that we had a chance to get Pete.”

Cousins can thank San Francisco owner Franklin Mieuli, who’s bartering ability can be compared only to those Indians who gave Manhattan away. But it is not true that Cousins threw the Golden State Bridge into the deal that sent the draft rights to Maravich and a San Francisco player to be named later to the Hawks in exchange for Mieuli obtaining the rights to try to persuade Zelmo Beaty to leave the rival American Basketball Association and join the NBA Warriors. 

So Cousins got his wish, the most-publicized college basketball player in history. Maravich averaged 44.2 points a game for three years at Louisiana State University and literally captivated  the nation with his showboating antics. 

But ironically, despite his unquestioned ability in college, Maravich may have been the last thing the Hawks needed on the court. 

Lou Hudson, Walt Hazzard, and Butch Beard gave the Hawks as good as a 1-2-3 punch at guard as you’ll find in basketball. And for those who might argue, then add 6-5 forward Joe Caldwell who is equally at home in the backcourt.

Like everyone else, Atlanta needed Bob Lanier. The Hawks also could have better used a Cowens or a Tomjanovich or a McMillian at forward. 

There is an old saying “of the boss may not always be right but he’s always the boss,” and Cousins does sign the Hawk paychecks. 

When the drafting of Maravich was first announced, always harmonious. Team captain Bill Bridges, a black man, even went so far as to say, “a white player of Maravich’s ability is what Atlanta and the NBA need.”

Then came the announcement that Maravich had signed for two million dollars over five years. It made him the highest paid athlete in history. And it meant that in three normal NBA schedule weeks, he would be making more than the average NBA performer makes in a season. Maravich’s Take figures out to be about $5,000 for every game the Hawks play over the next five years.

But still no beefs came from his highly talented future teammates. Joe Caldwell, whose contract was coming up for renewal, seemed happy and for a good reason. If Maravich, a rookie, was worth $400,000 a year, what was the 21-point averaging Caldwell going to ask for?

Basketball’s quickest—and  maybe most exciting—performer grinned slyly and commented, “whatever is fair. I’ve always found Mr. Cousins to be an honorable man.”

Ouch. 

Then on the weekend that Maravich arrived in Atlanta for rookie camp, the storm hit from the most-unlikely direction. 

Bridges, the backbone of the Hawks, the peacemaker who had been literally the mouthpiece for management for two years, asked management for a raise even though his multi-year contract doesn’t come up for renewal for a couple of years. The answer was a polite no, and Bridges’ reaction was not so polite. 

“I asked for more money on the basis of Maravich getting two million dollars and (center) Walt Bellamy getting $80,000,” Bridges bellowed. “In contrast, I’m making $50,000.

“Who was fourth in the league last year in rebounding? Who put in the most playing time last year? Who has the most experience? Who has played the role of peacemaker among the players for the last two years. The answer to all those questions is Bill Bridges. 

“What it amounts to, the Hawks are draining me for nothing, relatively speaking. I don’t see any possible way I can come back this season and make the same contribution when others will be contributing less and making more.”

Only time will tell whether Bridges was serious. The best bet is that he was using Maravich as a ploy to obtain more money. But it points out that Hawk coach Richie Guerin inherited as many problems as he did pluses in the three-time All-American. 

Maravich was not acquired by a down-and-out club. Instead he joined a team that, in Hudson and Caldwell, already had two superstars of his same physical size and, in Hazzard, a playmaker-floor leader who ranks among the league leaders. 

Prior to the Lakers, obtaining Gail Goodrich, there was talk that Hazzard was going to be traded to Los Angeles. The figuring was that no room existed for both Hazzard and Maravich.

It took one phone call to learn that Hazzard would remain a Hawk as long as Guerin was the coach. 

“Certainly there’s room for both Walt and Pete,” Guerin said. “I have every intention of playing them together a lot of the time. I believe in my heart and soul that they can work together.”

Swing Man

So Maravich, the 6-5 200-pounder, will become a swing man, operating at both forward and guard?

“Maravich will be a guard, period,” Guerin replied. “We already have two swingmen Caldwell and Hudson (both 6-5) already have proved they can play both positions.” In 1969, Hudons made the Western Division All-Star team as a forward and Caldwell as a guard. In 1970, Hudson made it as a guard and Caldwell as a forward.

“I think Maravich’s biggest problem,” Guerin said, “will be the same as that of almost every rookie. Defense. Not necessarily one-on-one defense. I mean team defense.”

Guerin would not comment any further on the use of his prized rookie. But an educated guess would be this:

Maravich will be a much-played reserve at the start of the season. By January of 1971, he will start at guard alongside Hazzard, Hudson will be at forward, and Caldwell will be ready to spring off the bench a la John Havlicek at the slightest indication that any of the three are having off nights. 

It is not Maravich’s scoring potential that impresses the Hawk players. But they are excited about his celebrated passmaking. 

“I’ll be studying Pete like I study my bank balance,” Caldwell reported. “I want to learn his every mannerism.” Atlanta’s most-popular athlete thought about having both Maravich and Hazzard in the backcourt at the same time and his face split into a smile, “wow, think of the scoring possibilities for me. All I’ve got to do is get open. Then one or the other is certain to get the ball to me.”

The 22-year-old Maravich knows that he’s a marked man wherever he goes from now on, even when he’s going against his own teammates in a scrimmage. But he wears the pressure well. 

“I don’t expect my teammates to resent me because of the size of my contract,” Maravich said. “Everyone has his own thing and, if any of the players makes a zillion dollars, that’s their business. 

“I consider myself a rookie who has to learn through experience. I am no different. I will work hard. I don’t think pro basketball will ever be easy. There always will be players coming up to keep you running scared.”

During his college career, when he was scoring 40 and 50  and 60 points a game, Maravich’s critics quickly pointed out that his shooting percentage always was around 40 percent, which is poor in the pro ranks. 

“You have to realize,” Maravich said, “that my percentage from the field includes mostly shots that I had to work very hard for. Having to bring the ball down court, work one-on-one, then go up for a shot with two men on me, causes that percentage to be far below what it could be if I were able to take the open shot. If someone else were bringing the ball down court and hitting me for the open shot, I know darn well I could shoot 55 percent most of the time.”

Such intriguing possibilities explain why Hawk tickets are going fast in Atlanta. The fans are convinced. Now if he can only convince his new teammates, everyone will go home content . . . and live happily ever after.

–George Cunningham, Basketball Annual, 1970-71

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