The Exhibition Blues

[In his 1987 autobiography Heir to a Dream, Pete Maravich opened up about his first training camp with the Atlanta Hawks. “The first day of camp, the place was active with reporters and Atlanta brass hoping to catch a glimpse of why they had spent so much money getting me. When I arrived, I felt the spotlight shining brightly on me, and I knew the sharks were ready to strike if I didn’t pan out and prove myself to be the showman and the player of the year the college ranks had labeled me to be.”

Though Maravich started out well, “a rumbling” soon caught his attention. “The rumbling started subtly. A rumor circulated that the rookies as well as the veterans would be out to work me over on the court and make me earn my salary the hard way. I still wasn’t full of bulk, and a few good blows could do considerable damage . But the threats never evolved, leading some to believe the team officials wanted me protected, apparently spreading the word that abusing the new acquisition was unpardonable. 

Things went downhill from there. The team’s veterans caught wind of the Hawks’ marketing department christening the team “the New Hawks,” as though something was terribly wrong with the old version that won the NBA’s Western Division in 1970. Not only that, they now had to throw on mod, pastel uniforms arrayed with a bending linear pattern resembling a subway map.

“The exhibition season began, and the discontent manifested itself noticeably on the court.,” wrote Maravich. “When I got into the game, I’ve found myself in a foreign land, all alone. My style of play, which was a trademark at LSU, was incompatible with the rest of the team.”  

That foreign land is captured for posterity in these three newspaper clips. The first is from September 25, 1970, from the start of Maravich’s exhibition blues. The headline is a quote pulled from Maravich claiming, “I can’t get loose” to the Atlanta Constitution’s George Cunningham, who penned the story.]

Maravich did a lot of time listening to Coach Richie Guerin (left)

‘I Can’t Get Loose,’ Says Dejected Maravich

A confused young man sat in a corner of the Atlanta Hawk dressing room Wednesday night well after most of his teammates had finished dressing. 

“I don’t know what the problem is,” Pete Maravich said following his second dismal performance in as many games in a Hawk uniform. In the 119-111 loss to Boston, Maravich had made personal history. For the first time in his life, he had not been in the starting lineup.

That, however, had been the furthest thing on his mind as he sat there dejected. 

“I don’t know,” he reiterated. “I don’t get it. I just don’t seem to be able to get in the groove. I can’t seem to get loose. Sure, I’m disappointed. I can’t move as well as I know I can move. 

“I seem to be too relaxed out on the court, and I’m not in good shape. I can’t give you any reason for that, either, because a couple of days ago I felt ready. 

“I know I can play better basketball than this, and I just can’t figure out why I’m having so much trouble getting going.”

Maravich’s difficulty, like that of any other rookie in the National Basketball Association, is simply that he has not accepted the fact that what works in college does not always work in the pro ranks. 

And in Maravich’s case, the problem is accentuated by an added burden that the pro opponents are and will be lying in wait for him every time he shows up. None of them signed a two million-dollar contract. 

Atlanta coach Richie Guerin spotted one flaw that Maravich almost certainly will begin correcting when the Hawks continue on the exhibition trail Friday night against Boston in Columbus, Ga.

“Pete is getting wrapped up in the air with the ball,” the coach said. “He will slide off a pick and automatically go up for his shot. 

“When this keeps on happening in the pros, your opponent soon picks it up and he’s waiting to take the ball away. Pete must and will learn that he has to mix a fake in there to keep everybody honest.”

It seemed almost unbelievably easy for Boston guards Don Chaney and Jo Jo White to take the ball out of Maravich’s hands. And each time, it meant an easy basket for the Celtics . . . 

[Five long days later on September 30, Maravich’s transition to the pros remained on a rough course. George Cunningham of the Atlanta Constitution described the bumps in perceptive preseason detail.]

Pete, Vallely Still Learning 

“Pete Maravich is a great individual player, and we always felt we were a great team.”

Team captain Bill Bridges placed strong emphasis on the word “team” and then continued with “so it’s just a matter of us getting together. It will take time, but I believe we will. But you have to understand that Pete is not like any other rookie.”

The multi-talented Maravich Is undergoing a basketball transition as drastic as that of a gigolo who suddenly switches to the ministry. After playing around with complete freedom, he finds himself in a role that demands discipline. 

The first four exhibition games of the Atlanta Hawks have been an education for Maravich. Make that a crash course, because he and fellow rookie John Vallely have been thrown deliberately into situations where success is impossible. 

“I have had to play Maravich and Vallely together in the backcourt much more than normal,” Coach Richie Guerin said, “and they haven’t looked good. But I would have been the most-surprised man in the world if they had.

“Both of these rookies have to play for us this year. We have ahead of them only Lou Hudson and Walt Hazzard at guards. And Hudson will to move to forward if Joe Caldwell doesn’t sign. So, we have literally had to throw the two rookies into the frying pan right from the start.”

The shock treatment showed signs Monday night of having worked on Vallely, who came out of a trance and began to resemble a professional . . .

Maravich is a different story, about as complex a case as a coach can have. Unlike in his tutelage of other rookies, Guerin must handle Maravich with kid gloves. This has nothing to do with any edict from the front office. It’s just that you don’t try to change the game of a youngster who has the talent of a Maravich. He has to do it himself.  

