Pete Maravich: Good for a Show, 1978

[We haven’t run anything on Pistol Pete Maravich in several months. Let’s change that right now. Here’s a feature that ran in the Chicago Daily news in February 1979, back when the Pistol was popping in his eighth NBA season for the New Orleans Jazz and coach Elgin Baylor. The Jazz sure had their moment that season, but they narrowly missed making the playoffs with a 39-43 record. At the keyboard is reporter Phil Hersh, who would be go on to shine covering the Olympics, the World Cup, and a number of other major sporting events for the Chicago Tribune.]

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“Hi,” says Pete Maravich, “It’s Pistol.” The words come out sultry soft over the phone. You are not used to hearing Pistol said that way in New Orleans. At the Louisiana Superdome, the public address announcer screams:

PISTOLLLLL . . . Pete!” every time Maravich scores, which is, of course, often. The emphasis is on Pistol. It always is.

“He is the original superstar, what the word superstar is all about,” says Lewis Schaffel, general manager of the New Orleans Jazz. “Because the people come expecting him to give the ultimate performance, to put on a show.”

Even when the game is over, the show must go on. The Jazz lead Buffalo by 21 points with four minutes to play, and Maravich is running the ball upcourt. Suddenly, he stops, brings the ball behind his back and under his uplifted right leg, and throws a between-the-legs pass 20 feet downcourt to Aaron James.

It is the magic moment his father, Press Maravich, knew would come. “Some time during a game, he will always make an unexpected pass or some kind of ungodly shot,” says Press, a Jazz scout. 

“We are no different from Hollywood or Las Vegas,” says Peter Press Maravich, superstar. “If you’re winning by 20, I don’t see anything wrong with throwing a behind-the-back pass 80 feet for a layup, as long as you can do it. It turns on my teammates and the people. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t get up and scream and go crazy.”

The Superdome crowd reacts that way as James turns the pass into a basket that Maravich never sees. He is on the floor, screaming from the pain in his right knee. A ligament strained too hard when Maravich put down his right foot. The injury will keep him out of action at least a couple of weeks. The timing is terrible for something to be wrong because this is the best showtime of the year.

It is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but Maravich will not be seen at the Old Absinthe House or Jimmy Moran’s Riverside, where his brother, Ron, tends bar. It was NBA All-Star weekend in Atlanta, where Maravich would have returned as an All-Star starter to spite those fools who ran him out of town four years ago. But Maravich was not seen there either.

He was lying in bed at his home in Metairie, La., where he admits no visitors. Pete Maravich’s only contact with his audience was my phone.

Talk shows are not his game. Basketball is. Before Maravich was hurt last Tuesday, he was playing that game in his eighth professional season as well as he possibly can, which is better than all but a handful of guards in basketball history. “I was having my best year, without a doubt,” Maravich says.

So were the Jazz, in only their fourth year as a team. They had won 10 straight games, the last one without Maravich. The timing of that streak is terribly ironic. New Orleans, now a playoff contender, started winning soon after Maravich said these players weren’t good enough to make the playoffs. 

It was immediately after The Trade Affair. “The whole situation has been capped,” Maravich says. It would have been easier to cap an explosion at an offshore oil rig, Lewis Schaffel knows. He started the explosion by suggesting he would trade anyone on the Jazz, including Maravich, if the deal would benefit the entire team.

Schaffel is a 33-year-old lawyer who represented 30 NBA players and five general managers before he switched to the other side of the table. But he is also a hustler off the playgrounds of Brooklyn, and this trade talk was nothing but a hustle. Schaffel spoke up merely to acknowledge to the other 10 Jazz players that, while Pete Maravich may be the franchise, he is not the entire team. 

The statement was a threat to a man who should not have been threatened. A clause in Maravich’s $3 million, five-year contract prohibits any trade without his consent. Yet Maravich’s response was both caustic and defensive. “When anything goes wrong, they always blame the little rich white kid,” he said. “Schaffel,” Pete added, “doesn’t know a basketball from a turkey bladder.”

