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.
True to form, though, the Hawks did not allow their personal opinions to affect their basketball. They have played poorly because they have played poorly; they have not needed any dark intrigues to foul themselves up. The absence of Caldwell was serious from the start, and then came the problem of adjusting to Maravich's style. He is enjoying a 22 season, frequently passes brilliantly and is a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. But he still dribbles around too much, often leading Hazzard into the same fault, it seems. The Hawks waste so much time before they set up that they frequently have no time left for options if their play doesn't work. There is a problem at the other end of the court, too. Chicago Coach Dick Motta has characterized Maravich's defense as bearing considerable resemblance to "the lend-lease program," but the whole team defense is in disarray.
On offense, the Hawks were one-dimensional until recently, depending upon the shooting of Hudson and Maravich from 20 feet out. But then Hazzard started getting the ball inside to Center Walter Bellamy, and Bellamy started putting it up when he got it. When Bellamy shoots, it opens the whole tent up to three rings instead of offering just a backcourt sideshow.
Though Bellamy has often been tagged as a scapegoat in the past, he is off the hook this year. Hazzard, who was on the trading block earlier (for example, for Dave Stallworth of the Knicks), maintains that since the Hawks started winning around All-Star time, Bellamy has been the best center in the league, after Alcindor. It is worth considering that Atlanta's playoff opponents figure to be New York and then Baltimore, teams that have had Bellamy and let him go, claiming good riddance. The Hawks match up very well against the Knicks in style, speed and personnel, too. Bellamy could be the key.
Says Cincinnati Coach Bob Cousy: "I've read some statements that, unlike Cincinnati, Atlanta can stay in the game with anybody. I think the Hawks are kidding themselves. In order to do this, they need a consistent, sustained effort from Bellamy. Maybe he can do it, but so far as I'm concerned he hasn't done it in seven or eight years."
At one time the Hawks were all of 7½ games behind the Royals, but helped by Cincinnati injuries as much as by their own laissez-faire efforts, they finally caught up last week. While losing a game in Boston Friday night in overtime, however, they played in a style that seemed to reflect all the frustrations and failings of the whole season.
The Hawks outrebounded the Celtics, for example, but lost that advantage on the floor, yielding nine more turnovers than Boston did, six of them in the five-minute overtime. Often the Hawks had difficulty executing the most elementary procedure, like getting the ball passed inbounds. The Celtics burned the Hawks time and again with fast breakaways, maneuvers that Caldwell specialized in preventing.
Scrambling and hustling for stretches, Atlanta would suddenly lapse into indifferent periods and appear distracted and purposeless. For fully nine minutes of the third quarter, the only two Hawks to score were Hudson and Maravich, firing long jumpers.
Atlanta finally tied the score early in the last period and managed to get the Celtics into foul trouble with less than three minutes gone in the quarter. As Guerin began to simmer on the bench, however, his team persistently failed to take advantage of this situation by working the ball in for forcing drives that would produce more fouls or easy scores. Midway through the period he called time out and lit into Hazzard for not getting the ball underneath on the previous play. Hazzard protested that by the time he received the ball and started to set something up, other Hawks had frittered away so much of the 24-second clock that there was no time left for anything but a long bomb.
One of Guerin's most valuable qualities as a coach is the rare ability to blow his top at a player and then forget the whole matter. He only criticizes "in motion," as Hazzard characterizes it; no grudge is left. Never was this more evident than at the end of the regulation game when the Hawks got the ball with three seconds left and the score tied. Guerin set the play for Hudson, but Bridges was forced to pass in to Maravich, who panicked and shot off-balance and from too far away as soon as he got the ball. Guerin tore into Pete at the bench so vehemently that the exchange was clearly visible all over Boston Garden. Hazzard rushed in to defend the rookie, so Guerin shifted his fire to him. Bridges had to intervene and shove Hazzard away. Hardly two minutes later, during a time-out, Guerin and Hazzard stood on the court, each with an arm around the other's back and coolly discussed strategy at length, if to no avail.
Rarely has the regular NBA season appeared to have less relation to the playoffs. The performances of teams like New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles—ones that got out in front of their divisions early and muddled along thereafter—provide few clues as to how they might play when they really have to win again. Big salaries, merger rumors, the lopsided divisional standings and a lot of back-alley loose talk have created a feeling of restlessness on many teams. The players anticipate a trading binge this summer. For many clubs it has been a dull, dissatisfying year.
The Hawks differ only in the sense that their disillusion and discouragement extend farther back, and their prize rookie has focused a spotlight on the entire team. There is no telling how the Hawks will respond to the fresh incentive of the playoffs—whether they will see them as a miraculous opportunity for redemption or whether they will only stagger on without resolution, grateful to have the season over at last.