As a result of all this, the real Pistol Pete has been seen only for brief, shining moments. Maravich hasn't been able to drive to the basket much nor has he been effectively penetrating. He can't spring off the knee for his jump shot nor can he go high for layups. Maravich's quickness and lateral mobility have been severely limited; he is practically a statue on defense. Moreover, the Pistol's entire game, so dependent on slashing inventiveness, has suffered terribly. "Sometimes I do the things on the court I want to do and I think I'll be O.K.," says Maravich. "Then I can't do them. I stop. It is very frustrating. It's a bad, bad feeling."
Still Pistol Pete runs. He handles the ball and shoots those unconscious grenades. And he has played all those minutes; one night, when he was just out of bed after a week-long bout with the flu. Jazz Coach Elgin Baylor had him on the floor for 46 minutes after Jim McElroy injured himself two minutes into the game. There have even been moments—fewer and farther between—when he whirled the ball around his back or between his knees and whipped some indescribable pass some unfathomable distance. Those were the flashes that people came to see. It was Showtime and he was the Magic Man; once again Pistol Pete became the most exciting act in the game. More often, however, this season—Maravich's ninth in the NBA—has been a glaring exposition (somewhat clouded, because of his injury) of what one New Orleans player says has always been wrong with the Jazz: "We can't escape Pete when he's on the floor. He's so much a part of us that when he plays bad we all play bad."
The guys who figure the odds in Vegas put it another way, in effect stating the bottom line on Pete Maravich: Never bet on the Jazz...but never bet against them.
This explains something else. In basketball, as in other sports, certain media favorites automatically become "the franchise." This usually is applied to a large, dominating center. This usage is incorrect. There is only one franchise unto himself in all of sport. He is Pete Maravich. There are 21 teams in the NBA and one Pete Maravich.
A league executive says, " Bill Walton used to think of himself as a Trail Blazer. Kareem thinks of himself as a Laker. Doctor J thinks of himself as a 76er. But Pete Maravich knows he's bigger than the Jazz. Pete thinks he's Smokey Robinson and the rest of the Jazz are the Miracles. The problem is that he's right."
Nobody ever questioned the obvious gifts of an Ernie Banks or an O. J. Simpson, despite the fact that their teams, like Maravich's, never won anything when they played for them. In his own sphere of basketball, Maravich's historical rivals at guard—West and Robertson—similarly were regarded as geniuses and held blameless even though they never played on a pro championship team until they joined forces with powerful centers late in their careers.
But Pistol Pete? In seven seasons in the NBA and most of an eighth, Maravich has, at one time or another, led the league in scoring, led all guards in rebounding and made the All-Star team four times. But he has played on only one team that won more games than it lost. And in Maravich's case—unlike West's or Robertson's—critics have in part blamed him. Much of the time, they say, he has disdained team play, avoided the defensive end and relentlessly pursued individual scoring statistics to the point where he now has figured out just how many cranks of his right arm he can get away with before it falls off.
Nevertheless, Maravich's native skills and marvelous creativity have made him a legend in the NBA. Marv Roberts, a veteran of the American Basketball Association, expressed this best at a game in Los Angeles two seasons ago, in the first year of the merger. At the time Maravich was scalding on all burners, throwing baskets in from everywhere as a wide-eyed Roberts sat on the Laker bench, witnessing for the first time this amazing player he had heard so much about but had never seen. Finally Roberts could contain himself no longer. As the Pistol concluded the quarter by razzling and dazzling and hurling in still another 25-footer, Roberts leaped from the bench, waved both arms at Maravich and shouted, "I sees ya, Pete! I sees ya!"
Probably no man in team sports has engendered such diverse verdicts from his peers as Maravich. Portland Coach Jack Ramsay: "Pete is the best. A great player, a great competitor. Of course he could play with us. He could adapt to whatever was necessary to win." Former Laker Pat Riley: "Maravich is the most overrated superstar who ever came down the pike. Every guard in the league wants to send a limo to pick Pete up at the airport and play against his soft defense. I not only don't think Pete could play any other way, I don't think he wants to." Detroit Center Bob Lanier: "He's a team player. Give Pistol another forward and a center and he'd be all-everything. He's the only player I'd pay money to see." Phoenix G.M. Jerry Colangelo: "His domination of the ball tends to be a distraction, pulling apart team effort and the attempt at unity." Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch: "We'd win the whole thing with Pete in the lineup."
Kelley, the New Orleans center, says, "To play with Pete, it is necessary to grant him a certain artist's eccentricity. His individualistic flair necessitates a certain disdain for teammates. When push comes to shove, with the game on the line, Pete perceives his role as the man who has to do it because he feels nobody else can."