Pistol Pete Maravich Fires Back, 1975 

[In May 1974, the Atlanta Hawks traded Pete Maravich, their angry fourth-year star, to the still nameless expansion franchise in New Orleans for a historic pound of NBA flesh. The Hawks got New Orleans’ first-round picks in 1974 and 1975, its second-round picks in 1975 and 1976, and the teams could negotiate swapping first-round choices in 1976 and 1977. In addition, Atlanta would receive the first guard and forward New Orleans selected in the expansion draft. 

That turned out to be  the rights to four early first-round draft choices, two high second rounders, and two quality NBA players in guard Dean Meminger and forward Bob Kauffman. “The Louisiana Purchase,” the basketball insiders snickered among themselves. All for a player that the Hawks couldn’t give away earlier that season. “We tried everyone,” Atlanta’s then-GM Pat Williams told me of trading the Pistol that season. “There were no takers. Nobody wanted him.” 

That is, until Fred Rosenfeld, a former L.A.-based player agent-turned-president of the New Orleans franchise, agreed with his partners in the Spring 1974 that they had to get Pistol Pete. Promoting his home-grown sizzle and pop was the fastest way to sell basketball in the Big Easy. Maravich, infuriated about not being consulted about the trade and by his self-described “shabby” treatment by the Hawks, said good riddance to his enemies in Atlanta. He was tired of being the “scapegoat.”

This article picks up on the infuriated Maravich’s need for revenge. Published in the magazine Pro Basketball Sports Stars of 1975, the story today lacks a few points that later trickled to light. For example, the article recounts the night Maravich nearly clocked NBA referee Jim Capers and bloodied the nose of teammate Lou Hudson instead. As author Phil Berger, in his Maravich biography Forever Showtime, quoted the then-Atlanta coach Cotton Fitsimmons: 

“That night was where the parting of ways began,” then-Atlanta coach Cotton Fitzsimmons later told author Phil Berger. “You see, Pistol, was a guy who couldn’t drink two beers without you’re having to peel him off the wall. At halftime, when we return to the dressing room, he was sitting on the floor, not showered, with a couple of beer cans beside him. After the game, he showered, had a few more beers and created a disturbance at the hotel.” 

After another disturbance on the team’s commercial flight, Fitzsimmons suspended his star for two games. “From the point he returned from suspension, we had 33 games to play,” said Fitzsimmons. “I started him every game, but we never talked. I always spoke to him, but he would not acknowledge me.”

But this article, written by the fantastic AP reporter Hal Bock, captures well the broad details of this “parting of ways.” Maravich wanted his revenge on Fitzsimmons, Williams (who moved to Philadelphia), and the Hawks. But revenge wouldn’t be immediate. The expansion New Orleans Jazz weren’t the best, finishing 23-59 in year one. Neither was the Pistol in the right frame of mind to shoot a bull’s eye. “He came over from Atlanta and had all that money and partied too much,” Jazz announcer Hot Rod Hundley wrote in his autobiography.

Nevertheless, the Pistol would mellow season by season into a more-grounded NBA star, and the Jazz would surround him in coming years with some legitimate supporting talent, such as Truck Robinson, Gail Goodrich, and Aaron James. And though the Jazz would never chase an NBA title, they always gave the Hawks plenty to flap about.]

There is a fire burning inside of Pistol Pete Maravich and, before he’s through, the flames are liable to inflict more damage on Atlanta than General William Tecumseh Sherman did a century ago. 

It is probably bad form for a National Basketball Association team to get one of the league’s hottest shooters angry, but that’s exactly what the Hawks did to the Pistol last season. First, there was the implication that Maravich was the major reason for Atlanta’s problems on the court. Then came a midseason suspension, and finally the trade that exiled the Pistol to the expansionist New Orleans Jazz. 

The whole sequence of events left Maravich steaming and anxious to make Atlanta pay for what he considered its shabby treatment of one of basketball’s hottest properties. He feels the Hawks made him a scapegoat during this season and then deceived him in arranging the deal with New Orleans. And, because he has a long memory, the Pistol won’t forget the injustices he believes he was dealt . . . especially when the Jazz play Atlanta. 

