At the end of his nine-day stay in New York City, Pistol Pete Maravich was ready to go home. He had come to town eager to justify his title as basketball's Mr. Showtime, and he could hardly wait to get out there under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, before a full house, and fire off the leaping, twisting shots that had made him college basketball's alltime scoring leader. He'd show those city dudes Pistol Pete the magician, scrambling down the floor on a fast break, his long hair flopping, his old gray sweat socks drooping, the basketball dancing through his legs and around his back. As he said before taking his first dribble in the National Invitation Tournament, "I've always insisted that basketball is an entertainment, and New York is where the fans love basketball. Either we will swallow New York—or New York will swallow us."
Well, it turned out to be something like mutual heartburn. New York loved Pete's act, but Marquette's team and its star, Dean Meminger (opposite), upstaged him in the end and won the tournament. After his NIT adversaries had come at him with their aggressive, gang-up defenses, Maravich looked—and felt—as if he had been worked over by a mugger in Central Park. At one point, besides a severely upset stomach that caused him to lose 10 pounds, Pete had a knot on his head, a bruised hip, a strained ligament in his leg and a sprained ankle. Although LSU won two games and finished fourth, his brilliant passes were few and far between. And after his team was beaten in the semis, Maravich decided to sit out Saturday's consolation game with Army.
"I didn't want to risk hurting myself further," he said. "I wanted to come here and win for my dad [the LSU coach], but everything was a disaster. Man, I've had enough of this place."
While Maravich was having his troubles, Coach Al McGuire and his hungry, angry urchins from Milwaukee showed why they were the tournament favorites. The Warriors hounded a limping Maravich into uselessness and beat LSU 101-79 in the semifinals. And on Saturday afternoon they easily disposed of McGuire's alma mater, St. John's, to win the final 65-53.
March 30, 1970
"We're a great little team," said McGuire, whose usual snappy attire was surpassed in brilliance only by his team's black-and-gold striped uniforms. "We thought we would win—and we did."
All season, of course, the Warriors had been pointing not for the NIT but for an at-large berth in the big tournament, the NCAA. After finishing with a fine 22-3 record, Marquette got an NCAA bid all right, but to the Midwest Regional in Fort Worth instead of the Mideast at Dayton, Ohio. This was not the first time that the NCAA had asked a team to switch regions in order to fit in all the best independents, but McGuire balked, fumed and finally said phooey—the Warriors would go to New York and the NIT.
"We were unjustly kept out of the Mideast," said McGuire. "I didn't want to go to Texas. I have nothing against longhorns, but that's 1,500 miles away. What could I get down there—maybe two cheerleaders."
Of course, the NIT was delighted to acquire the Warriors. Usually the tournament has to make do with 16 of the NCAA's rejects and also-rans, so a team like Marquette brought substantial class to the field. Moreover, the Warriors' best players—Meminger and Ric Cobb—are products of New York playgrounds and high schools. So, as the NIT got under way, the smart money liked St. John's in the upper bracket and Marquette in the lower. Neither favorite, despite the local appeal, captivated audiences the way Maravich did.
When they arrived in New York—on Friday the 13th—Maravich and his teammates were taken to the New Yorker Hotel, and right away, as Pete told it later, there was trouble. "We had to wait to get our rooms," he said, "because there had been some kind of shooting and they were still cleaning up." The story was denied by both the New York police and the hotel, but it was fun to tell and Pete always likes to entertain, on or off court. Shortly he was describing how he was stuck on one of the hotel's elevators:
"Here I was, 36 floors up, with this elevator bobbing up and down. Man, I'm saying my life's over—I was going crazy. I kept punching buttons and it kept bobbing between 36 and 37. Then all of a sudden the doors opened and there was nothing but a wall there. I said 'Oh, no' and punched another button. Finally it went up to 40 and I got off. Man, I walked down to the lobby."
