The Pistol and The Pressure

[Pistol Pete Maravich, the most-heralded scorer in college basketball history, opened his NBA career with just seven measly points to his name. His fans were crestfallen; his critics felt vindicated. All of Maravich’s ballhandling wizardry, the latter argued, would never translate to the pros. Pistol Pete, would need to straighten up and play right.

All of the chatter had the NBA’s most-celebrated rookie cracking under the pressure. Bill Clark, a reporter with the Orlando Sentinel, was there to record the moment in a three-part series titled, The Pistol and the Pressure. The series ran from October 21 -23, 1970. If you’re a Pistol fan, it’s a must-read.]

Pistol Fever Warms Atlanta

Atlanta—Temperatures in the middle 50s at mid-afternoon, a wintry grey sky, wind whipping through the canyon of downtown skyscrapers, people already wearing light top coats, their nose is showing the first faint blush of redness. 

That was Atlanta Tuesday. It also was the kind of day that reminded you of a fireplace with burning logs, at the coming of Christmas and of basketball. 

Atlantans didn’t really need the changing weather to remind them of basketball this year. This was supposed to be THE year, the year that Pete Maravich arrived and when all the empty no- championship years of the past with the Hawks, the Braves and the [soccer] Chiefs would finally, mercifully, end.

The Hawks have played one game so far. One is not many, but already the old doubts and the old pessimism borne out of years of also ran-ism are back. 

“I don’t know what the matter was with that kid the other night,” said a cab driver. “It sure looks to me like a fellow who can hit 44 points-a-game in college could hit more than seven as a pro.” He shook his head and paid attention to the traffic, always snarled in Atlanta. 

A telephone lineman said he was at nearby Columbus, Ga., last Saturday afternoon and watched Pete Maravich’s debut on television, which was blacked-out in Atlanta. “I was just disappointed they didn’t play the kid more,” he commented. “I mean, if you’re paying somebody close to $2 million, it sure looks like you oughta leave him in the game.”

In the Hawks’ busy downtown office on the eighth floor of a new building on Cain Street, much of the talk centers on Maravich these days, just as it does all over town. Even the hippies out around 10th and Peachtree who hang out at places called Know Where and Someplace Else have heard of this mop-top phenom or have seen his pictures and identified with the man because Pistol Pete shuns a barber’s chair almost as fervently as they. 

“The main trouble with Pete right now,” said Hawk publicity director Tom McCollister, “is that he’s not exactly nervous, but just the most intense guy I ever saw. He wants to win so much . . . wants to play good so bad that there the other day in the opener, he was just tight as hell. I think you could call it intense or tense and be right either way. 

“In practice,” McCollister added, “you ought to see him. He makes all those great passes, hits a high percentage of his shots and generally, just does some amazing things. One of these days when the newness wears off and he can settle down a little, he’s just got to be great.”

Skip Caray is the Hawks’ play-by-play broadcaster and is the son of Harry Caray, for years the Saint Louis Cardinals’ noted baseball announcer. Young Caray says the pressures that have been brought to bear on Maravich are almost beyond comprehension. 

When the Hawks tipped off the 1970-71 season against Milwaukee and Lew Alcindor the other afternoon, there were 50 photographers who asked for credentials. A normal opening with a normal crop of rookies might possibly attract 10 photographers. Caray almost got crowded out of his broadcast booth. 

“Never seen anything like it,” said McCollister. “Here was Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, MGM Films and guys from all over. Every time there was a time-out, they’d swoop in on our bench, all 50 of ‘em, it looked like, aiming right at Pete.”

Caray says the ex-LSU All-American has responded to all the attention by trying even harder. “If he has a fault,” he adds, “this is it. He just doesn’t want to disappoint people, so he’s trying harder and harder and, right now, he’s a pretty up-tight kid.”

The Hawks lost that opener, 107-98. Coach Richie Guerin didn’t start Maravich and used him, in fact, for only 22 of the game’s 40 minutes. 

The crowd of 7,192, which is more than listed capacity, gave the kid with the floppy socks a standing ovation when he made his entrance, and he responded by swishing his first shot, a 25-footer. After that, he went two-for-12 from the field and wound up with only seven points. 

Milwaukee coach Larry Costello said after the game that Maravich’s main problem, it had seemed to him, was that he had moved too fast for both himself and his teammates.

