Pete Maravich: The Battle to Earn the Pros’ Respect

[Here is the final post in this series on Pistol Pete’s rookie season. It’s from the great Paul Hemphill, who wrote the article for the March 1971 issue of Sport Magazine. I think it captures well the second half of Maravich’s self-described “tumultuous” rookie season.  

Before leaving everyone to Hemphill’s fine prose, a quick update on the blog. You may have noticed a name change. Out with Bob Kuska’s Blog, which had always been a space holder. In with From Way Downtown: A Pro Basketball History Blog. Yes, we’ve all heard this line on TV. But it’s used here to mean that these blog posts will travel far back in the way-back machine.

The new name was needed because this isn’t really my blog. It’s a team effort that involves Ray Lebov, the daily mastermind behind Basketball Intelligence. Ray has a voluminous library of basketball magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, and game programs. I’ve got a fair supply of the old, dusty stuff myself. 

We plan to post the best of the best over the coming months and get this print material on the web to help anyone doing research or just in the mood to reminisce. The blog will focus initially on the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and branch out from there. Got a request, shoot me an email ( or post a comment. We’ll see if we can’t find something for you. 

In the meantime, please consider getting a copy of my latest book Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark. And, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe to Basketball Intelligence, your ticket to the day’s smartest pro hoops coverage and analysis. Just click on the subscribe button. And now, back to Paul Hemphill.]

It seems like a bad joke now, remembering how Atlanta throbbed with enthusiasm last summer as the Hawks headed for their preseason camp in Jacksonville, Florida. The previous National Basketball Association season had been a good one for them—eight wins in their last nine games to clinch the Western Division title—and in the gyms and the bars and the barbershops the word “dynasty” soon was being tried out. Most of the excitement had been generated, of course, by the surprise signing of LSU’s three-time All-America, Pete Maravich—the most electrifying and prolific gunner in college basketball history—to a $1.6 million contract.

If Maravich could make the adjustment to the pros quickly enough, the thinking went, there might be no stopping Atlanta for a long time. The Hawks, after all, already had one of the best shots (Lou Hudson), two of the brawniest rebounders (Walt Bellamy and Bill Bridges) and two of the headiest playmakers (Walt Hazzard and Joe Caldwell) in the pro game. And so advance season-ticket sales doubled. Everywhere you looked there was an ad or a commercial featuring Pistol Pete and promising untold delights for the winter. The opening game was scheduled for network television. Swept up in the fever, Hawk management began talking again of a new coliseum and unveiled dazzling green-and-blue mod uniforms. 

But the cold light of day broke in Jacksonville. Bridges was mysteriously canned as team captain and then reinstated only hours later. Caldwell became a determined holdout. Hudson pulled a hamstring. Hazzard, doing his best to teach Maravich how to play guard in the NBA, played as though he hadn’t slept the night before. And Maravich, the center of attention, began making reckless passes, taking foolish shots and committing an atrocious number of turnovers. The Hawks lost five of their first six preseason games, finishing with a 137-94 loss to Milwaukee for a 4-8 exhibition record. 

Things got worse when the regular season started. The Hawks were losing, and losing badly. Caldwell finally jumped to the Carolina Cougars, who had lost the bitter inter-league battle to sign Maravich and had made petulant threats about getting even. Coach Richie Guerin tried running and got beat, and, when he tried slowing it down, he got beat. Two months into the season, the Hawks’ record was better than that of only three clubs—the three expansion teams. There was talk of trades, even talk of moving the franchise, and most of the blame was being laid at the tender floppy-socked feet of the million-dollar baby Hawk, Pete Maravich. 

There was no denying, of course, that Maravich, like any other rookie—especially a rookie guard—had a lot of adjustments to make, both on and off the court, in the move from college to the pros. There was no denying that his inexperience had an adverse effect on the play of the other Hawks (“At a time when the rookie should be adjusting to the old pro,” one writer said of the seventh-year guard Hazzard, “it has been the other way around.”). And there was no denying that the lopsided attention paid Maravich wherever he went had irritated and distracted the others on the club. But there was also no denying another fact, obscured by the poor Hawk performance and the super expectations burdening Maravich: that he was having one of the finest rookie years for a guard in recent NBA history.

