When the New Orleans Jazz got Pistol Pete Maravich from Atlanta last spring in return for a batch of future draft picks, the reaction around pro basketball was that the expansion team had peddled its future for instant boffo at the box office. The justification for the deal was that when you have invested $6.1 million to join the league, and you are hip-deep in everybody else's unwanted reserve centers, you have to dangle something in front of prospective customers. The joker in this line of reasoning, it was suggested, was that last place is always last place, and that after watching Maravich do his act a few times, the people of New Orleans would soon go back to spending their depressed dollars on Oysters Rockefeller.
Now, heading toward the final third of the season, it seems that the smart guys were right about some things and wrong about others. As predicted, the team with the wonderful name opened with a woeful performance and, at 7-44, still has incontestably the worst record in pro basketball, with at least a mathematical shot at surpassing Philadelphia's '72-'73 season mark of 9-73. But in recent weeks the Jazz have been making passes at mediocrity, actually winning two of their last four games and four of their last 14. The Celtics aren't exactly quivering just yet, but a team that can win even that infrequently in the NBA without a legitimate starting center can't be all bad. At least, not all of the time.
Moreover, far from fleeing from the scene of the disaster as their team stumbled to a record of 1-12, 2-17, 3-24 and then 4-34, the fans became, if anything, even stronger in their support—and under extreme hardship. The Jazz have had some odd arenas to play in. They opened in the Municipal Auditorium, a dark place, ill-constructed for watching basketball, located in a run-down section of the city and holding only 7,800, with 1,000 of the seats having only a partial view of the proceedings.
After the Mardi Gras season descended in December, the team shifted to the field house at Loyola, which seats 1,300 fewer and has a court raised three feet above floor level so that spectators sometimes have the impression they are watching a game being played on a stage. Well, it is quite a show. The NBA Players Association, conjuring visions of their dues-paying members hurtling off the edges, made the Jazz lay out $5,000 for restraining nets, which may preserve the players but do not help visibility one bit. And there is never any parking, even for the contestants. But the Jazz-men profess to love the awful place. "It's our snake pit," says Maravich. The arena is neither heated nor air-conditioned, but things could be worse. The Jazz have won three of nine at Loyola.
Maravich is enjoying life much more now than when he first arrived in town. He was upset that Atlanta let him go, although he shed few tears over leaving Hawk Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. He had averaged 24.3 points for Atlanta, but the team had only one winning season in the four he was there and so far as the papers were concerned, he was the reason. After Atlanta lost to New Orleans last Saturday night—it was the Jazz' first win on the road after 28 defeats—Atlanta's record was 23-35, and this year Maravich can be blamed for only two of the losses, the two games New Orleans won from them.
The season started badly for Maravich. First he suffered from severe tendinitis of the right ankle and a pulled hamstring. Then came the tragic death of his mother. Stories that the Jazz had given up too much to get him—in truth they probably could have had him for less—didn't help much, either.
Last Friday afternoon in Milwaukee, Maravich was looking back rather than ahead, where he could probably predict what would happen. That night the Jazz would play the Bucks, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominating New Orleans' two centers, Otto Moore and Mel Counts. Milwaukee would win 119-98.
"That trade," said Maravich. "I didn't make the trade. Why do people ask me about it? People have to criticize something and when I'm around, it's usually me.
"I can't understand why everything is negative, negative, negative. I guess it says a lot about human nature that people would rather read about Pete Maravich the ball hog, not Pete Maravich the ball hawk. I shoot 30 times a game and I'm a gunner. I shoot only eight times and I'm over the hill. What really slays me is that people actually believe all that stuff written about me. They don't know me, yet they think they do.
"Look," he said, "I'm just one share. There are 12 shares on a team. One man never has won nor ever will win a championship by himself. Yet people say, 'You can't win with Pete Maravich.' Win where? Lord knows, I came into the pros with a lot of pressure on me. No matter what I did it would never be enough. But put me on the Celtics and suddenly everyone would think I was the greatest player alive. Look, Pete Maravich has grown up. Well, it would still be me, the same Pete Maravich playing the same way."