MERGER, MADNESS AND MARAVICH

Professional basketball makes heavy demands on its followers who want to keep abreast of things. As the two leagues continued to battle and players shifted around, the most confused happening was the signing of Pistol Pete
April 06, 1970

1) Major league sport comes to Oregon as the NBA grants Portland a franchise. Well, the NFL has Green Bay, doesn't it?

2) Trying to draw three, inside, to a straight. San Francisco owns the rights to Nate Thurmond, who says he has retired, and to Rick Barry and Zelmo Beaty, who are in the ABA. The team is the greatest threat, on paper, short of the ABM. The Warriors also found a way to discard what would have been the rights to Pete Maravich. Instead, their top choice was the unforgettable Earl Higgins of Eastern Michigan. Barry now says he'll be back in San Francisco for the 1971-72 season.

3) Saving the old men. The Laker geriatric cases are running out of time and wonder drugs, but a merger—which should be consummated by the time teams have to start signing their veterans this summer—will require that the Stars leave the town to Jack Kent Cooke.

4) The Tijuana shorts. San Diego also passed up the chance to draft Maravich. Either the Rockets are broke or they are the NBA's sacrificial lambs. Anyway, now the fans will have the same old excuses for staying home.

5) Goodby, Charlie. Right off the basketball map go Minneapolis-St. Paul and Houston, the two poorest pro basketball cities. Three franchises have flunked in Minny and Houston is playing catch-up. One of the NBA's new franchises was going to Houston, but then the town's biggest hero, Elvin Hayes, came back for a regular league game—and drew all of 2,200. Right after that, NBA Houston money got very tight.

6) Nothing could be finer than to be like Carolina. Believe it or not, a merger now appears likely to include all 11 ABA cities. If that happens, a couple of weak sisters, New Orleans and Miami, will go regional like the Cougars, who have outdrawn every first-year franchise in history. At the same time, Carolina's failure to sign Maravich may have cost the whole ABA a great deal. CBS picked up an option to televise ABA playoff games, but it may reconsider next season's planned telecasts because of Pete's absence.

7) Welcome, Seattle pilots. Big-league Milwaukee forced its beloved Bucks out of town—to Madison—for their first-round playoffs. The baseball Pilots will have a home, at least.

8) Finger-lickin' good. Coming to life at last under new owners, the Colonels signed Dan Issel and Mike Pratt from Kentucky and Tennessee Center Bobby Croft, who was Dallas' first choice. They have another signing—an intramural goody—all set.

9) Easy come, easy go. Detroit loses Dave Bing to the ABA Caps, but gets the big man, Bob Lanier, the NBA's first draft choice. He'll be in the same division with Alcindor.

10) The big stumbling block to merger. Abe Pollin of NBA Baltimore says his former Bullet partner, Earl Foreman of ABA Washington, is infringing on his territory. This is ridiculous. The two cities may be only 38 miles apart, but they are in different worlds. The only Baltimoreans who go to Washington are those under 21, because you can drink beer at 18 in D.C. The only Washingtonians who go to Baltimore are new ambassadors who want to get one look at Blaze Starr. Cynics suggest Foreman is only infringing on Pollin's chances to move to D.C. as soon as the proposed Union Station arena is built. The pressure is now on Foreman to move his Capitols to Virginia.

11) Red ink makes strange bedfellows. Despite the Knicks and Rangers, Madison Square Garden has problems because of high interest payments on money borrowed for its new building. The Garden wants the rights to run the planned Long Island arena, where it will be partners with the Nets.

12) Winter wonderland. In a rabid hockey town, with a new NHL franchise, Buffalo's NBA team will have rough going. It passed up a natural drawing card in little Calvin Murphy from nearby Niagara and will let Pittsburgh and San Diego fight over him. If Calvin goes with the Pipers, he may find Press Maravich as the new coach—even if Pete did go NBA. Maravich p√®re turned down the Pittsburgh job last year and the Phoenix post the year before. That, too, may be offered to him again.

13) Make money, not war. NBA teams are supposed to be so many Rocks of Gibraltar compared to the ABA franchises, but war is no respecter of tradition. Last week, while it was apparent that 11-time world-champion Boston had lost money over the regular season—and would miss out on its usual quarter of a million in playoff receipts—there was talk that the franchise would be moved to Long Island.