Raw figures backed it up. The best rookie guard ever, of course, was Oscar Robertson, who averaged 30.5 points and 8.7 assists per game his first year. More recently there was Earl Monroe, who was Rookie of the Year with a 24.3 scoring average and five assists per game. But after 35 games, Maravich’s statistics were just short of those two. Maravich was averaging 20.4 points (42.5 percent from the field). Compare that to the rookie years of other guards who went on to NBA stardom: Jerry West (17.6 average, 41 percent, 4.1 assists); Walt Frazier (nine-point average); Sam Jones (4.6). Bob Cous? Admittedly playing in a slower era, Cousy averaged 15.6 points and 5.1 assists, and hit but 35 percent from the field. “Breaking in is tougher for a guard than anybody else,” said Guerin, “and it’s been tougher for Pete than it was for West and Robertson and the others, because of the style of player Pete was in college.”

Guerin, in fact, went so far as to say at midseason that Maravich would reach his peak as an NBA guard very soon. “When a kid’s got the instincts and the tools for basketball Pete’s got,” he said, “it’s just a matter of time. The only way you’re gonna learn is by playing. He’s had to find out for himself, the hard way, what will work and what won’t work in the pros. And he’s bright enough to know what won’t work, without being told. He’s gonna work it all out before this year is over, and when he does he’ll be the kind of player who plays tight defense, scores his 25 to 27 points a night and brings ‘em out of the seats with this playmaking.” Indeed, the report card on the Pistol after his first 35 pro games—drawn from watching him and from interviewing players and coaches and Hawk writers—was enough to make Papa Press Maravich beam. 

Playmaking—Very Good to very bad, but improving as Hawks learn to anticipate his moves. Tends to be impatient, to hog the ball rather than look for hot, strong-shooting Hudson. Absolutely fantastic when “on,” will try any pass at any time. His favorite part of the game.

Defense—Most pleasant surprise, since he’d seldom worried about defense in college. Has superior quickness and instincts, the two essential ingredients for great defensive players. Takes pride in his development here, especially when assigned to guard somebody like West or Monroe. 

Shooting—Has broken early tendency to bring down the ball and fire without teammates under boards. Old college habits hardest to break in this department. Loves to fast break, and should do more of it.

Stamina—With everybody in league gunning for him, Guerin says, he should “hit back “and become more aggressive on offense. Actually gaining a little weight, Maravich says, because “I don’t have to get up early for classes.“ Endurance seems to be no problem. 

Attitude—Excellent. Maybe trying too hard to get along with older Hawks. Good with newsmen except when asked about private life. Stays late to sign autographs. Learned at LSU to cope with mobs of fans and writers. 

Prospects—Will average about 25 points a game, guard other teams top guard, be exhilarating playmaker. Should begin long reign as pro superstar next season.  

In retrospect, a great deal of credit must go to Richie Guerin. The Hawks coach was a patient, disciplined player when he was a guard in the league, and he is the only one who will ever know just how much patience it took in the early days of preseason camp when Maravich was feeling his way. “I knew I had to give him free rein in the exhibition games,” says Guerin. “It was tough on the veterans like Hazzard. They were having to adapt to him instead of the other way around, to a degree. We just didn’t know him that well. Hell, I hardly knew anything about him before we signed him, except what I’d seen on TV and heard about him. I just knew you couldn’t put a halter on a kid like that, or you might ruin him. You incorporate his good things, and take out his bad things, but you try to let him learn it all by himself.”

It wasn’t necessarily pretty watching Maravich learn. He was hurling errant behind-the-back passes the width of the court. When his passes were on the mark, they often hit unsuspecting Hawks in the shoulders or the chest. He was penetrating well, but then being swallowed up by defenders smarter and bigger than he and having to eat the ball. He was dribbling the length of the court, missing a long jumper from the corner, leaving his backcourt unattended for an easy fast break by the opposition. He was guilty of 13 turnovers in a game in which the Celtics scored 165 points, and over the first six games in the preseason he averaged ten turnovers per game. “He had his game,“ says a Hawk veteran, “and we had ours.” And with Hudson hurt and Caldwell missing during much of the exhibition season, there was nowhere to turn but to his own instincts. 

