Talking Pistol Pete, 1971

[Here’s one more item on Pete Maravich’s rookie season. It’s an edgy, very readable Q & A with Pistol Pete after he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. The interview was conducted by Pete Finney, a great New Orleans-based reporter. Finney provides a nice intro below to the Q & A, so no need to duplicate his effort. The interview ran in Basketball’s All-Pro Annual 1971.

But one quick thing before turning it over to Finney and Pistol Pete. Here at From Way Downtown, like an old Top 40 radio station, we do take requests. If there’s a vintage NBA player/event that you’d like to see profiled, send me an email (bobkuska@yahoo.com) and put in a request. It’s possible my blog partner Ray Lebov or I can find what you’re looking for.]

The contract that made Pistol Pete Maravich financially independent, and a member of the Atlanta Hawks, at 22 years of age has been estimated at anywhere from $1.5 to $2 million. The money paid for the skinny, six-foot-five national scoring champion will be a constant point of reference for writers and fans as Maravich puts his buggy-whip body on display in NBA auditoriums throughout the country. Is Pistol Pete, as Bill Russell says, a “paper star?” A white hope who is “being forced down our throats?” Russell’s sentiments are an example of the hot spotlight the rookie will operate under this season, a player who moved past Oscar Robertson  to become the highest-career scorer in major college history with a three-year average of 44.2. What follows is Piston Pete’s reply to a series of questions on where he’s been and where he’s going. [Note: Finney is the “Q.” Maravich is the “A.”

Q: Are you looking forward to your pro career with any amount of fear?

A: Definitely not. Anxious is what I am. This is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and I’m not going to let it get away. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I realize there’ll be certain pressures with the Hawks but, heck, I’ve been under pressure the last four years at LSU. I thrive on pressure. And I don’t fear any one player on a basketball court. Respect, yes. But not fear. 

Q: The Atlanta Hawks, at least the first seven players, are black. Do you anticipate any racial friction?

A: There is only one thing that matters in the pros and that is: Can you do the job? I think I can. I’m confident of my ability as a ballhandler, and I feel I’m a good enough shooter. If I show I can help the Hawks, the color of your skin shouldn’t enter into it. 

Q: Your scoring average jumped each year you were in college. Do you expect the same scoring pressures in the pros?

A: Thankfully, there’ll be a lot less pressure in this respect. I should help the Hawks more as a playmaker than a scorer. I’m confident I can handle the basketball as well as anyone in the game. In college, all I saw was a zone, or a combination zone. In the pros, it gets down to one-on-one. This is the challenge I’m looking forward to. One-on-one is my meat.   

Q: You say you’re looking forward to the man-to-man defense in the pros. Do you think anyone in the NBA can handle you one-on-one?

A: That’s a leading question. I’m not about to set myself up for the kill. The only experience I’ve had was in college and, in college, no one player was able to handle me head-and-head. They used to say Tennessee and a guard named Billy Hahn” held me to 19 points a game.” Hell, Hahn was helped out by three other guys and a slowed-down game. Things like that sting my tail. Sometimes, after I’d take 45 shots in a game and score well below my average, a writer would come up and say: “Did the defense give you trouble?” A stupid question. It wasn’t the defense. It was me. I just shot lousy. I have yet to play against a guard who can stop me from getting a shot off. 

Q: After the NIT, Dean Meminger of Marquette, the tournament’s MVP, he was quoted as saying he’s seen better players than you on the playgrounds of New York, players who never made it to college. 

A: A ridiculous statement. If it’s true, then Atlanta made a terrible mistake. I’ll be the first to admit I was a lousy in the NIT. But, here again, it was the zone and combination defenses, to say nothing of a better team, that beat us. Still, no one dared play us a strict man-to-man. As for Meminger, if he intends to make it in the pros, he’d better develop an outside shot. 

Q: From what you’ve observed of the pros, how do you rate the quality of the backcourt men in the NBA?

A: Just like everything else in basketball—a lot better than when I began watching the pros on television 10 years ago. Pro basketball players are the best athletes in the world. I know I’m not going to be able to get away with the stuff I did in college. There were some guards you could turn any way you wanted, bounce the ball through their legs all night. Up here, it’s going to be a question of trying to outguess the best in the world. Let’s say we were playing the Knicks. Walt Frazier is guarding me, and Willis Reed is on Walt Bellamy. I get a pick and dribble past Frazier toward the bucket. Reed leaves Bellamy to pick me up. Ordinarily, I’d lay the ball of to Bellamy for an easy two points. But, if I do, you know who gets it? Frazier, that’s who. He’s already recovered from the screen and picked up Bellamy. That’s because they play so much pick-and-go. And because you’ve got such quick thinkers. You just can’t throw the ball to the man you think might be open—because he won’t be open long.

Q: How much can you improve?