Maravich’s final season of discontent in Atlanta was one crisis after another. There were injury problems, such as tendonitis in both wrists, a dislocated right pinkie, and a deep gash in his right thumb. There was Atlanta’s failure to make the playoffs for the first time since 1961-62—a failure blamed mostly on Maravich’s defensive deficiencies. There was a syndicated television show on a national network that blamed the Pistol with everything that was wrong with the Hawks. 

But the whole aggravating year reached its apex with a three-day midseason suspension that seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as the love affair between Maravich and Atlanta was concerned. The suspension was for “disciplinary reasons,” according to Atlanta coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and came after Maravich drew a technical foul in the game against Houston and had to be restrained by teammates Lou Hudson and Herm Gilliam from going after referee Jim Capers. In the ensuing scuffle, Maravich’s elbow caught Hudson in the nose and bloodied it. 

After the game, Fitzsimmons criticized Maravich for the affair and remarked that he didn’t feel the Pistol “had his head in the game in the second half. He seemed to be still distracted in the third period by the altercation with Capers,” said Fitzsimmons. 

The next day, Maravich was suspended, although Fitzsimmons insisted that the events in the Houston game “had nothing to do with my action.” There were two reports on why the Hawks sat Maravich down. One was that he had broken the team’s curfew flagrantly, and the other was that he had acted up on a team flight. 

A club source said that Maravich had arrived at the team’s hotel well past the hours set by the coach, and that the Pistol “was just too obvious about it. The coach could not overlook it. He decided to meet it head on.”

The other report was that Fitzsimmons had become disturbed at Maravich’s behavior on the team’s flight home after the Houston game. A passenger on the plane reported that the Pistol “ran his mouth the whole trip. He wasn’t slurring his teammates or the coach. He never left his seat, but his conduct was just embarrassing.”

Whatever the reason, Fitzsimmons made his stand, benching Maravich for two games and tagging him with a stiff fine as well. “I would prefer not to do it,” insisted the coach. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it would benefit Pete Maravich and the Hawks. It had to be done, whether it was the first or last player on the team.”

So, Maravich sat out two games, and Atlanta won two games. Then Maravich came back, and the Hawks lost. Not only did they lose, but they lost to the sorry Philadelphia 76ers. The irony of the defeat to the league’s worst team on the night Maravich returned wasn’t lost on either Fitzsimmons or the Pistol.

“I wanted to win for everybody,” said Fitzsimmons, “but I especially wanted to win for Pete . . . The guy who writes headlines for the Los Angeles paper is going to write, ‘Maravich Back, Hawks Lose.’ When he was out, didn’t you read, ‘Maravich Out, Hawks Win?’ That’s the price you pay for fame, but it’s unfair.”

The Pistol signing autographs in Florida in August 1974.

Maravich knew that his coach was right. “It’s obvious it will get headlines,” said the Pistol, “but that doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve been through a lot worse and always come back. People who say that don’t know much about basketball, so I don’t worry about it.”

Fitzsimmons was the first to insist that the Hawks’ loss to Philadelphia on the night Maravich returned from his suspension wasn’t the Pistol’s fault. But the fact is that for the rest of the season, the verve that is Maravich was missing from the floppy-haired star’s play. He was a shadow of the dynamic superstar that his name represented, and opponents noticed it. In one game against the New York Knicks, he managed just 19 points and looked listless. “He seems to be listening to the critics,” said New York’s Walt Frazier. “He wasn’t looking for his shots, and he wasn’t pushing the ball up the floor in a hurry. I was glad to see it. It was my turn to run him tonight.”

Even Fitzsimmons had to notice the slow-motion Maravich, made even more obvious because of the effect it had on the Hawks’ offense, which was operating at the time without the injured Hudson. “I told him,” said the coach, “that Hudson was in street clothes, that he ought to look for the ball. He was nonchalantly throwing it around when he got it. It was not like him.”

Exactly right. For the first time in his life, Maravich has been turned off by basketball. The constant harping from fans and press had worn him down. He was fed up and beginning not to give a damn. 

“I always had a great love of basketball,” he said, “but that started diminishing since I joined the pros. For the first time, I’m completely frustrated with basketball. I’m sorry I ever came into the league. 

“Winning is all anyone cares about. And when you’re losing, people look for somebody to blame,” he continued. “It’s very easy for somebody outside to see one game, maybe I play badly, and instantly he’s an expert with all the expertise. I go through that all the time. The guy has never played the game. He’s a complete idiot. But he starts blaming me. 