Perhaps that is the point that was being overlooked too often as the critics began to wail about Maravich’s poor early showing. Few rookies, if any, ever have had to face the pressure he ran into at the beginning—but few have gone into their rookie season with all the experience he had had. “Pete really didn’t come to us as a rookie,” says Hudson. This was a tough kid who had been around. He had been called everything in the book between Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Madison Square Garden. He had been triple-teamed. He had been the center of attention everywhere he had gone, mobbed by the press and swarmed by the fans. He knew pressure, and, except for a personally-disappointing National Invitational Tournament, had always responded best when challenged. Basketball was his life, and such was his pride that nobody would be more disappointed than he if he weren’t the star in the pros that he had been in college. 

“Nobody worked harder in camp than Pete did,” recalls Hawks publicist Tom McCollister. Maravich did his running. Maravich carried things into gyms before each game like a good rookie. Maravich sought out Walt Hazzard and Richie Guerin for advice. Maravich worked overtime on his shooting. Maravich delighted in guarding the other club’s top offensive player. “The team isn’t supposed to have to adjust to the individual, it’s supposed to be the other way around,“ said Hudson, but it was obvious that a compromise was in the works and that it was a painful compromise. Pete Maravich’s natural talents were so awesome—that the veterans had to bend a little and make room for him. “I think what we’ve got now, “says Guerin, “is the best of Pete Maravich and the best of what we had sometimes last year.” 

Dissension? There are differing views. “The money’s got nothing to do with it,” says Frank Hyland of the Atlanta Journal, “because all Pete did was uphold the creed: soak management for all you can get.“ Says George Cunningham of the Constitution: “Off the court, Pete’s a lonely guy who goes out of his way to be nice. Like, he buys drinks on the road for everybody. Come to think of it, that’s the wrong thing to do.” There is some underlying bitterness among the other veterans over the massive doses of publicity given Maravich. (“When we go on the road the ads say, “Come see the Bulls play Pete Maravich,“ says McCollister), but Hudson echoes the general sentiment when he says, “You can’t blame Pete for that.” Hawk President Bob Cousins all but admits to overdoing the advance billing of Maravich when he says, “If I’d had more experience in basketball, maybe I could have avoided some of the problems we’ve had.” But Guerin, in his alley-tough way, scoffs at any mention of the Hawks house being divided: “If there is any dissension, it’s because we’re not winning. We’re just having to adjust to each other.”

Maybe Maravich hasn’t yet brought an NBA dynasty to Atlanta, but there is some thinking that he may, before it is all over, be responsible for saving the Hawks’ franchise for that city. Even when they won their divisional title last season, the Hawks drew an average of only 4,000 fans in their first 14 games at dimly-lighted Alexander Memorial Coliseum, which is borrowed from Georgia Tech for Hawk home games. Through the first 14 home games this season, the average attendance was 5,650—and the team was 9-21, compared to 21-9 the year before. On the road last season, Atlanta averaged 5,326 fans, but with Maravich they were doing 8,872 after the first 16 dates. At a Saturday night home game in mid-December, Atlanta mayor Sam Massell and the Hawks’ owners gleefully strolled to midcourt and, with elaborate mockups and drawings, announced plans for a $17 million coliseum in the guts of downtown Atlanta—“The House,” as some put it, “that Pete Built.”

The enthusiasm generated by Maravich’s arrival on the Atlanta sports scene—a pretty dull place, lately, if you’ve kept up with the Braves and the Falcons—even reaches out to the playgrounds, as it did in the state of Louisiana. “I take my boys to see him play two or three times a year,” says Bob Rinehart, who played with Bellamy at Indiana and has been coaching at Decatur High School near Atlanta for six years. Seeing Maravich has opened up new vistas for his kids, says Rinehart, echoing many other area coaches who remember when football was the only game in town. “I don’t think anything he does hurts the kids. If the good ones can pull it off, it might make ‘em great someday.”

Maravich himself, is doing a superb job avoiding the pitfalls that could easily smother him as a celebrated rookie. He freely signs his autograph to anything stuck in front of him, especially for adoring kids wearing his patented bowl-shaped haircut or No. 44 sweaters. (It was probably no coincidence that he was assigned the same uniform worn by Hank Aaron of the Braves.) He has adeptly brushed off such inquiring publications as Women’s Wear Daily, wanting to dig into his private life, and about all that has been made public in that area is his penchant for sheets monogrammed PISTOL; that he bought a new Plymouth GTX, to replace a creaking Volkswagen; that he still dates a long-time girlfriend, whose identity he will not divulge “for her own sake”; that he rents a $280-a-month [$1,808 today] townhouse, featuring a pool table and seven-place bar; and that his paycheck is sent to his two attorneys in Pennsylvania, who in turn mail him an allowance. He seems embarrassed about the imbalanced publicity given him, or at least aware that it irks the other members of the Hawks, and as a result often holes up in the shower after a game hoping the writers will go away. His treatment from the press hasn’t been altogether flattering, but in most instances the trouble began when a reporter rankled him with personal questions. “Pete hasn’t missed an appointment with a reporter yet,” says McCollister, “when the appointment was set up in advance through me.”

