Monday, January 25, 2010

Smoking Pistol

Pete Maravich can be a somewhat polarizing player for basketball historians. “The Pistol” is either an ahead-of-his time showman who played with inferior teammates; or he is a one-note soloist who presaged the virulent, me-first strain that infected NBA players in recent years.

Regardless of which school of thought one subscribes to, Maravich’s performance versus the New York Knicks on Feb. 25, 1977, is a modern-day masterpiece. The New Orleans Jazz bandleader scored 68 at the Louisiana Superdome, the flash point of a lightning-rod career.

The popular myth of that game states that Maravich lit up Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the epitome of 1970s cool and defensive ace nonpareil. True, Frazier started out guarding Maravich, but Clyde wound up playing just over 20 minutes. Butch Beard, Ticky Burden and Dean Meminger, whom the Jazz traded to Atlanta for Maravich in 1974, equally got their tastes of Pistol’s offensive weaponry.

Frazier was on the downside of his career and in his last season with the Knicks, who were the exemplars of team basketball under coach Red Holzman that decade. Still, it’s hard to imagine that, even in his prime, Frazier could have cooled the Pistol when Maravich was going great guns. Maravich got his first points on a driving three-point play two minutes into the game, then shot a 20-foot “heat check” on the Jazz’s next possession.

Sufficiently satisfied that he was on point, Maravich locked into scoring mode. Not looking to pass at all, he delved into his expansive bag of offensive moves. Maravich was a master of creating space for a shot, pump-faking his defender into the air, then fading away to hit 20-foot jumpers. He had 17 points in the first quarter and was uncommunicative the whole time, putting his head down after each basket and jogging back to play his perfunctory defense.

Holzman keyed in on Maravich in the second quarter, and double teams seemed to do the trick. Maravich air-balled his first shot of the period and, critics be damned, started passing the ball to open teammates. He notched three quick assists before nailing a 25-footer that got him shooting again. Some of the moves were unfathomable, including a spinning sky hook over Meminger on the baseline. The Jazz raced ahead in the second quarter, and Maravich had 31 at halftime. His NBA high was 51, which he had accomplished twice that season.

Maravich didn’t cool down during the break, nailing a long jumper to start the third quarter. However, the hopes for a career night dimmed a bit as he missed four straight shots and picked up a fourth foul while stuck at 43 points. Maravich stayed aggressive with the ball and had 48 heading into the final quarter.

By this point, the Jazz had a commanding lead and Maravich was the only show going. His teammates constantly fed him the ball and set multiple screens for him to run around. Maravich was more than happy to oblige, getting his 68 before fouling out on an offensive foul with under two minutes remaining. He was 26 of 43 from the field and 16 for 19 from the free-throw line.

It was, at the time, the third-highest scoring game in NBA history, the most by a guard and behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, who happened to be New Orleans’ coach. What is remarkable is that Maravich’s total should have been much higher; he missed several open jumpers and, of course, was playing without a three-point line.

Maravich led the league in scoring that season at 31.1 points per game. He played only three more years, which were marred by injuries, a descent into alcoholism and a fervent belief in extraterrestrial life. Yes, the Pistol was an unrepentant gunner, but when the shots were falling he was a sight to behold.

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