“He’s quick and he can handle the ball,” said the one-time NBA star, “but he’ll actually have to slow his tempo and make some adjustments to fit in with his team. And these,” added Costello, “are things that don’t happen overnight.”

The harried rookie, a bachelor living in a quiet apartment complex about 12 miles out on the expressway to Augusta, was a dejected young athlete following the first of the 82-game NBA season. Tuesday, at practice, however, he was burning to give it another try. 

Atlantans who began living it up the morning after Pete signed and bought over 2,000 season tickets—more than double any previous Hawk year—are also anxious for chapter two tonight. 

Many had felt that Maravich was “holding back” when he averaged only 18 points a game in the exhibition season. Then came last Saturday, and that peculiar looking “7.”

“What happens next?” is the question on every mind. Can the richest athlete in sports history and the greatest scorer in the annals of college competition adjust and relax while living, as he himself has put it, “under a microscope?” And what happens when and if Joe Caldwell ends his holdout?”

Part Two: Maravich ‘Mentally Messed Up’

Atlanta—Pete Maravich, uptight but still able to laugh at himself, admits that unless he calms down soon, “I may have to get my stomach pumped out before games, same as I get my ankles taped.”

The $2 million bonus baby of the Atlanta Hawks confessed that when coach Richie Guerin put him in the 1970 opener against Milwaukee last Saturday, “I hit that first shot and that was it, man. I mean like I had no wind, no strength, nothing left. I just blacked out on my feet.”

The ex-LSU phenom, a kid who played in college with a floppy, loose-jointed flair that was beautiful, said physical conditioning has nothing at all to do with his new problems as a pro. 

“Basketball is played just as much from here up,” he smiled, pointing to his shoulders, “as from there down. Physically, I’m in great shape, but mentally and emotionally, I don’t know what it is. I’m messed up.”

Pistol Pete paused, looked down at his long, skinny legs and the big Eddie Cantor banjo eyes suddenly lit up:

“Here’s the funny thing. In practice, nobody can touch me. I’m doing things, you know, I mean unbelievable things. Then we go out there last Saturday and I play like a dead man.”

Maravich, for whom the Hawks shelled out a record sum to sign, looks back and remembers, “I was a terrible practice player at LSU. Just awful. If you don’t believe me, check my dad. He’ll tell you I looked so bad sometimes, he didn’t know if he oughta start me.”

The all-time college scoring king, humbled on just seven points in his NBA debut, is of Serbian descent and the Serbs are noted as competitive, scrappy people. The Maraviches—Pete and his LSU basketball-coaching father Press—carry that characteristic strongly. 

“I’m probably as keyed up for practice up here as I was for ball games in college,” smiled Maravich. “It got so I occasionally had to psyche myself up in school. But now, golly, I don’t know . . . I’m just so damned nervous, I can’t sleep. I even have to make myself eat.”

Despite the mounting pressures and Pete’s burning desire to make his fans happy, the 6-5 rookie has actually gained a few pounds in recent days. He now weighs 192. He was 11 pounds lighter at the end of the exhibition season after starting the year at 215.

Looking slightly more relaxed and joking some before taking the court, the boyish Pistol suddenly grew close-mouthed when two subjects were mentioned. One had to do with whether or not he feels the team is accepting him. The Hawks are, or were, after all, a veteran ballclub. Bill Bridges was the NBA’s fourth-leading rebounder last year; huge Walt Bellamy is the league’s eighth top scorer for a career among active players; Lou Hudson led the club in scoring last year with a 25.3 average; Walt Hazzard was the league’s fifth highest man in assists; 6-10 Jimmy Davis had his best year ever with a 14-point average; and Joe Caldwell, who still is a holdout with the season underway, simply was the best of them all last year, the team’s MVP.

So how are these veterans—all black men—accepting the rich, raw rookie who just happens to be white?

Pete Maravich was not going to answer that question. He just shook his head and replied, “That’s something I don’t want to get into.”

So you and I may draw our own conclusions and while we may be right in doing so, we could be wrong. 

Maravich also took the fifth amendment when asked about Atlanta newspapers, which have been critical of his play. 

“I can’t comment on that,” he grinned foxily, “because I don’t even read those papers anymore. I used to, but it just got so it wasn’t worth the time. I mean, here’s one guy analyzing my performance one way and another guy saying something else. Somebody wrote that all my passes and so forth were so much junk. I can’t fool with all that. I got too many real troubles.”