I finally met Maravich one day before Christmas at a Hawks booster club luncheon. He was to be a guest of honor that day—that night they would play San Diego at home—and assorted boosters, from little old ladies to long-haired kids, had come out of the woodwork for a closeup look at him. He ambled in a half-hour early, wearing a pinstriped mod charcoal suit and wild tie, and we talked until somebody pushed him into the buffet line. We had tried to find a quiet corner table in the darkened room, but middle-aged women kept coming around with everything from napkins to basketballs to ask for his autograph. He gave them shy little-boy smiles, and they melted away one at a time.

I find him to be a bit of a paradox. He is at once an ebullient kid and a killer, and the two roles seem to interchange without any effort—any consciousness, perhaps—on his part. During a game a few nights before, I had scribbled these notes: Maravich is mean looking. Stringy wet hair, dark eyes, hunched shoulders. When older, after years on the road, will be truly mean. Wants to get all he can, hurt you. Not the kind to help people off the floor.” That was perhaps too impetuous, but I will stick by the main point. You don’t go to places where he has been before you are 22 and come out of it Gee-Whizzing everybody. It is, I suppose, what happens when you have been the Fastest Gun for a while; always somebody there to try to take your time or your money or, worse yet in Maravich’s case, the ball away from you.

“I’ve always coped with pressure,” he was saying. “My Dad taught me a lot. He always told me, “Never get bigger than the game of basketball.” So I try to keep my cool and be nice to everybody.” He is proudest, he said, of the way he has learned to play man-to-man defense (“It never entered my mind in college”), likes Richie Guerin {“He lets you have it when you have it coming”) and wants more than anything to win a championship (“I’ve had the money and the recognition, and a title is all that’s left for me”). Some of the killer in him slipped out when I asked him what kind of player he would like to be when he peaks in the NBA. He went into a monologue and, toward the end, was talking to himself: “One night at Cleveland, I think it was, I rolled a 60-foot pass on the floor. I went into the game with about eight passes in my mind that I knew I wanted to try, but this one wasn’t one of ‘em. That turns me on. I don’t know how to tell you. I’m there with the ball, and here comes Hazzard or somebody, and instinctively I roll it. It was a little bit off, or I would’ve had ‘em tearing the roof off the place. I love that …”

That night I got to see it, along with a packed house who had come hoping the Hawks would win their record third straight of the season. Maravich played poor defense and hit on only eight of 24 shots from the field, but he finished with 27 points, and the Hawks beat San Diego, 128-117. The moment he plays for—the instant when he undresses the opposition and sends up rockets to announce it—came with 30 seconds left. Maravich blew down the middle on a three-on-two fastbreak and, going full-speed, bounced a behind-the-back perfect lead pass between his legs to Hazzard, who easily flipped in the layup. The crowd of 6,000 went absolutely berserk, and when Maravich was ceremoniously taken from the game seconds later he got a standing ovation. 

In the Hawks’ dressing room afterwards, the writers crowded around Hazzard, who had his best night of the year with 12-for-16 shooting and a total of 31 points. When Hazzard had talked himself out, one of the writers yelled to Maravich, “Hey, Pete, you got a name for that pass yet?”

“Let Walt name it,” Maravich said grinning. 

“Did you and Pete practice that one, Walt?”

“How do you practice that sort of stuff?”

“What do you do, just hang loose?”

“Man,” said Hazzard, “I knew something was coming when I saw his eyes get big.”

“Maravich rose up. “Whose eyes got big?” he said.

One thought on “Pete Maravich: The Battle to Earn the Pros’ Respect

  1. Thanks for the series on Pete’s rookie season. I’m glad I got to see him play live during his rookie season when the Hawks came to Chicago to play their final regular season game back on March 20,1971 at the old Chicago Stadium.


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