Measured solely by the number of certified stars in the lineup, the New Orleans Jazz ought to be twice as good this season as last. Until recently, the club's only true headliner was Pistol Pete Maravich and, indeed, Maravich continues to stir up all kinds of excitement in the Louisiana Superdome, arching jump shots from the outer limits, wriggling through packs of opponents and flashing his famed behind-the-back maneuvers. At 28, Maravich is thus picking up from last season, when he made the All-NBA first team for the first time in his six years as a pro. "When I'm on, nobody can stop me," he says with commendable honesty. "I can do anything on the court I want."
But now in the invigorating early weeks of the new season, the leader of the Jazz ensemble has a new sideman in Gail Goodrich, the clever little guard who spent most of his previous 11 years in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers. Second in career scoring to John Havlicek among active NBA players, Goodrich joined the Jazz as a free agent in August after playing out his option. At 33, he works tenaciously to get open, keeps finding new ways of outwitting opposing giants and hits his left-handed 15-footers with his accustomed accuracy. "I can shoot the basketball," says Goodrich, also an honest man. "I'm what you call a scorer."
The pairing of 'Vich and 'Rich does not in itself guarantee success for the Jazz, even though after their first four games they were the highest-scoring backcourt in the league, averaging 48 points per game. Guard-oriented clubs seldom win big in the NBA and, despite the fact that New Orleans got off to a 3-1 start, the club does not seem to be much better than last season, when the maturing Maravich led his faceless but game teammates from lowly expansion-hood to something like respectability. The Jazz backcourt may be one of the league's genuine adornments this time around but New Orleans still lacks the rebounding, steady defense and scoring from the front line to gain a playoff berth. The club sought to help that situation by buying Forward Sidney Wicks from Portland during the off-season but had to scrub the deal when Wicks declined to move to New Orleans. Boston wound up with Wicks and the Jazz got nothing.
Goodrich had been signed earlier by the New Orleans front office with the blessing of Coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who had him for a while during his two-year stint as Laker coach in the late '60s. Van Breda Kolff thinks Goodrich wears his years well, just as he himself does. Now in his fifth pro coaching post, the Jazz boss has a foghorn for a voice, shows up for games in what might be called casual clothes and enjoys the kind of stamina he demonstrated during a nine-hour pub crawl the other day to commemorate his 54th birthday. It was a celebration broken only occasionally by talk of basketball.
November 8, 1976
"I'd like to think we've got a balanced attack," he said during one such interlude, while quaffing beer in a working-class New Orleans bar called Whitey's. "But, of course, we are guard oriented. There's one thing I don't have to worry about. Maravich and Goodrich will score points."
This was already being borne out, even while the two of them were suffering minor infirmities. Maravich had been bothered since preseason by a pinched nerve in his back and there were moments when his timing was clearly off. But he had little trouble scoring. After the first full week of the season, the 6'5" star was averaging 31.2 points per game, compared with last season's 25.9, which was third highest in the NBA. Goodrich, meanwhile, had a strained Achilles tendon that kept his right leg in a cast for two weeks during the preseason, reinforcing van Breda Kolff's decision to start young Jimmy McElroy alongside Maravich and to bring the 6'1" Goodrich off the bench "to spark us." And Goodrich was doing just that: logging barely 21 minutes a game, he nevertheless was sporting a 16.7 scoring average.
Goodrich's biggest contribution to the Jazz may be helping to motivate Maravich, who has been brooding lately about the fact that he has never played on a championship team either in college or the pros. He is in the final year of a three-year, $1.2 million contract and he will not rule out the possibility of bolting to a stronger team in search of "fulfillment." For this season, at any rate, he hopes to scotch doubts that a couple of gunners like Goodrich and himself can find happiness with the same ball. The doubts persist even though the Pistol excels at passing while Goodrich is one of the best at moving without the ball.
"I don't care if it's Godzilla, I can complement anybody on a basketball court," Maravich says. "And with an intelligent, experienced player like Gail, there's no problem at all. He's a great shooter and I'm going to get the ball to him. He's also going to make me better. When he's on he's going to be double-teamed, and that will leave me open."
Goodrich wound up in New Orleans after haggling bitterly over money with Los Angeles Owner Jack Kent Cooke, who paid the veteran $160,000 a year, which is not exactly the NBA poverty level. The Jazz came along and offered him $200,000 for each of the next three seasons and compensated the Lakers with a first-round draft choice. Goodrich is a prudent man and no doubt noted that New Orleans is one of the last outposts of the nickel pay phone and dime newspaper. But he insists that money was not the only factor. He says he was also drawn to the Jazz by the opportunity to play alongside Maravich, a consideration admittedly shaped by the days when he and Jerry West formed one of the finest backcourts in NBA history.
"I consider Jerry the best guard ever, and I wouldn't want to compare him with anyone," says Goodrich. "But Pete has so much talent, too. I know we'll get along fine."
The first adventures of 'Vich and 'Rich took place before wildly fluctuating crowds in the Superdome. For the season opener against Phoenix, 12,234 were on hand as Maravich and Goodrich scored 53 between them—33 and 20 respectively—in a 111-98 New Orleans victory. Then Philadelphia came to town, drawing an NBA record crowd of 27,383, most of whom wanted to see Julius Erving. The show, however, was stolen by another 76er, George McGinnis, who scored 37 in a 111-101 Philly romp.
It was not a good night for the Jazz. Philadelphia Guard Fred Carter gave Goodrich more than he could handle, and Maravich played sluggishly, earning himself a tongue-lashing at halftime from van Breda Kolff, whose evening was further damaged when the seat of his threadbare jeans ripped during one of his frequent leaps from the bench. Things would have been worse but for an 18-10 New Orleans spurt in the third quarter. The splurge included a two-on-one fast break in which Maravich and Goodrich passed the ball back and forth four times before the Pistol scored a layup. The play earned a thundering ovation.
"I'd have given it back to Gail if we had more room," Maravich said later, savoring the moment. "He's the kind of player that if he puts in a couple of easy baskets he can really get it going."
"That's the sort of thing Pete and I can do well together," agreed Goodrich. "We're conscious of each other out there."
The two of them had managed to score 44 points (28 'Vich, 16 'Rich) but after the game van Breda Kolff was still thinking team balance. "It's not enough for Pete and Gail to make each other better," he said. "They've got to make the rest of the team better, too." If that was a birthday wish, it came true Friday night against the Washington Bullets. This one drew 9,118 to the Dome and the Jazz won it 111-93, with Maravich and Goodrich not only putting the ball in the basket—their totals this time were 25 and 21 respectively—but also ball-hawking and setting up teammates for easy baskets. The chief beneficiaries were Forwards Aaron James, a third-year man averaging 19 a game, and 6'9" rookie Paul Griffin, a fifth-round draft choice from Western Michigan who could be one of the sleepers of the season.
The high spot of the evening for the Jazz was a spectacular play that began when Goodrich, bottled up at his own end, unloosed a behind-the-back pass downcourt to Maravich, whose back was to the Bullet basket. The Pistol then flipped a pass behind him to the onrushing James, who went past a couple of befuddled defenders for an uncontested basket. Goodrich to Maravich to, ah, James.
On Saturday the three of them mounted much the same kind of operation against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden: Maravich got 39, Goodrich 10 and James 25, including 10 of 11 from the floor, and the Jazz won 115-112. For a brief and no doubt fleeting moment, New Orleans actually seemed three times better than last year.