What Maravich Means to Hawks

[The last blog post mentioned that many NBA general managers in 1970 were wary of exercising their Second Amendment rights: they didn’t want to own The Pistol, as in LSU star and soon NBA draft choice Pete Maravich. There were several reasons, including the mass hysteria that followed in Maravich’s wake. This article—and another that will post later today—bring back Pistol fever from the summer of 1970. They show why a savvy businessman like Atlanta owner Tom Cousins would insist on bringing the expensive, high-risk Maravich to Atlanta, even if the addition would lead to the immediate subtraction of his team’s veteran core. This article comes from the magazine Pro Basketball Special. 1970-71, the partial cover (in black) shown above. The great Sam Goldaper has the byline.]

Madison Square Garden was starting to fill up to its 19,000 capacity for the first game between the Knicks and the Baltimore Bullets when the whispers started.

“Pete Maravich has just signed with the Atlanta Hawks,” was spreading like wildfire throughout the Garden. 

Reports circulated that the signing price was over the $2 million mark. [Editor’s note—Maravich signed a five-year contract that will yield him about $1.5 million.)

The actual signing ceremonies took place in the Tara Room I, at the Marriott Hotel, on March 26, 1970. A report in the Atlanta Journal gives an inkling of the fan interest Pete Maravich and his circus antics will bring to the 17 NBA cities this season. 

The Journal’s Ron Hudspeth wrote:

“’We are most happy to announce that Pete Maravich will play professional basketball for the Atlanta . . .’”

“That’s as much as attorney Lester E. Zittrain managed. 

“A wild roar from the Tara Room I at the Marriott Hotel shook downtown Atlanta. They screamed and clapped and then they screamed and clapped some more. 

“It was supposed to be a press conference, but it evolved into a real circus sideshow. Men and women, girls in miniskirts, small kids, and old ladies jammed into the small room.”

Hudspeth continued his description of the news conference. “Everything from the Brownie Hawkeye to television cameras mounted on tripods snapped and purred while the slightly uncomfortable Maravich, dressed sharply in a gray suit with a dark blue shirt and a red-and-blue tie, stood silently.

“Really, no one said anything, they just took photographs. For a moment, one could almost feel sorry for the young man with the long hair standing there almost like an animal in the zoo. Then one remembers, this is Pete Maravich, and this is just the beginning of what he’ll be confronted with.

“Pete may have worn out his shooting arm. When everyone finally ran out of film, the autograph seekers attacked. Pete responded like a champ and signed them all, including one for a kid who held a sign reading, ‘Cobb County, Ga. Loves the Maravich Clan.’”

The signing of Maravich boils down to the fact that Pete, a great shooter with an uncanny ballhandling ability, sent the stock of the Atlanta franchise soaring. 

“There were, perhaps, other players at another position who could have helped us more,” said Richie Guerin, the Hawk coach, “but we still got a great player. Plus, we got a player who will be good for the franchise and good for the city of Atlanta.

“Why not take a player who will help the franchise?” continued Guerin. “This is, after all, a business and signing Pete was good business.”

The Hawks averaged 5,300 people a game last season for 38 home dates, an increase of about 600 more than the 1968-69 season. During the first two months of last season, Atlanta played to crowds at home that barely pushed over the 2,000 mark. 

Pistol Pete figures to change all that. He proved his drawing power throughout his entire collegiate career at LSU.

LSU plays its basketball games at the John M. Parker Coliseum with a seating capacity of 8,700. During Pete’s sophomore season, when he started his journey to become the greatest scorer in major college history, school officials were forced to cut off sales at 3,000 season tickets after having sold only 50 the season before. 

While the varsity team played to a corporal’s guard in 1966-67, the crowning embarrassment came when the 18,000 students in the Baton Rouge, La., community, including Gov. John McKeithen, turn their attention to the Maravich-led freshman team that Pete sparked to a 17-1 record, while the varsity suffered through a 3-23 season. 

Gov. McKeithen struck the keynote for Maravich followers when he said, “Pete sure does shoot a lot, but he puts the ball in the basket, doesn’t he?”

He sure did. He scored 40 points or more in 12 of the 18 freshmen games, including a 66-point performance against an independent team. In his varsity debut, Pete tallied 48 points against Mississippi State and, before he completed his varsity eligibility, he had collected 3,667 points and his scoring antics had the entire basketball world raving. 

(The Story of) The Pistol and His Pop

He was probably the first college basketball player whose scoring feats were so commercialized. During his senior year, there were two phonograph records and two entire books devoted to him. For $1 each, one could purchase “The Ballad of  Pete Maravich,” or “The Story of Pistol Pete and his Pop.” Besides the records, there was also a 40-page magazine entitled “Maravich” that sold for a dollar and a book Pistol Pete, selling price $1.95. 

It was showtime—starring Pete Maravich—everywhere LSU played, and to packed houses. Everything about Pistol Pete was show business, his gray sagging socks, his long brown hair flopped towards his face, his shooting, passing and dribbling. Maravich put on a show, and the people loved it and him. 