All Schaffel knows is that Maravich has played beautifully since the outburst. Even on nights when his league-leading shooting was off, the rest of his game did not suffer. The Buffalo game was typical: team captain Pete shot 9-for-26, but had 15 assists, and did a thoroughly creditable job on defense. He led the cheers for teammates, patted them on their butts, and acknowledged their assists to him.

It was not an ultimate performance, Maravich did that last year when he scored 68 points against the Knicks. But the Jazz won this game just as easily. “The credit is Pete’s,” Schaffel says. “There were times in the past when he would take 40 shots to get it going. Or, if he was 9-for-26, he wouldn’t do anything but pout. 

“Pete has put together a [nine-game] period here in the middle of the season that I think is extraordinary, and people all around the league are saying the same thing.”

Only Maravich disagrees. He says that he could not have made the NBA top 10 in four statistical categories: scoring, assists, free throw percentage, and steals (he also leads the league in turnovers) on the basis of just nine games. Yet the statistics show that in these nine games, he averaged 9.1 assists and only 3.3 turnovers, far better than the 6.4 assist and 5.5-turnover averages of his other games.

The numbers would not convince the people of Louisiana, however. Most of them probably did not know a basketball from a turkey bladder until the Pistol started firing away at Louisiana State University, where he averaged a record 44.2 points for three varsity seasons. “His relationship with Louisiana is one of basketball’s greatest love stories,” says Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I found out that people here would kill for Pete,” Schaffel says. No one went quite that far, but four goons wearing masks did march around with burning torches on the general manager’s front lawn one night.

Less outrageous was the reaction of Maravich’s wife, Jackie: “As far as I’m concerned, if they traded Pete, they might as well close down the Superdome.”

Such emotionalism flows directly from Maravich, who both plays and acts, if they can be separated that way. It is the only way he knows: Press Maravich, who would later coach Pete at LSU, made sure of that from the day his four-year-old son first touched a basketball.

Maravich admits to being the dominant figure on his team since Mighty Mite basketball at age seven. Press emphasized ballhandling from the beginning. Pete can dribble six balls at once, juggle three or spin two on his hands. “I was seven, eight, or nine years old when I formed my ballhandling technique,” Pete told Jazz broadcaster, Rod Hundley. “The showtime thing I put on was formulated when I was eight. I started putting it on in little YMCAs when I was like 11 years old.”

Hundley, who was the Maravich of the 1950s, got the nickname “Hot Rod” for his prolific scoring and flamboyant ballhandling at West Virginia. Although quick not to compare his talent with Pete’s, Hundley understands the burdens of such ability.

“Even if he scores 25 or 30 points, Pete has to put that show on,” Hundley says. “They expect him to put it  behind his back.

“Offensively, Pete is as great as any guard, but his greatness is sidetracked because he’s not good defensively. Oscar (Robertson) and Jerry West are the two best ever all-around, but Pete is a better ballhandler than them, even better than (Bob) Cousy.

“Pete is more careless with the ball than Cousy was, though,” Hundley explains. “Cousy did the behind-the-back stuff for a reason, to get away from a defender. Pete does it for the show.”

Hundley also understands that such remarks will be considered blasphemy by Pete’s admirers, particularly his family. Ron Maravich has called the broadcaster more than once to upbraid him for saying critical things about his brother on the air.

The Maravich clan does all it can to protect Pete from the rare intrusions reality makes into a superstar’s life. Pete’s control of the game, if not the outcome, may not be best for the team. “Pete can dribble the ball, shoot the ball, pass the ball, go without the ball.” Press says, his voice getting louder with each word. “I don’t understand those coaches who say, ‘I don’t know if he could fit into my system.”

Elgin Baylor is the third coach Maravich has played for since Atlanta traded him to the Jazz for two players and draft choices until the year 2000. There were two coaches during Maravich’s four-year stay with the Atlanta Hawks, who paid $1.9 million to win him from the ABA. The second Hawk coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, suspended Pete two days for” disciplinary reasons,” but otherwise let Maravich run the show.