The pistol shot heard round the league. With an impact—good or bad—felt in every franchise on the map, Pete Maravich signed possibly the largest playing contract in sports history with the NBA Atlanta Hawks. He ended up in Atlanta as a result of a series of bizarre events and coincidences that could hardly have been contrived, much less foreseen. One example of this is the fact that the key man for Atlanta in the negotiations was the same person who originally approached Pete's father, Press, on behalf of the ABA. The winding trail goes back even farther, to a time in West Virginia before Pete was even born, when Press was making a very few thousand dollars a year coaching the team at Davis & Elkins College and a friend of his named Bob Kent was pulling down the same salary as Maravich's big rival at Beckley College. Bob and Press were together last Thursday night, in Kent's Atlanta apartment, when Pete signed the formal contract that will bring him approximately $1¾ million for five years of playing basketball.

Walking out to make the announcement a few minutes later, Press turned to Bob. "Could you have imagined, back in West Virginia, that anything like this would happen?" he said.

"Yes," Kent replied, straight-faced, not breaking stride.

About a year ago Kent was still serving as general manager of the Greensboro (N.C.) War Memorial Coliseum (SI, May 12, 1969). Generally acknowledged as the best man in his field, he had gone into arena management directly from his coaching job at Beckley. His friend Maravich had, of course, stayed in coaching. But the two men kept in close touch, traded visits and usually roomed together at NCAA conventions.

The Carolina Cougars came into the ABA last spring as the nation's first regional franchise, playing Greensboro-Raleigh-Charlotte. They settled into offices about 50 feet down the hall from Kent's in Greensboro. Don DeJardin, the Cougars' bright young general manager, and Kent became good friends, and when the Cougars learned that Kent was an old pal of Press Maravich they asked him if he would make the initial contact with Press. Kent was delighted to be of help and flew down to Baton Rouge. Formal ABA draft rights eventually went to Carolina.

In the spring of '69 Kent was also approached by Tom Cousins, an Atlanta millionaire who had made his fortune in real estate and had brought the Hawks to Atlanta from St. Louis the year before. Cousins wants to build a new arena for Atlanta and asked Kent to serve first as a consultant and then as the arena manager. Kent took the job and finally left Greensboro for Atlanta on Dec. 1. At that point, it is safe to say, the Cougars had the inside track on Maravich, but Owner James Gardner, a hamburger franchise magnate and former Congressman, was just beginning to make one of his few serious mistakes since he came into pro basketball and began to escalate the interleague war. Gardner would not leave the Maraviches alone. His constant pressure was an error in judgment. Now, too, the road to Pete's signing really begins to twist and turn.

Gardner also had served as interim commissioner of the ABA in the summer of '69, and his aggressive leadership encouraged ABA teams to go after the NBA's top players. The Los Angeles Stars took Zelmo Beaty away from the Atlanta Hawks. It was a coup for the ABA at the time; eventually, the price the ABA paid was Pete Maravich.

Beaty sat out his option in Los Angeles. The Stars failed to draw, and there were rumors that the team might not last out the season. Beaty began to wonder about his money—or, anyway, that is the information heard by Franklin Mieuli, the owner of the San Francisco Warriors. Mieuli had just lost his All-Star center, Nate Thurmond, because of a knee operation, and Thurmond was threatening to retire for good. Mieuli decided to try to get Beaty to jump back to the NBA, so he approached the Hawks about a deal for Beaty's rights. The deal was made on Feb. 2—San Francisco got the rights to Beaty for "a player or players to be named later." NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy says it was understood, if not publicized, that Atlanta had the option of making that player the first Warrior draft pick.

Even if the fact had been made public, it would have caused no stir. San Francisco seemed to be headed for a finish that would have earned the sixth NBA pick; no one figured the team to end up second from the bottom. It probably would not have, either, if Mieuli had been able to lure Beaty away from L.A., but it was just about that time that merger talks began, and Beaty decided to call off negotiations.

It was also about this time, around the beginning of February, that Kent and Cousins were casually chatting one evening at the office. Cousins happened to mention what a beautiful ballplayer Maravich was. Kent mentioned how well he knew Press. Suddenly—and for the first time—both men thought of the San Francisco deal: Atlanta had the rights to the Warriors' first pick. It was a long shot, but with nothing to lose Kent flew to New Orleans and asked Press at least to keep the Hawks in mind.