There are 9,800 seats in Little John Coliseum at Clemson, S.C. If every student on campus and every man, woman, and child in the town showed up for the LSU game in Dec. 1968, there would still have been seats available. But the attraction was Pistol Pete, a favorite son coming home, and it brought people from nearby places like Seneca, Pendleton, Six Mile, Spartanburg, and all the way to Columbia, to pack the arena. 

The same held true the night 11,000 jammed the arena to cheer him on to a 43-point performance against Mississippi to give him 2,987 points and wipe out Oscar Robertson’s University of Cincinnati record of 2,973. And there was a sellout crowd of 15,043 at Tuscaloosa, Ala., the night he put on another of his one-man, 69-point performances against Alabama. 

It was that way throughout the Southeastern Conference, packed houses turning up to watch Maravich’s showboating, jump shots, push shots, hooks and layups, and some shots for which there is no name.

The LSU touring circus, featuring the Pistol, traveled almost 20,000 miles between last Dec. 20 and the time it came to New York for the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden. 

After LSU defeated St. John’s in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, Lou Carnesecca, the then Redman coach and now the coach and general manager of the New York Nets of the ABA, came back raving. “The guy is an artist,” said Carnesecca, whose team held Pete to 13 points in the first half and then watched him bury St. John’s with a 40-point second half. 

“You find yourself forgetting the game and just watching him. At. St. John’s, through the years, we’ve played against the best, Jerry West, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Lew Alcindor, but this guy put on the greatest exhibition of dribbling and passing I’ve ever seen. He’s not just a shooter, he’s everything.”

Maravich was more than everything in his three seasons of varsity competition at LSU. He was flamboyant, brash, colorful, and exciting. These are the ingredients that make a $1.5 million player. He will fill empty seats, and that’s the name of the game. 

Pete loves crowds, and they love him. 

“When I hear that crowd roar, I swear I go wild, crazy,” he said. 

Moreover, Maravich admits to showboating that electrified the crowd. 

When someone asked him about it, he quickly replied, “I guess it was unnecessary, but the crowd loved it, and they paid $2.50 to see the show.”

The prices were much higher at the NIT in Madison Square Garden last March, but with Maravich the draw, the nation’s oldest postseason tournament increased its attendance by 20 percent. With the exception of his first appearance against Georgetown, all the other games that LSU played in were sellouts. 

In the second half of the Georgetown game, LSU intercepted a pass in its backcourt. There was a quick pitch out to Pete to start a fast break. He took the ball in full stride at midcourt, facing the sideline. One of the tenacious little Georgetowners who was hanging on to Pete’s drooping socks all game came to an abrupt halt in front of him, which was his blind side. Most basketball players would have crashed into the roadblock and been whistled down for charging. 

Pete instead turned up court, stop short of his man so quickly that it seemed the laws of physics would send him straight up to the ceiling, and heaved a sweeping left-handed pass to a teammate under the basket for an easy layup. It was a brilliant play, at once illustrating his body control, his split X-ray vision, and his improvisational freedom. 

Another time John Wooden, who coached UCLA to its fourth straight NCAA championship last season, watched Pete score 64 points in a national television loss to Kentucky and then told the Southern California Basketball Writers, “Pete Maravich can do more with the ball than any player that ever played the game. He will be an even greater pro than a college player.”

Maravich was assigned to the Carolina Cougars in the ABA draft and was chosen third on the first round by the Atlanta Hawks, who selected in San Francisco’s spot, in the NBA draft. The Warriors gave up their first draft pick to Atlanta last January without realizing they would have a shot at Maravich as part of the deal for the right to negotiate with Zelmo Beaty. Beaty never joined the Warriors, instead sitting out the season so that he could be able to play with the Los Angeles stars of the ABA (now of Salt Lake City).

Atlanta beating Carolina to Maravich was a shot heard ‘round the NBA. It was felt in every franchise on the map. For one, it didn’t make a most happy fella out of Dick Motta, the Chicago Bulls’ coach.

“That’s all they needed,” said Motta. “Put Maravich with that outfit and you have a basketball dynasty.”

After Motta made that statement, the NBA was realigned into four divisions, and Chicago was placed in the Midwest with Detroit, Milwaukee, and Phoenix. Atlanta was put in the Central Division with Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Thus for the division races, the Bulls will have to worry about Oscar Robertson playing with Alcindor at Milwaukee rather than Maravich teamed in the backcourt with Lou Hudson and Walt Hazzard. 

Whether the addition of Maravich will make Atlanta a dynasty is questionable, but it is a certainty that his joining Hudson and Hazzard will give the Hawks the most powerful backcourt in pro basketball.

At the Maravich signing, Thomas G. Cousins, the Hawks’ co-owner, commented, “He’s going to have to be awfully good not to be the highest-paid substitute in the game.”

—Sam Goldaper, Pro Basketball Special, 1970-71

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