“When Pete has his head together and is on his game, there is nothing he cannot do,” Fitzsimmons says. “There are some people who don’t agree with me, but I firmly believe it’s best for him to have the ball, not play without it.”

Butch van Breda Kolff disagreed in 1976. He is now coaching the University of New Orleans. Baylor, who has management’s backing to bench Pete if necessary, simply prefers to let Pistol shoot. He already has done that 1,224 times this year, making 542 (44 percent) to score at a 28.1 points-per-game average. The man right behind him in the scoring statistics, San Antonio’s George Gervin, has a 27.3 average with 258 fewer shots.

“If you’re a winner, you’re supposedly a team player,” Maravich says. “If you’re a loser, you’re an individual.”

In only one of his first seven pro seasons has Pete Maravich’s team finished with a winning record. He often wishes out loud that he had been drafted by the Boston Celtics. Then he would no longer have to live with the naysayers who claim you can’t win with him. There also have been times when he wished he had signed the $1 million contract offered by the Harlem Globetrotters.

“That statement was taken out of a quote. I’ve been misquoted thousands of times, and people don’t want to hear the explanations afterward,” he says. ‘They’d rather have it be the way the media wrote that was said.

“Under times of stress, maybe anyone would rather be on an island somewhere doing something different. Playing for the Trotters would have been nothing but fun,” Pistol says. “That’s all they are. Their basketball outlook is to go out and entertain people. That isn’t only why I play the game. Like 97 percent of the players, I want that ring.”

He says he will quit the minute the ring is on his finger. To do what? Relax at his condo in Clearwater, Fla., watch some auto races, drive his Porsche Carrera. It would be the first time in two decades that Pete Maravich has no plans.

“From age 11, I knew I would make my living at basketball,” he says. “Most find that hard to believe, but I have newspaper clippings to show it.

“I know what I wanted to do in life, and I went out and got it,” he says. “I’ve worked my entire life to be one of the best basketball players in the game, and I’ve done that. But what I desire is to be called, ‘World Champion.’ If that happens, I will have accomplished the one thing I really wanted in life.”

He is 29 years old now. For at least the third time in his career, people are insisting that Pete Maravich has come of age. “I think Pete has inner peace ever since he’s come to New Orleans,” Press Maravich says. “Each year, he has matured. I’ve always said that when he became 28 or 29, the next seven years would be his best in the pro game.”

“He has matured as a person during the time I’ve known him,” Baylor says, “just before I took over, Pete would lose control of himself because of calls. Pete is an emotional guy, and he would scream and holler for a couple minutes, you know. Now he’s under great control.”

Jackie Maravich has known her husband for 10 years. She, too, sees the difference: He is calmer, not so easily upset by either missed calls or missed shots.

But even this season, there have been moments of Pete Pout and Peter Petulant. There is the Peter who suddenly had a taped arm after shooting 4-for-20. There is the Peter who berated New York statisticians after a 9-for-31 game, insisting that he had taken only 24 shots and demanding the Jazz send a letter to the NBA on his behalf. And there is the Peter who asks to be put on a separate hotel floor from his teammates because they are noisy.

This is why the Jazz operate with a peculiar Peter Principle. Put too many great stars around Maravich, and the talent could cause discord. Put him with good, unselfish players like Jimmy McElroy, Aaron James, Paul Griffin, and Rich Kelley, and the Jazz are winning. The only exception is fellow All-Star Leonard (Truck) Robinson, whose main job is leading the league in rebounding. But even Robinson and Maravich have both been playing like great, unselfish players.

These are still not the Boston Celtics of old, but they can make the playoffs. They may even force Pete to pass up his planned trip to the Grand Prix of Monaco in May. “If we’re still playing in May, I could fly over there without an airplane,” Maravich says.

That would be the ultimate performance.

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