The learning process, instead, must be by trial and error. The student has to see and profit from his own mistakes. And there were signs Monday night that Pete was making progress. 

Teeming with Hazzard in the first quarter, he displayed poise. But later, he responded to the chanting of the Maravich-partisan crowd and reverted to his college style of play. The crowd loved it, and therein lies another problem. 

As one veteran said, “Pete plays to the fans. He has to learn to play to his teammates.”

Maravich’s Major offensive faults are:

1—He dribbles the ball too much in the front court. It is showmanship, but it also kills from 10 to 15 seconds of the 24-second clock. Then when he tries to originate a play, the first selection must succeed because there is no time left to work any of the options of the original play. 

2—Without the restraining hand of a Hazzard or a Hudson in the backcourt with him, he often forgets to run plays. 

3—As to be expected of any rookie, his field generalship is lacking. He doesn’t take advantage of situations. When Philadelphia’s top two centers fouled out, leaving the 76ers with an obvious weakness in the middle, he failed to capitalize with plays to his big men inside. 

These are faults that experience will correct, and this really is what the Hawk exhibitions are all about. 

Maravich’s offensive effectiveness has been hampered by (1) Joe Caldwell’s holdout and (2) injuries to Hudson. Without these two, the Hawks have no one who can really complement the rookie on the fast break, where he is most devastating. 

His quickness on the court is unbelievable, and Hawk fans are in for a treat if Caldwell ever signs a contract. 

At every exhibition stop, Maravich always gives the same answer to the question of what his professional goals are: “to win a championship with the Atlanta Hawks.”

The key word is “with” and not “for.” One of these days, maybe soon, Maravich will forget some of his college habits and practice what he preaches. That’s when fans can start buying tickets for the championship playoff. 

[Maravich’s exhibition blues continued to the bitter end. Here, on October 7, Augie Borgi of the Hackensack Record gives a mostly thumb’s down “Prognosis on Pete” during Maravich’s first trip as a pro to Madison Square Garden. With the exhibition season now winding to an unhappy halt, Maravich wrote in Heir to a Dream, “When I drove down the court and got double teamed, I found no help in sight. It was as if the team was letting me dig the hole in which I might bury myself.”] 

The Prognosis on Pete: He Has a Lot to Learn

New York—Fred Carter drove around Pete Maravich as quickly as a liver pill is digested. And Kevin Loughery made Maravich look like he didn’t know anything about defense (which he doesn’t), so Richie Guerin arose from his seat and substituted Walt Hazzard for Pete Maravich.

This was with 3:49 to play and the Atlanta Hawks ahead of the Baltimore Bullets, 91-89, in the first game of a doubleheader last night at the Garden. Maravich watched from the bench as Walt Bellamy let a pass slide off his fingers—all alone under the basket—with six seconds to play and the Hawks in front by 99-97. Five seconds later, Carter missed and Bellamy rebounded. 

So Guerin kept his locker room closed for 15 minutes, eventually explaining, “It was no tirade. I just wanted to talk to them about the mistakes they made, and I told Pete he can’t be wild in this league.”

Besides defense, Maravich showed he has a lot to learn about offense. The passes he made in college were intercepted because the pros react quicker. And the passes that would be made by a good pro guard were a little too late. 

(“He thinks he’s still in college and is holding the ball too long,” Walt Frazier of the Knicks said as he watched the first half from the stands.)

The pure Maravich wildness came on the Pistol style shooting. Twenty-two points in the box score look good, but five-for-17 shooting is not exactly worth two million dollars. 

“This was his best game so far,” Guerin said. “He’s got to learn not to go wild, especially in the close games.”

Maravich was ready to forget this game. “It was our fourth game in four nights, and I was weak. Four games, four cities; I lost eight pounds. Once I get my strength, I’ll be able to go up for my jump shot without clumsily trying to pass. I’m not worried.”

The only worried basketball player in Atlanta is Joe Caldwell, who is holding out and refusing to sign unless he is paid for his ability. Naturally, he’s using a Maravich yardstick. An all-star center must be worth a mere million for a five-year contract. 

Bill Bridges once was unhappy about his salary. But he signed a two-year contract last summer. “My name is on the contract,” Bridges explained, “and that means my reputation. I can see Joe Caldwell’s point and, if I didn’t have a contract, I might be doing the same thing. But I have a contract and we have a good team. Pete is going to be a good pro player.”

Red Holzman agreed, and so did Frazier. And so did the fans, who loved Pete’s successful behind-the-back passes and his fancy drives. They were willing to forget his unsuccessful moves. 

Pete is ready for the season to start. “So I can play 41 home games in Atlanta and be ready. The money doesn’t mean anything,” he explained. “Besides, the money goes to my lawyer. I get $85 a week, and my father gets $35.”

This was a put-on.

The other rookie with the money in the building, Bob Lanier of the Pistons, thinks of money a different way 

“I’ve gotten one paycheck,” Lanier said. “They take out a lot of taxes. I won’t get excited. I’m not a fancy dude like Pete. Joe Namath is a flashy dude. Those kind of guys can go through a lot of money. My money goes in a bank. I don’t need any financial experts. I’ll take care of my money. It goes in the bank . . .”

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