The Louisiana Superdome, that gargantuan mushroom cap west of South Rampart Street, is the home of the New Orleans pro football club, which is giving Sainthood a bad name, and the Tulane University Green Wave, which long ago turned into a pale lime froth. And if that were not sufficient sadness, funds to operate the Dome are in danger of running out. Default? Not quite. Before some French Quarter clarinetist starts wailing the Louisiana Superdome Blues, there is also some good news. A third tenant, the New Orleans Jazz, was—through last Saturday night anyway—the winningest team in the National Basketball Association.
It was too early to start printing playoff tickets, since the NBA has its usual quota of three million games between now and next summer, but it was still astounding to see the Jazz sitting up there at the top of the Central Division with a 5-1 record. Last season the Jazz didn't get its fifth victory until the 39th game, in the middle of January.
This was a team that began expansion life with 16 losses in 17 games, a ragtag bunch of has-beens and rejects who barely survived what they remember as the Death March: a 46-day flying nightmare in which they played only two games at home, lost 18 and won one. A search-and-rescue team finally located them in a deserted wing of San Francisco International Airport, mumbling incoherently and crazily flipping Marriott and Sheraton swizzle slicks at each other.
Yet that was no typo in last Sunday morning's sports section—5-1 was correct. Led by its one true star, Pete Maravich, who was playing with his right leg wrapped up like a mummy's, the Jazz had won four straight at home, beating Detroit, New York (in double overtime), Portland and Milwaukee, and then one on the road against Cleveland on Saturday. Winning at Cleveland's Coliseum might not seem like such a big deal to some teams, but for a club that was 3-38 on the road last season it was sweet indeed. What's happened?
November 10, 1975
The Jazz played its home games last season in Loyola University's field house and in the Municipal Auditorium, so maybe the players have been inspired by the move to the Superdome, where the concession-stand menus feature corned beef Domewiches, roast beef Poor Boys and $1.25 Superdogs. The idea of playing basketball in the 75,000-seat mushroom might seem odd, but the architects and the Jazz staff have figured out a way to turn the vast stadium into an arena at least as "intimate" as Madison Square Garden. Using the permanent stands on the west side of the football field as a base, a 3,289-seat chunk of stands from the east side is moved on tracks until it comes to the edge of the basketball court. Stands are set up at either end, et voil√†, 19,203 seats—the home of the Saints has become the home of the Jazz.
The team has succeeded with another innovation. Seats in the far reaches of the west upper deck, called the terrace, sell for only $1.50 apiece. Thus, a fan of modest means can have a midcourt-line view of an NBA game while becoming the first on his block to learn which 7-foot centers have bald spots. As was discovered at halftime of the Detroit game, the terrace is also a superb place from which to sail a Frisbee. More than 7,500 were given away by the Jazz and about four thousand of them came sailing down when the halftime show flopped.
The Superdome still has serious problems. The picture on the huge TV screens is poor, and since the TV costs $1,000 a game to operate, the frugal Jazz management has elected to forget it most nights. Then for the game versus the Knicks more than 13,000 fans showed up. But the Dome, which is responsible, had not put on enough ticketsellers. The result: several near fistfights and a woman knocked down in the crush. For a per-game rental of $2,400, or 8% of the gate, whichever is greater, the Jazz (not to mention its fans) deserves better service.
"This is a very, very large snakepit," says Maravich. "In the places we played last year we wore people down because of the heat. I guess here, with the air conditioning, we'll freeze 'em to death. There's no doubt in my mind I'll be super in the Superdome." Pistol Pete has been super indeed (he had 45 points against New York) despite his injuries, which include a stretched Achilles' tendon and a strained ankle ligament in his left leg, a strained knee ligament and a slight hamstring pull in his right. He has had to miss only one game, the opening defeat at Atlanta, but he has not been able to practice since the season started. Thus he has lost a lot of the stamina he built up in the summer months running on a levee near his house with neighbor and ex-football player Jim Taylor.
But he began the season in a blaze of optimism: "I'm so happy down here, it's the happiest I've ever been. There's no deceit, which you have in most organizations. People are honest. It's all uppity-up, and if you've got an uppity-up situation things will keep going good." Of his own status, he adds, "I am the captain of the team. I am the team leader."
It was quite a difference from the start of last season, when Maravich arrived in New Orleans bitter about his experiences in Atlanta. Then his mother committed suicide and he went through most of the year terribly depressed.
In the second half of the schedule the Jazz revival got going. When the team was 1-14, Coach Scotty Robertson was fired and Butch van Breda Kolff—formerly at Lafayette, Hofstra and Princeton on the college level, and Los Angeles, Detroit, Phoenix and Memphis in the pros—was hired. Van Breda Kolff preached movement, team play and tough defense and finally got things turned around. After Feb. 2, the Jazz record was 18-17. "It's working out real well," says Maravich. "Butch is a loose coach—no big strategy. He's a good motivator, which is most important."
Van Breda Kolff's nomadic past has no doubt helped him deal with the pro basketball gypsies on his club. Starting Center Otto Moore, a 1968 first-round draft pick by Detroit, has played with three other teams, and at the time the Jazz picked him up last season every other team in the NBA and ABA had passed up the chance to sign him. Backup Center Mel Counts has been with five other clubs—twice with Los Angeles.
Last week's Halloween victory over the Milwaukee Bucks was typical of the way things have been going for New Orleans. The six-piece Magnolia Jazz Band, featuring a lady in green velvet shorts shaking herself and a tambourine, led the starters onto the floor. Van Breda Kolff has been going with E. C. Coleman, a good defensive forward out of Houston Baptist College who came to New Orleans from the Houston Rockets in the expansion draft; Ron Behagen, a third-year forward who did not get along with his coach at Kansas City-Omaha last season; Guard Louie Nelson, another expansion-draft product; plus Moore and Maravich. But van Breda Kolff has been giving lots of playing time to Counts, hot-shooting Aaron James and others on the Jazz bench.
Maravich was obviously hurting, and Behagen couldn't find the basket, but the Jazz still led at halftime 52-30. The Bucks made occasional runs in the second half, but New Orleans had a comfortable 19-point lead when van Breda Kolff cleared his bench with 2:45 left. At the end, six of the Jazz—Maravich, Nelson, Behagen, James, Moore and Nate Williams—had scored in double figures.
The Milwaukee and Cleveland wins were not overwhelming but they were good examples of the style van Breda Kolff prefers: "Team play and good 'D'." It began to seem ridiculous that the Jazz has been excluded from CBS' schedule of NBA games this year.
One of the dictionary definitions of jazz is "improvisatory, virtuosic solos," and Pistol Pete has been a virtuoso basketball soloist for a long time. But this year, perhaps because of the injuries, perhaps because of van Breda Kolff's urging, he has been submerging himself into the Jazz ensemble. There was little if any "showtime" against Milwaukee and Cleveland last weekend.
"Our style is lots of running, which is best for Pete," says van Breda Kolff. "But he's starting to slow it up when we need to. He's taking over, that's what he's doing. Right now he's playing the best I've ever seen him. He's playing within himself. If he keeps this up he's going to be a basketball player's basketball player and a coach's player, not a fan's player.
And if the Jazz keeps winning and makes the playoffs, there might be 50,000 fans or so watching basketball in the Su-perdome one night. In a city of fallen Saints the citizenry needs to have a dream like that come true.