A visitor suddenly confronted by the Louisiana Superdome looming against the New Orleans skyline can be excused for feeling that at any moment, with a colossal roar and a blaze of colored lights, the thing will slowly rise and streak into outer space. The Dome does not seem to belong on the ground; it looks rather as though it were merely waiting for the arrival of some spare part from the planet Tralfamadore.
The Dome hasn't taken off yet, but last week it was beginning to rumble. The Jazz—which three years ago was sputtering along at a 5-44 clip and threatening to eclipse all those wonderful memories of the early Cleveland Cavaliers and the 9 and 73 Philadelphia 76ers—had won its third and fourth straight, over Indiana and Denver. Since the Jazz had opened the season with a 5-1 spurt, the victories boosted its record to 10-8.
There is definitely something going on under the Dome. The team's promotions people call it "Jazzmatazz," which means, among other things, psychedelic posters and a soaring new jazz-rock theme written by the noted Creole composer Allen Toussaint. Why all the commotion? For the first time since the Jazz gave up two years' worth of No. 1 draft choices plus half the French Quarter to get Pete Maravich from Atlanta in 1974. the Pistol has a buddy on the bandstand. Help has arrived. Not in a spaceship but in a truck, as in Leonard (Truck) Robinson.
The Truck is best remembered as "the other guy" on those All-Star Washington Bullets ( Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes) when they performed one of the NBA's great fold-up acts, losing the 1975 championship series 4-0 to Golden State. Robinson signed with the Jazz as a free agent in June, having played out his option in Atlanta after being traded to the Hawks by the Bullets midway through last season.
Robinson has not only turned New Orleans around, he has stood New Orleans on its ear. Through last week he was scoring 23 points per game, which is 10 more than any Jazzman other than Maravich has ever averaged over a whole season. He was also leading the entire NBA in rebounding with a per-game average of 16.3 and games of 24, 25 and 27. This is a remarkable feat, given the fact that Robinson, although he weighs 240 pounds, stands a mere 6'6" and does not play center, as have all but three rebound leaders in the 27 seasons the NBA has kept such statistics. At the moment Robinson's only close competitor is Boston's Dave Cowens with 15.4. The Lakers' injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, top rebounder in '75-'76 and second to Bill Walton last season, is due to reenter the race soon. But, says Robinson, "I've got a pretty good head start on that dude." He also has a fair head start on Walton, who is averaging 12.2.
With Robinson and Centers Rich Kelley and Joe C. Meriweather, the Jazz is the third best rebounding team in the NBA, which means that the ball often gets out to Pistol Pete, who is running and gunning at a 27-point clip—not too far behind his pace-setting 31.1 of last season—and scuffling with Denver's David Thompson for the league scoring lead. His other teammates are Forwards Aaron James and Nate Williams plus Guards James McElroy and Gale Goodrich, fully recovered from Achilles surgery and averaging 13.6 points off the bench.
It is ironic that on a team built around the nonpareil Maravich, the 26-year-old Robinson should turn out to be the savior. But by the end of last season the Jazz was in turmoil. Coach Butch van Breda Kolff had been fired and replaced by Elgin Baylor. General Manager Barry Mendelson, under pressure for having sold out the Jazz' future for Maravich and (later) Goodrich—seven first-round draft choices were either traded outright or conditionally swapped to Los Angeles and Atlanta—was dismissed by owner Sam Battistone. And the franchise was in danger of crumbling because Maravich, understandably tired of wasting his talents with relative nonentities, demanded a new contract. In a panic Battistone rehired Mendelson as vice-president and gave the general manager's job to 34-year-old Lewis Schaffel, an agent who represented 32 NBA players, thus effecting an astonishing switch from one side of the negotiating table to the other.
Schaffel's top priority was to keep Maravich in New Orleans. But even before he began talking money, Maravich stipulated that the Jazz sign at least one first-rate front court man—which was one more first-rate front court man than the Jazz ever had. Maravich's list of candidates included Detroit's Bob Lanier, Golden State's Jamaal Wilkes and Robinson. Wilkes had long since said he wanted to go to Los Angeles, and Lanier had as much as said he would prefer playing in a leper colony to playing behind a white superstar in the South. Schaffel had no trouble figuring what he had to do.
He offered Robinson a five-year, $1.5 million deal, or $225,000 more per year than the initial offer Robinson had from Atlanta GM Mike Storen. "Storen wanted to shop me around," says Robinson. "See how much I was worth before he made me a serious offer. That hurt. Atlanta was my team. I wanted to stay." Not surprisingly, Truck very shortly was gone from Atlanta. And so, incidentally, was Storen, fired by owner Ted Turner for, among other things, bungling his end of the Robinson case.
In August a happy Maravich signed a contract providing him with $2.5 million over five years. There were, to be sure, some minor casualties. As compensation for signing Robinson the Jazz lost Forward Ron Behagen to Atlanta. And they lost E. C. Coleman, their stellar defensive forward, through free agency to Golden State, though they chose a first-round draft choice in return.