San Francisco started falling in the standings and though there was no way the Warriors would get down below San Diego, Cousins and Kent began to realize they had a slim chance for Pete. In the NBA the two last-place teams flip a coin to determine first pick. The Eastern Division loser, Detroit, had no hope for Maravich. He did not want to play there. San Diego wanted a big man—Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure—more than Maravich. If San Diego won the toss and picked Lanier, Detroit would have to take somebody besides Maravich. But Detroit won the toss and decided on Lanier.

Commissioner Kennedy called up San Diego and talked to Bob Breitbard, the Rockets' owner, who flew East to meet the Maraviches and their Pittsburgh attorneys, Lester Zittain and Arthur Herskovitz. The Rockets found out that the Maraviches were very interested. Gardner had become a nuisance to them by now. Indeed, Maravich was ready to sign with the Rockets, and he would have, but at the last minute—on Sunday afternoon, March 22—Breitbard phoned Kennedy and told him San Diego was passing up Maravich for Rudy Tomjanovich, a Michigan strongboy.

The Rockets did not pull out, as it has been surmised, because they felt they could not gamble on signing Maravich. In fact, when Lawyer Herskovitz showed up in Baton Rouge that Sunday the Maraviches were under the impression that he was being accompanied by San Diego officials and that the contract would be worked out with the Rockets. San Diego pulled out for a combination of reasons involving the amount of money Pete wanted and a morale problem on the team that might have been aggravated by Pete's presence.

While the Rockets were debating their choice, Bob Kent stayed on call, just in case the Rockets waived their chance at Pete. On Tuesday, March 17, at the NIT in New York, General Manager DeJardin of the Carolina Cougars spotted Kent and probably began to put a few things together. ""At least," Kent says, "Don might have figured that I was going to represent the NBA. I don't think anybody yet knew that we had that San Francisco draft choice."

The next day Carolina reinforcements were flown up to the NIT scene, and in another wild coincidence Pete visited an East Side bar and ran into ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph. They had a few pleasant drinks together. It was the high-water mark of the ABA.

As draft day approached, Jim Gardner was nervous and making threats. He told Hal Hayes of the Atlanta Constitution: "Tom Cousins will think Quantrill's Raiders were a bunch of amateurs if Atlanta lucks out and signs Pete Maravich. If we don't get the kid, we're going to take the money and call Lou Hudson or Walt Hazzard [Atlanta stars] or both of them. And they'll be ready to listen to us, too."

By Sunday, Pete was ready to sign with the NBA—presumably the Rockets. Then Breitbard phoned Kennedy, and Kennedy called the Hawks to tell them of their good fortune.

Kent and his wife Nancy were visiting friends in Greensboro, within shouting distance of the Cougar offices, when Cousins relayed the news. Cousins then sent his plane to pick up Kent, and with other Hawk officials they flew on to Baton Rouge. There Press Maravich was shocked to see Kent, and only then realized which team was going to get his son. Pete did not know until he joined the group a few minutes later. The agreement was worked out in the wee hours of Monday morning, the 23rd at the Ramada Inn in Baton Rouge. And that afternoon the Atlanta Hawks drafted Pete Maravich. That's how it happened.

PHOTOAfter signing his record contract, Pete receives the college player-of-the-year trophy. MAP ILLUSTRATION

WHO'S WHERE AND WHAT'S UP ON THE WAR FRONT

[Diamond] NBA franchise cities
[Square] ABA franchise cities
[Black and White Hyphens] Rick Barry's campaign trail
[Black Hyphens and dots] The route of Zelmo Beaty
[dots] The route of the rights to Zelmo Beaty
[Stars] Dave Bing may go this way
[White Hyphens] Billy Cunningham may go that way
1 PORTLAND
2 SAN FRANCISCO
3 LOS ANGELES
4 SAN DIEGO
5 MINNEAPOLIS
ST. PAUL
HOUSTON
6 GREENSBORO
RALEIGH
CHARLOTTE
7 MILWAUKEE
8 LOUISVILLE
9 DETROIT
10 BALTIMORE
WASHINGTON
11 NEW YORK
12 BUFFALO
13 BOSTON
SEATTLE
OAKLAND
ZELMO BEATY'S RIGHTS
PHOENIX
DENVER
RICK BARRY
ZELMO BEATY
DALLAS
NEW ORLEANS
CHICAGO
DAVE BING
INDIANAPOLIS
CINCINNATI
CLEVELAND
PITTSBURGH
PHILADELPHIA
BILLY CUNNINGHAM
MIAMI
ATLANTA

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)