Only one smallboy waited in the Saturday afternoon sunshine to collect the autograph of PeteMaravich, who an hour earlier had completed his debut as a professionalbasketball player. He smiled thinly as he signed "Pistol Pete" on afile card and handed it to the youngster. Then, unimpeded by the attentions ofany other fans, Maravich ambled slowly out to the arena parking lot in Atlanta,climbed into his dirty green Plymouth and drove away.
It was a somberending to what started out as a very promising afternoon. The casting wasperfect. Maravich, the top college scorer ever and the master of showmanshipwith a basketball, would play his first NBA game against Oscar Robertson (seecover), formerly the top college scorer and the complete fundamentalist.Maravich's team, the defending Western champion Atlanta Hawks, faced theunofficial crowned princes of all basketball, the Milwaukee Bucks of Robertsonand Lew Alcindor. Despite some predictably erratic play, Pete had been theHawks' second-highest scorer during the exhibition season, while the Bucks haddefeated 10 successive opponents. ABC found it all too mouthwatering and added$75,000 to its $17 million TV package with the NBA for rights to the game. Anda full house of normally football-crazed Georgians sacrificed a beautiful fallday to sit inside and watch another sport.
Theoretically,their instincts were sound. Along with the matchup of two excellent teams,putting Maravich and Robertson on the same floor was a handsome piece ofcounterpoint. One-on-one Pete came out of college with a reputation for floppyhair, saggy socks and a repertoire of fancy ball-handling stunts. Robertsonsurely belongs to an older generation. His hair is closely cropped and hiswardrobe, as he showed while attending a stockholders' meeting and a pressluncheon last week in Milwaukee, tends toward finely tailored brown and darkgray suits. Robertson's playing style is just as meticulous, relying on tempo.He bases his game on the nuances of change of pace and economy of movement. Theonly flamboyance he allows himself is a hard one-handed pass thrown off thedribble. "Oscar does everything exactly the way it should be done—with asfew frills and flairs as possible," says Alcindor.
Robertson alwaysseems to jump precisely high enough for his shot to clear an opponent's blockand to move exactly as fast as he must to elude a defender. Everything is undercontrol—only his large eyes change, popping open double size when he glancestoward the basket to measure a shot. Maravich seemed reluctant to gaugeanything as a collegian, preferring to rush in and then rely on instinct andhis extraordinary cleverness to turn a dire situation to his advantage. But hisdesperation dribbles have hurt him during his short time as a pro. Inexhibition games he was repeatedly trapped in crowds or chased into corners,where he was unable to fire off anything better than a forced pass or shot.Atlanta Coach Richie Guerin has urged Maravich to control his game, andpresumably Pete will not start at least until he does that.
October 26, 1970
"He's got todiscipline himself to the obligations of a guard," says Guerin. "He'sgot a responsibility in that position to do things I want him to and not justdribble around. He's got to work plays." Walt Hazzard, the Hawks' playmakerwho was widely thought to be out of a job when Maravich was drafted lastspring, adds, "It's just a different philosophy Pete's got to adjust to,but he'll adjust fast because he's such a good player. He'll learn that theeasy way is the best way, and he'll expend less energy than he doesnow."
Maravich's basicstyle has indeed become more subdued. There have been fewer behind-the-backpasses, less between-the-legs dribbling and none of the obvious crowd pleasershe performed in college, among these the volleyball-serve pass he launched inmidair during a tournament game last year. And he has drawn some praise fromGuerin, particularly after he played well in last week's practices. "I'mnot trying to change Pete," Guerin said. "I'm just trying to get him touse his talents the right way." Ultimately, if Maravich develops into theplayer the Hawks hoped for when they paid him a bonus of more than $1 million,show time should be back in. But last Saturday was not the time.
It was a fineoccasion, however, to examine the Bucks. Best in the NBA during the second halfof last season, they have since acquired Robertson, Lucius Allen and Bob Boozerin stunningly lopsided trades in their favor. Milwaukee seems as threateningnow as Los Angeles did two years ago when the Lakers obtained WiltChamberlain—and far better protected against the twin vulnerabilities of ageand injury.
Some of theBucks' new strengths are obvious; one is Alcindor's improvement. DickCunningham, the Bucks' 6'10" substitute center who practices one-on-onewith Alcindor, said, "The first time I played against Lew I hit him and Iwas scared. I thought I had broken his bones. He kind of fell over. Now it'simpossible to rough him—he just rolls off and scores. He doesn't even know I'mthere most of the time. At first he only used his hook and occasionally alittle jumper on the baseline. Now I never see him use the same move twiceagainst me in practice."
Alcindor has beenhelped by Robertson and Allen, who get him the ball more often and in betterposition than the backcourt men who were humiliated by New York in the playoffslast season. The problems that were supposed to arise because of two superstarson one team have yet to surface, and probably never will. Lew has a firm graspof what he calls "the totality of the game." He knows it should beplayed by five men, preferably the best available.
On Saturday theHawks led by six points when Maravich entered the game at the start of thesecond period. He quickly helped his team to a 16-point edge. The loudest cheerof the afternoon erupted when Pete broke up a Milwaukee fast break with aninterception, dribbled full court to his own foul line and shot a jumper thatjiggled around the top of the basket before dropping through for his firstprofessional field goal. Maravich again looked good two minutes later when hescored on a showy break engineered by Hazzard, but that was all. As the leadchanged hands in the third period, it was Pete's desperation cross-court passthat was snatched away by the Bucks' Bob Dandridge. The interception led to abreakaway basket that, more than any other play, shifted the momentum toMilwaukee.
Maravich finishedthe game with seven points, not embarrassing when compared with Robertson's 15.Oscar missed several of the 15 layups the Bucks failed to sink, but when he wasdouble-teamed, as he will be often this year, his teammates, particularly Lewand Dandridge, used their scoring chances well.
Ultimately,Milwaukee won on defense. In the middle of the third period Coach LarryCostello switched his quick, young forwards onto Atlanta's slick backcourt manLou Hudson, who had scored 22 points. They held him to five points over thelast 18 minutes. The final score was 107-98, the eighth time in 11 games sincethe exhibitions began that the Bucks have limited their opponents to fewer than100 points. As New York did a year ago, they will win many games even whentheir offense is less effective than it can be.
In the Hawks'tiny, crowded dressing room, Maravich sat motionless, his head bowed and hislong forelocks hanging down for half an hour after the game. When he finallydressed, only two reporters remained to talk with him. ABC-TV had long sincegone off to a football game. "What I played, it's called Bad Ball," hesaid. "Physically I was ready, I was playing better. Even the coach saidso. But I wasn't ready emotionally. I was totally flushed the minute after Itook my first shot. I felt like a ghost was sitting on me." Then he turnedand walked out to meet his lone admirer. The day will come when there will be alot more.