Despite what he is fighting in his drive for NBA recognition, the tousle-haired rookie says he is not sorry that he chose to join the Hawks, Western Division champions last year who were eliminated in the playoffs by Los Angeles and Jerry West. Pete is aware that Charlie Scott, another All-American of last season, has debuted with two straight 29-point explosions with Virginia of the ABA. Pete himself could have played in the newer, weaker ABA.

“I’d much rather be with a team like this one, a good strong club that can go somewhere,” he remarked. “I’ve had those 29-point nights, you know. 

“I’ve had the points and I’ve got the money, you might say, safe in a bank in Switzerland. All that’s left is a championship, and this is the kind of team that can help me get it.”

So he put on jersey No. 44, not the jersey he preferred, because Maravich’s number at LSU was 23. But Lou Hudson had claimed 23 for the Hawks, so Maravich picked 44 which represents his collegiate scoring average. 

But, for now, 44 is only something off in the distant future to shoot for, and Pete Maravich will. That is, if Richie Guerin puts him in the ball games. 

Part Three: Maravich Bugged By That 8-On-One Situation

Atlanta—You’d think an athlete who in college outscored Lew Alcindor by 20 points a game, Jerry West by 14, Bill Russell by 24, and Oscar Robertson by 12 would step into the pro game feeling absolutely confident, just totally supreme. I would think so, wouldn’t you?

But I wouldn’t have guessed that Marilyn Monroe felt so insecure she’d have drowned a killing dose of sedatives nor would have thought that one day they have to lead poor Joe Louis off somewhere to be locked up in an institution. 

Even so, it was still a shocker here Wednesday night to see Pistol Pete Maravich—simply the best collegiate basketball has ever known at filling the basket—playing his own game like a man whose body has lockjaw. 

But that was the way it was. Sad, but so. 

The flaming collegian of old is a sight right now that some of the guys who used to try to guard him ought to see. It would do them good. Unstoppable, they had thought he was. Well, he isn’t and I’m going to try now to sum it all up, why Pete Maravich has indeed been stopped in two professional games so far and why this eclipse of a star may continue. 

Basketball’s normal defense is man-on-man. Stars get double teamed, and a superstar occasionally will be faced with three-on-one situations. 

Maravich won’t tell you this right now for the world, but what he feels down deep is that what he is facing is a 9-on-1 defense. Make it 8-on-1 to be safe. 

Whenever Super Kid got the basketball here Wednesday night as the Hawks met San Francisco, five Warriors saw an opportunity for instant fame. They swooped in on the rookie like bees going for a honeycomb. 

If they succeeded in stealing the ball or making Maravich throw it away—which happened five times—you could almost hear the brain wheels whirring. Like:

“Two-million-dollar bonus beauty, huh? If he’s worth two, I must be worth four because, man, did you see me steal that kid blind?”

You can’t blame the Warriors for feeling that way, really. But that’s 5-on-1 anyway, right there. 

Then there are four Hawk teammates out on the floor and only one of them—team captain Bill Bridges—appears anywhere near happy that Atlanta management went out and acquired Super Kid. 

First of all, he had had all that attention in college, his picture in every magazine and his floppy socks and his Beatle hair storified and glorified almost as much as his point-making and fancy passes. Then there had been the fact he played for his daddy at LSU, which cynics make a big fuss over and probably always will. 

Then he set that all-time record of 44-per-game, got the record 1.9 million bucks to sign with the Hawks and here came advertisers then, waving contracts worth well over $100,000 more if Pete would only endorse a certain kind of sneakers, a basketball, or hair dressing. All of which he accepted. 

Finally, Maravich’s teammates are eight-twelfths black, including the club’s top six performers. Pete, of course, is not.  

Once again, I think it is only human that the Hawk veterans would resent their fabled intruder and they are not superhumans. They do resent him. 

An observer in the dressing room can see it and feel it. It is not so much what they do, but what they do not do. Maravich Is being “iced” out. Nobody soul-slaps him. A “Hi” is the height of buddy-buddy. 

Dave Newmark was the last man the Hawks cut just before the season open last week. He is an outsider now and free to talk, he was asked Wednesday what gives with the Hawks and Maravich? 