“I’m used to it, but why should I have it at all?” I don’t need it. The other day, I discovered six or seven gray hairs.”

The message was there. The Pistol wouldn’t wait around for a headful of white. He’d get out first. “I know nobody will believe it,” he said, “but it’s only one more year for me.” That would be his fifth pro season, and then Pete would turn his back on the Hawks and walk away from them. What would he do with himself, he was asked. “I’ll take Jack Palance’s place,” he said, you note of sadness in his voice. “I’m the villain. I’d make a great villain.”

Before Maravich ever got a chance to carry out his threat to walk away from the Hawks, they walked away from him. What angers Pete is the route Atlanta took. 

The season was over, and Maravich went to the club office for a heart-to-heart chat with John Wilcox, the president, and general manager Pat Williams. “We talked for three hours and 50 minutes,” remembered Maravich. “I told them my views, why I thought we lost. I wanted to clear the air. I felt I was made the total scapegoat.”

Shortly afterwards, Williams called Maravich and asked the Pistol to have his agent call the GM. It was, said Williams, “to go over a few technical things.”

“No mention of a deal was made.” said Maravich. “Everything seemed cool.” Then Williams called Pete. “He said he had something urgent to discuss. He said he wanted to come out to the apartment. I figured they traded someone and wanted to discuss it with me.”

Pete was right there. Only he never guessed that he was the subject of the trade. His reaction was a combination of hurt and anger. “I dealt honestly with these people. All the time I’m dealing with these people, they were talking to New Orleans for about a month. They don’t say a word.”

Williams had another surprise for Maravich. He had brought Fred Rosenfeld, president of the New Orleans club, and GM Bill Bertka along to Pistol’s apartment. So, the deal was consummated. The price was high. Atlanta would get New Orleans’ first two choices in the expansion draft (those turned out to be guard Dean Meminger of the New York Knicks and forward Bob Kauffman of the Buffalo Braves) as well as its first collegiate draft choice in 1974 and its first two picks in 1975. The 1974 selection turned out over to Atlanta was 6-foot-2 guard Tom Henderson of Hawaii. Additionally, the teams agreed to swap draft places in 1976 and 1977. 

Bertka explained the deal simply. “Well, to start out with, we had to have a superstar,” he said, “and we got one in Maravich. With Stu Lantz (drafted from Detroit) and Maravich, we’ll have the best backcourt in pro basketball.”

The Pistol was impressed with the enthusiasm of his new bosses. “The people in New Orleans wanted me. I believe they are most honest. I like their attitude,” he said. 

The club completed the deal for Maravich before it had selected a coach, another player, or even a nickname. Still, the Pistol was impressed, and there was a hint of enthusiasm in his voice as he discussed his new team’s prospects—without benefit of knowing who’d be on the team when he made the remarks.

“We will have all the elements of a playoff-caliber team, if not a championship team by 1975,” said Rosenfeld. 

“Once they see the type of basketball we play,” added Maravich, “together with the Superdome, we won’t be able to keep them away.”

Is the price New Orleans had to pay for Maravich too high? Rosenfeld doesn’t think so, especially when you consider that the Pistol, despite all his problems last season, still averaged 27.7 points per game, second best in the league.  

“We think we will not lose anything in 1976 in 1977,” said the owner. “If we have better picks than Atlanta in those two years, we will keep our own choices. If they have better picks, we get theirs and they get ours.”

The key part of the arrangement will be the 1975 collegiate draft when Atlanta owns New Orleans’ first two choices. The lower the Jazz finishes this season, the higher that choice will be. Maravich understands that, and he intends to do something about it. 

“Next year, they’re hoping New Orleans finishes last so they’ll get the first pick in the draft,” said the Pistol. “If we win 30 games, which is not impossible, that will screw up the whole trade. That’s what I’m out to do. The following year, we switch places in the draft. If we finish higher, we keep our pick ahead of them. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

There is a sparkle in his eye that is the tipoff that the Hawks may have provided Maravich with a cause. And that’s the last thing you’d want to do for a man with this kind of talent. After all, general Sherman never shot a layup and look what he did to Atlanta. 

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