The Atlanta Hawks, suddenly a veritable juggernaut in what their coach calls "the slob race," were on the road again last week in their quest for a second-place playoff spot. Reaching for his hotel-room key, Lou Hudson tried a very familiar tune. "Here we go a-ridin' on the Maravich Express," he sang. The Hawks, playing at a giddy .380 pace, were actually alive and kicking. Indeed, they were even kicking some other teams for a change.
The Hawks seldom do anything they are supposed to do, especially around championship time. So there is no reason to imagine they won't barge right into the playoffs, and even make some mischief there. Still, considering how poorly all the other allegedly good teams in the NBA are playing—those in the Midwest Division excepted—Atlanta is presently just as qualified to get walloped by Milwaukee as anybody else.
By any measure of logic—and justice—the Hawks should have been playing garbage time from Thanksgiving on, but the luck of the NBA's four-way divisional split has left Atlanta with only Cincinnati to beat out for the playoff spot behind Baltimore in the Central Division. By contrast, Detroit, in the Midwest, has played around .600 all season but seems locked out of everything, behind Milwaukee, Chicago and even Phoenix. Of course, even if Atlanta makes the playoffs, even if it goes to the finals and even if it wins, for pity's sake, it is still going to get the fifth draft pick, for those are determined by won-lost percentages.
Basketball's unique Atlanta campaign has been strangely profitable for those involved, which is hard to do when .380 is a won-lost record instead of a batting average. While the signing of Pete Maravich for about $1,600,000 last spring cost the team its key figure, Joe Caldwell—he jumped leagues—attendance is up an average of 2,000 in the tiny gym in which the Hawks play. And. figuring TV and concessions, Atlanta has already gotten back about $300,000 of its Pistol Pete investment. At the same time, the Maravich money has bought a lot of misery. "I hope we never have to live through another year like this one," Coach Richie Guerin says. Maravich says: "I have experienced every type of change that can possibly face a human in sports." His backcourt partner. Walt Hazzard, says, "When things are going bad, the whole air is bad. and it becomes even hard to live together."
Understandably, there was resentment from the veterans about the money Maravich got. It was specifically for that reason that Caldwell took his leave and found himself a much better financial deal with the Carolina Cougars of the ABA. The fact that Atlanta's management let Caldwell get away (and Zelmo Beaty the year before him) probably irks the Hawks more than the fact that management went to such financial lengths not to let Maravich get away. The rookie's carnival style and the public pressures to rush him into the lineup did not sit well with some of his older teammates, either. There are also less obvious problems that have enervated the Hawks this season, although most of them have been submerged for now as the team moves along, falling up into the playoffs. The players seem almost embarrassed to be still in contention and resigned to the fact that there will be further changes made after the season, whatever happens.
The Hawks have always been—on the court—a close, unselfish unit, which helps account for why Caldwell has been missed so desperately. He was the league's most versatile defensive property—perhaps the best—and the steward of the team's fast-break game. His departure removed a very important cog, one that affected every part of the machine. Paradoxically, although renowned for their tight team play, the Hawks long have been made up of strong-willed, even stubborn, individuals whose independent views sometimes led to collision. Hazzard says, "I know exactly what you mean, and I don't like it, but I have to admit it's true."
Even last year, as the Hawks rolled to the Western Division title looking for all the world like the Good Ship Lollipop, there were fractious team meetings that sometimes deteriorated into shouting contests, with resolution by fisticuffs being suggested. Changes in the location of the franchise, in ownership and in management have hardly contributed to a stable atmosphere. Guerio, the one constant in the enterprise, long ago was required to become the linchpin of the organization, not just merely the coach. In holding things together, he has had some stern confrontations. At training camp this September he felt compelled to briefly suspend the team captain. Bill Bridges—an omen for the whole lost season, some would say.
In any event, while Maravich did not walk into what could be called an explosive situation, he did encounter a group of proud men who had a history of free expression. There is no evidence that he met any racial animosity; it was not Pete who set Maravich up as a white hope. However, the issue was complicated by the fact that the Hawks had felt slighted by the press for years, and it turned out to be more painful having attention directed solely at Maravich than having no attention paid to the team at all. ABC bought TV rights to the defending Western Division champion's opening game, but a clause specified that the network could cancel out if Pete were previously injured.
Curiously, Maravich's relations with the regular Atlanta reporters—who tabulate his turnovers as well as his scoring totals—have been strained. In one burst of petulance, he snarled at Frank Hyland of the Atlanta Journal, "If I had a gun, I'd shoot you."
One mistake Maravich may have made, especially with his teammates, was never letting anybody else pick up a check. It was a well-intentioned effort, but some players resented it, seeing ostentation where Maravich sincerely intended generosity.