The next night one of Pete's fans—Al Hirt—invited the team to attend his concert at Carnegie Hall, where he called the players up on stage and introduced them. At about 2:30 a.m. Maravich was sound asleep in his room ("It was so small I had to put my suitcases in the bathroom") when he was awakened by a soft knocking on the door.
"Some girl had gotten outside in the hall," he said, "and she was calling, 'P-e-e-te, P-e-e-te.' I lay there for a few minutes just listening to her. I couldn't believe it. And then, just as I was getting ready to get up, somebody came along and ran her off."
On Sunday afternoon, LSU's opening game was televised nationally; since the New York area was not blacked out Garden attendance was a mere 16,000, more than the size of capacity crowds at the NCAA. But Maravich noticed the empty seats as soon as he jogged out on the floor. "It wasn't packed and I realized that," he said. "When I first went out there, I was scared—I was afraid everybody thought the game was being played somewhere else. The more people there are in the stands the better I like it." One other possible reason for the empty seats is that LSU was supposed to have an easy time with its opponent, Georgetown, an idea that was quickly dispelled.
The first time he put his hands on the ball in a game at the Garden, Pistol Pete gave the crowd what it wanted to see. With only eight seconds gone, he whipped a pass behind his back into a crowd of players jostling under the basket. Although the pass was right in his hands, Maravich's receiver was so surprised, or nervous, that he blew the shot. But nobody in the crowd seemed to mind. After letting out a loud ooooh, the fans settled back, ready to be entertained some more. Showtime was here.
But Georgetown was ready for The Pistol. The Hoyas assigned Guard Mike Laska—"best defensive player in the country," according to his coach—to cling to Maravich, and they had two more players running at him whenever he tried to maneuver into shooting territory. At halftime Pete was only 1 for 4 from the field. "I saw two men on me all the time and I thought, well, hell, I'll just throw the ball around and we'll score that way," said Pete.
He began taking more shots in the second half and in one period hit three long jumpers in a row. "I was starting to wonder how good he was about then," said Laska, "but when he hit those I knew he could have been doing it all day." What really turned on the crowd was a pass Maravich made on one of the few fast breaks LSU was able to generate. With a defensive man planted only steps in front of him as he charged up the middle, Maravich took a pass from his left and zipped it to his right all in the same motion, setting up an easy basket. His two free throws in the closing seconds enabled the Tigers to win 83-82, but Pete was not pleased. In his New York debut he had a modest 20 points—making six of 16 shots—and for the first time this season he was outscored by a teammate. Dark, husky Danny Hester, a 6'8" senior forward, had 30.
"I was pitiful, I was terrible, I stunk," said Pete. "It was one of my worst, no doubt about it. How many shots did I take? Sixteen? That's about 90 under my average, but I had nowhere to go. When I play that bad, I try to forget it. I'll just go hide in my little corner." The corner turned out to be Mr. Laffs, one of the swinging East Side bars.
Pete's best NIT performance—and also his roughest experience—came Tuesday night against Oklahoma in the quarterfinals, and this time there was a full house in the Garden. Showtime fans saw Pistol Pete score 37 points and again hit two free throws in the closing seconds, giving LSU a 97-94 victory. They also saw Pete get hit in the face going for a rebound, scrape his shin diving for a loose ball and twist his ankle while trying to drive between two Oklahoma defenders. After the game his stomach and ankle were troubling him enough so that he turned down an invitation to appear on the Dick Cavett show, which was just as well because his dad was fuming over the team's extracurricular activities anyway.
"We played like a bunch of fifth-graders," said his father. "These kids have been up till all hours of the night. I know they're up watching TV until 2 or 3 in the morning—you have 17,000 channels up here! They get up in the morning and they look like they've been on a seven-day drunk."
After the game a stranger walked up to Lou Carnesecca, the effervescent little coach who was winding up his career at St. John's to take over the New York Nets of the ABA, and pointed out that Maravich had made 14 floor errors. Said Carnesecca, "So what? Michelangelo ruined a few pieces of marble, too."