Newmark is a liberal, a big guy who subscribes to today’s code of telling it like it is. But he replied:

“I’m not getting involved in that and that’s all I’ve got to say.”

Involved in what Dave?

Basketball is a game of nuance and fine lines. Adolph Rupp vowed that when Kentucky players shaved points and were convicted in the early 50s, that he never saw a thing that looked suspicious. Couldn’t believe that his kids had thrown the ball away or missed a shot on purpose. 

The Hawks, icy to Maravich off-court, are not doing a thing to help him on-court by the practice of that same nuance theory. A pass a split-second too late will foil almost any play. And of course, you can always say you didn’t see the guy breaking. 

The Hawks are likely acting less out of conscious desire to hurt Pete Maravich then out of the subconscious. But either way, it is the same. 

Coach Richie Guerin denies that this situation exists, but just watch and wait and see. People say Pete will come along “because he’s only a rookie and after all, even Jerry West took half a season to get going.”

One quick hot night—say 30 points or so—might get the boyish rookie over the Himalayas and on his way to truly earning his paycheck. But don’t look for it to happen unless there’s acceptance. 

And acceptance can only come three ways. Pete can have it by his wizardry, but he is playing such self-conscious basketball right now that this path seems unlikely. Guerin could order it, and that probably wouldn’t work. 

Finally, the Hawks could give it freely. That is the best way, but even of them all, probably the least likely. 

So, it’s 8-on-1 for now . . . and a mismatch. 

3 thoughts on “The Pistol and The Pressure

  1. Makes you wonder if Pete had signed with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars instead of the Atlanta Hawks, would things have gone differently? Would his style have been better suited for the ABA? Would the ABA have gotten a TV deal and could they have survived if Pete had signed with the Cougars?


    1. That’s a tough call. There are just so many variables. Had Maravich signed with Carolina, he would have been a marked man on the court. He would have likely adjusted and learned to handle the nightly pressure to excel. Maravich was that talented. But assuming Maravich replicated his gaudy college stats in the ABA, it would have only helped to grab a network’s attention. There was still the 2,000-pound bias in New York: networks considered pro basketball to be a rating’s loser. That was due largely to the NBA lackluster performance on ABA and CBS. Yes, there would have been Erving, Maravich, Gilmore, Issel, and others to sell. But remember, the networks also considered the ABA inherently risky because most of its teams operated in small markets.

      Another issue was Carolina’s ownership. Jim Gardner, then the Cougars’ primary owner, wasn’t in it for the long haul. His heart was in politics. Tedd Munchak, who purchased the team from Gardner, might have gone along with touting Maravich, if it translated into profit. But Munchak and his GM Carl Scheer had their eyes on an even-bigger bet: the NBA. They wanted in when the merger came, and Scheer vowed to build a world-class team in Carolina (just as he attempted to do in Denver with David Thompson, Marvin Webster, Bobby Jones, and crew). Handing the ball to Maravich and letting him perform to the crowd ultimately wouldn’t have worked for Scheer or Munchak. They would have tried to fill in around him with top talent, and who knows what the two would have found. It could have worked—or bombed. But the process would have been expensive. Munchak had the money at the start. But the mid-1970s recession hit his other business interests hard. That’s why he bailed on the ABA and never came back, though promised a low-cost expansion team in Cincinnati. So, it’s tough to know whether the ABA would have been the better choice for Maravich. Interestingly, Maravich and his father Press really turned the decision over to a trusted friend and attorney. When he spoke, Pete and Press listened. The attorney advised them against Carolina, and that’s how Maravich ended up in the NBA.


  2. I remember that Pete and Press had been offered a ABA package deal, but that would never have worked in the professional game. If any of Pete’s LSU teammates had resented his free reign to take any shot or make any pass, it would be 10x worse on a professional team. Like most talented players, you still need to be a good fit with the coaching staff and the other players on the roster along with good management support, most of which he did not get in Atlanta. A lot of what if’s as we look back….what if he had been drafted by San Francisco or San Diego. What if the league pay structure had a rookie pay scale back then, What if Pete had a better support staff at Atlanta to work thru his rookie issues. One will never know if any of these what if’s would have or could have changed his rookie season? Thanks for the time and effort you have put into looking back at Pete’s rookie year!


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