Pistol Pete’s Pro Debut

On Saturday, October 17, 1970, the “New” Atlanta Hawks opened the NBA season at home against the Milwaukee Bucks. The game brought the much-anticipated pro debut of Pistol Pete Maravich. ABC’s popular “Wide World of Sports” broadcast the event live across the country. But viewers wouldn’t need to flip on their television sets promptly at 2:30 ET to catch the opening tap. For the first time in his life, Pete Maravich would start the game on the bench. Coach’s decision.

The center of attention finally tugged off his warmups and entered the game to start the second quarter (20:18 in this video). What happened next would go down in NBA history as a truly forgettable debut. “As for Maravich,” wrote the Atlanta Constitution’s Frank Hyland, “the college star was just another player Saturday and a second liner at that. He played 22 minutes and had a creditable total of four assists. But he made only three of 13 shots and threw the ball away on several occasions. He, like the Hawks in the second half, can only get better. 

But in the run up to Maravich’s NBA debut, there was a drumbeat of anticipation across America. One of those rata-tat-tatting was Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News’ Jack Kiser. Here’s his write up from October 9., 1970.

Pistol Pete Beat a Hawk Headache?

Atlanta—A strong roll of the drums, maestro, and then a big blare from the trumpets. It’s show time down in Dixie!

Introducing for the first time in his new role as a professional, that crowd-pleasing wizard of aahs—Ladeez and Gentlemen, we give you Pistol Pete Maravich. 

Now Maravich goes into his famous act: Dribbling between his legs and bouncing the ball off his knees and elbows and shoulders and catching it on an index finger. Passing behind his back, over his shoulder and through his legs. Fantastic! Just fantastic!

Only problem is, all this doesn’t mean two points under the present NBA rule. In fact, it just might mean a minus of points when the Atlanta Hawks teak to the hardwood this season. 

Maravich is an entertainer, maybe the most flamboyant figure to join the tallball world in a decade or more. He led the nation in scoring for three years while packing them in at LSU, scoring a total of 3,667 points for a 44.5 average. Of course, the entire squad didn’t average that much between them so the Bengals, never really beat anybody big very often. 

Now, it is Richie Guerin’s job to take Maravich and introduce him to the Hawks’ brand of ball, and one doesn’t envy Guerin this job. 

The Hawks operate on a bang-burst-bang offense. Strongmen like Bill Bridges and Walt Bellamy bang the boards and quickly clear the rebound to a teammate bursting down the floor. Two dribbles later, bang—an easy layup. And when they aren’t able to fast break, the Hawks slow it down and try to work inside to the big boys. 

All of which has to cramp the Maravich style because he loves to dribble and he loves to control the ball and he loves to take those long jumpers from the corner or from the center and any points in between.

Still, when you’re paying a guard $1.6 million or more for five years of service, you’ve got to play him because he’s the one the fans pay to see. They’ll pay hot and heavy, at least the first couple times around the league, and everybody will be happy. 

Except maybe the Hawks. When the solid starter Bill Bridges read all those Maravich figures, he demanded a good salary hike. It was rejected, and he signed “for a lot less than I think I’m worth considering my surroundings.” He sulked through the first practice, was suspended for a few hours by Guerin before they made up. 

Joe Caldwell wouldn’t go for the “sign-or-sit” ultimatum. At last glance, he was still holding out for big bread because he had his biggest season ever, making the All-Star team on merit alone. 

The Hawks figure strongest and deepest by far in their division, stronger even than last season when they won the West with a 48-34 record. If Maravich can adjust, can be more selective with his shooting and his showboating, they should beat Baltimore by six furlongs, eased up. If not—well, strike up the music, maestro, the show must go on.  

[Less cynical was this Pistol Pete preview from Dick Fenlon of the Louisville Courier-Journal on October 17. It’s definitely worth a scan.]

For Pistol Pete, It’s a Case of Fitting in With the Hawks

Atlanta—The practice had lasted 2 ½ hours and it had been a hard one. Pete Maravich was tired and his feet were throbbing. Hair in eyes like some shaggy sheep dog, he shuffled off the Alexander Memorial Coliseum court toward the Atlanta Hawks’ dressing room.

A shout from Richie Guerin stopped him just as he reached the tunnel. “How many did you shoot, Pete?” demanded Guerin. “Five,” replied Maravich. “Twenty-five,” ordered the coach. Smiling wanly at the application of discipline, Pete Maravich returned to shoot 20 more. 

“He’s not a typical rookie,” Guerin had been saying earlier, “but he still makes rookie mistakes.”

Obviously, Pistol Pete Maravich—the biggest name and the biggest scorer in the history of college basketball—does make rookie mistakes. He proved it by his performance in practice yesterday and he proved it by trying to flee without shooting the required number a free throws. 

He’s on Television Today

Likely, he will prove it again today when he makes his professional debut in the nationally televised (Channel 32, 1:30 p.m., in Louisville) National Basketball Association game between the Hawks and the Lew Alcindor-Oscar Robertson Milwaukee Bucks.

Ironically, the Showtime Kid, the guy who put the pizazz into the college game, will bow to the big, wide, wonderful humiliating world of pro basketball as a second stringer, unable to crack Atlanta’s Lou Hudson-Walt Hazzard backcourt. 

He is an eminently wealthy second stringer, of course, having relieved the Atlanta treasury of something over $1 million in what a few of the Hawks originally thought was a bigger heist then the Boston Brinks job. 

“There was bound to be resentment,” said Guerin. “Mainly it was the publicity thing and the “X” amount of dollars he got. There are all-star players who never saw money like that so they were resentful in the beginning. They are not anymore. 

“He’s a very coachable kid,” explained Guerin. “He’s not doing everything I want him to do, but it’s not because he’s not trying. He just doesn’t have the experience.”

Pistol Pete, see, is starting out all over. Three times unanimous All-American Player of the Year  . . . an average of 45 points a game at Louisiana State? It all means nothing today. He’s back in the first grade. 

“Pete is a very good passer,” said Guerin, “as long as doesn’t fancy-dan it too much and try to make the easy passes look hard. He’s come up with some in games that we’ve never seen before. I finally had to call him aside and say, ‘Hey, Pete, if you’re gonna use those, how about trying them out in practice first?”

Yesterday, Maravich tried out one that Bill Bridges have never seen—and didn’t. It whistled into the front-row seats. Guarding another rookie John Vallely, he showed that he also has a long way to go on defense.

“No rookie plays good defense,” apologized Guerin. “Basically, you have to learn about people and what their moves are. You play everybody a little differently and it all comes with experience.”

And, for Pete Maravich, it all comes with pain. 

Plagued with Bone Spurs 

Peeling off his socks after Guerin had finally permitted him to retreat to the dressing room, Maravich pointed to a growth the size of a very large marble on the big toe of his right foot. (Another one, smaller, was on the opposite big toe).

 “it’s a bone spur,” he said, “and it affects my whole foot sometimes. It’s bad now, but not as bad as it will get later on.”

The season means too much to Maravich to have it removed now. 

“This is gonna sound like the old bull,” he said, “but winning the NBA title and being a part of that is the only thing I’m thinking about. There are super players and there is no sense in trying to go individually anymore. The old days are gone.”

Well, not quite. Because Pistol Pete is a commodity to be marketed, he is capitalized upon as a celebrity now even more than he was in college. He spent most of yesterday ducking people. 

“It’s been like this the entire exhibition season,” he said. “Maybe after I score one point and get one rebound in 18 straight games, they’ll leave me alone.’

Perhaps, but that’s not likely to happen either. As a pro superstar, Maravich may not arrive right off. But he’s on his way. 

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