A: You got to be kidding. I may think I know all the tricks now, but I’m going to find out in a hurry how far I’ve got to go. I could best explain this by passing on a story related by Joe Caldwell of the Hawks. When Joe was a rookie, he was with Detroit, and Detroit was playing Boston. Joe was paired against Sam Jones. Early in the game, he blew past Sam for an easy layup. When Boston came back downcourt, Jones came alongside Caldwell and said something about “how you young boys can run.” Joe felt a tap on the leg. Jones had kneed him on a nerve point, and Caldwell went crumbling to the floor. This time it was Jones who went in for an easy layup. He came back and extended a helpful hand to Joe saying, “What happened, son?” I’m going to have to go through the same thing—the learning process. 

Q: Do you have the physical size to take the beating you’re bound to get in the pros?

A: I plan to play around 200 [pounds]. That should be big enough. I worked with the weights all summer, and they’re going to help me mentally as well as physically. I got a pretty good taste of the pro game when I used to go one-on-one with Doug Moe, the All-America at North Carolina who now plays for the Carolina Cougars of the ABA. At the time, I weighed 170, and Doug was around 200. He knocked my tail around pretty good, and bloodied my nose—and on an outdoor court. But I managed to get up every time. I think I have some idea what to expect. 

Q: Do you have any physical handicaps?

A: If I do, it would be my feet. I have knots on both big toes and a growth on my right heel. Sometimes they get plenty irritated. So much so, I’ve got to wear special shoes. My dad tells me the only way to cure it for good is an operation. 

Q: What about your dad? How would you feel if he came into the NBA as coach of another team?

A: I don’t know what his thoughts would be exactly. I wouldn’t mind a bit. He always said he wouldn’t use me as a wedge to get into the pros. And he meant it. As for coaching, he’s always been interested in working with college athletes. But if someone came to him and offered him a $50,000-a-year contract to coach a pro team, I don’t see how he could turn it down. 

Q: Are you glad your dad won’t be coaching you in the pros?

A: I think both of us are happy—and relieved. No one can imagine the pressure we were under at LSU. We enjoyed a particular sort of relationship, as father and son, as coach and player, that I don’t believe could be matched. Why? Because no two people have ever been more dedicated to the game. But four years is enough. If my dad was coaching me in the pros, it would be too much. I’d age 40 years in two seasons, and he’d be out with an ulcer. 

Q: What about the fact your father let you run the show at LSU? Will this make it more difficult to fit into the Hawk system?

A: I don’t know exactly what coach Richie Guerin has in mind for me. I know I won’t be scoring as much. But I’m sure they’ll want me handling the ball. The free-wheeling pro game is my cup of tea. So is the 24-second clock. No stalls, no slowdowns, no ball control. I love the running game. 

Q: You have the reputation as a fancy-dan. Do you think there’s a place for this in the NBA?

A: I don’t consider what I do vaudeville. I always felt if I could get the ball to a man with a behind-the-back pass or with a pass through my legs, what’s the difference? I practice all that fancy stuff so much it has become second nature. Once on a three-on-one fastbreak, I threw the ball through the defender’s legs. I lost count of how many times I hit the outside man on the fast break with a behind-the-back bounce pass. 

I admit I’ve got ham in me and that I’m out to entertain. Last season, we were in Honolulu for the Rainbow Classic. One time I was middleman on the fastbreak. I was crossing midcourt looking back for the ball. I caught it with both hands behind me. When I turned to look downcourt, there was a guy planted right in front of me waiting for me to run into him for a charging foul. So what do I do? With the ball still behind me, I plant my feet apart just inches from his. In one motion, I whipped a bounce pass, through my legs, and through this guy’s legs. It must have travelled 30 feet, right into the hands of one of our players for a layup. The crowd went wild. I admit I got a lot of ham in me but why shouldn’t the fans be entertained. I think all of the fundamental stuff is going out of style. The vanilla is making way for tutti frutti. I don’t consider myself a hot dog. People who call me that are just plain dumb, behind the times. And you’d be surprised how dumb some writers are about basketball. Especially in Louisiana. What they know about the game you could write on the head of the pin. The same applies to some fans. 

Q: Do you think the attention, and the money, you received has changed your attitude toward the public?

A: I don’t think money has changed me at all. What money should do is strengthen your determination, focus your attention on the job you’re being paid to do. 

Q: What about outside income? Will that affect your concentration in the pros?

A: Absolutely not. When I was at LSU, I turned down several invitations to appear on the Johnny Carson show. All this stuff will come in time. I’m not rushing anything. I’m a big Carson fan. I think I could do a couple of drills he’d get a big charge out of. One is the ricochet. I stand with my feet spread apart, take the ball and, with both hands, throw it between my legs and then catch it behind my back. Then I go from back to front. Then here is the bullet ricochet, which is done the same way, only this time you slam the ball real hard on the floor. It can be dangerous if you hit yourself in the crotch off the bounce. I can just see Carson trying this on the show.

Q: What about your publicized admiration for Joe Namath, both on and off the field? Do you identify with him?

A: I admire Joe Namath, sure, but that doesn’t mean I want to be another Joe Namath. I’d prefer keeping my private life private. I’m not interested in anyone else’s business, so I don’t want them to know mine. As for Namath, I would say he was more idolized, if that is the word, by the college students than by the little kids. And I would guess that’s because of his tell-it-like-it-is image.

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