Had Maravich been well, LSU's game with Marquette might have been the best of the tournament. After working hard to get past Massachusetts 62-55 in the first round, the Warriors had put their game together and whipped a good Utah team 83-63 in the quarterfinals. In addition to Meminger, a smiling, gum-chewing guard who was to become the tournament's Most Valuable Player, they had three excellent rebounders in Cobb, Joe Thomas and Gary Brell. They made up in jumping ability and aggressiveness what they lacked in size. And, of course, they had McGuire, who kept his team sequestered in a small hotel while LSU was gadding about town.
Early on, the game was close. The Warriors came out pressing LSU all over, a revolving double-team concentration on the ball handler, but Maravich was able to dribble or pass his team up the floor for a while. Late in the first half, however, Thomas and Cobb established their rebounding superiority over LSU's Hester and Al Sanders, and the Tigers began to get into foul trouble. Normally, LSU would have started working exclusively to Maravich, but Pete was bottled up by the efficient trapping tactics of Meminger and Guard Jeff Sewell, and he was limping noticeably.
In the second half the game was no contest. Maravich struggled almost 19 minutes without a field goal, and when he finally hit a jumper with 1:12 remaining to make the score 96-73 the Marquette fans gave him a derisive cheer.
"I didn't want to beat Maravich and lose to LSU," said McGuire. "I think that in college ball today, any one man can be stopped. Put a triangle and two on him and where's he going to go?"
Said Maravich, "I know I'm going to have some bad games, and I'm not worried about it. You have to take the good with the bad, and right now I'm taking the bad. But there will be good—I guarantee you that." Later Maravich and Sanders went to look for some of the good at Bachelors III.
With Pete gone, the final game would have been an anticlimax to New Yorkers except for the presence of so many locals on both sides. His last St. John's team had been good to Carnesecca, winning close ones in their bracket against Georgia Tech (56-55) and Army (60-59), but Marquette was too quick and its press too upsetting. Double-teaming the ball and recovering quickly when St. John's found the open man, the Warriors forced errors and bad shots. Against a man-for-man defense in the first half Meminger drove almost at will, and Jeff Sewell was remarkably accurate from outside. As McGuire put it later, "Dean puts the other team into a zone, and Jeff pulls them out of it." The margin of superiority remained at a level throughout: Marquette led by 10 at the half and by 12 at the finish.
Naturally, McGuire was asked how he thought his team would have done in the NCAA. "I haven't seen UCLA, but we're quicker than Jacksonville," he said. "Aw, let's drop it. I'm not looking for comparisons. I have enough trouble without taking on the world."
As for Pete Maravich, he also took time for some reflection before saying goodby to New York. Before he drove a hansom cab around Central Park he sat in the dark, quiet bar at the Plaza Hotel, sipping a bourbon and Coke. Now that his college career is over, Pete is fair game for the warring pro leagues. Would he sign with the Carolina Cougars of the ABA? Or, unlike some of his All-America contemporaries, would he wait for the NBA draft?
"Aw, man, the pressure is just beginning," he said. "I tell you, everybody think's I've got it made but, you know, it's not worth it. There is so much pressure, and people—every day, every day. You know when I've had the most fun? When I went to Daytona all by myself last year and just took it easy. Nobody knew me. Sometimes I wish I could be an accountant or something, man, so I could live right for a change.
"I haven't even started thinking about the pros yet but I don't think what happened in the NIT makes any difference. I don't care if I only made one point or one assist. You don't base an entire lifetime of basketball on one game or tournament. Nothing has gone right for me here, but it's all over now."
World-weary at 21, already enough of a veteran to look back on a college career as a lifetime, Pete is undoubtedly right that his only fair NIT show will not affect the bids from the pros. He'll get his million, or more. And he has another offer that seriously tempts him. If he'd like, Pistol Pete can make a short, lucrative exhibition tour as the first white man to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. After all, they seldom play in New York.