A visitor suddenly confronted by the Louisiana Superdome looming against the New Orleans skyline can be excused for feeling that at any moment, with a colossal roar and a blaze of colored lights, the thing will slowly rise and streak into outer space. The Dome does not seem to belong on the ground; it looks rather as though it were merely waiting for the arrival of some spare part from the planet Tralfamadore.
The Dome hasn't taken off yet, but last week it was beginning to rumble. The Jazz—which three years ago was sputtering along at a 5-44 clip and threatening to eclipse all those wonderful memories of the early Cleveland Cavaliers and the 9 and 73 Philadelphia 76ers—had won its third and fourth straight, over Indiana and Denver. Since the Jazz had opened the season with a 5-1 spurt, the victories boosted its record to 10-8.
There is definitely something going on under the Dome. The team's promotions people call it "Jazzmatazz," which means, among other things, psychedelic posters and a soaring new jazz-rock theme written by the noted Creole composer Allen Toussaint. Why all the commotion? For the first time since the Jazz gave up two years' worth of No. 1 draft choices plus half the French Quarter to get Pete Maravich from Atlanta in 1974. the Pistol has a buddy on the bandstand. Help has arrived. Not in a spaceship but in a truck, as in Leonard (Truck) Robinson.
The Truck is best remembered as "the other guy" on those All-Star Washington Bullets (Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes) when they performed one of the NBA's great fold-up acts, losing the 1975 championship series 4-0 to Golden State. Robinson signed with the Jazz as a free agent in June, having played out his option in Atlanta after being traded to the Hawks by the Bullets midway through last season.
Robinson has not only turned New Orleans around, he has stood New Orleans on its ear. Through last week he was scoring 23 points per game, which is 10 more than any Jazzman other than Maravich has ever averaged over a whole season. He was also leading the entire NBA in rebounding with a per-game average of 16.3 and games of 24, 25 and 27. This is a remarkable feat, given the fact that Robinson, although he weighs 240 pounds, stands a mere 6'6" and does not play center, as have all but three rebound leaders in the 27 seasons the NBA has kept such statistics. At the moment Robinson's only close competitor is Boston's Dave Cowens with 15.4. The Lakers' injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, top rebounder in '75-'76 and second to Bill Walton last season, is due to reenter the race soon. But, says Robinson, "I've got a pretty good head start on that dude." He also has a fair head start on Walton, who is averaging 12.2.
With Robinson and Centers Rich Kelley and Joe C. Meriweather, the Jazz is the third best rebounding team in the NBA, which means that the ball often gets out to Pistol Pete, who is running and gunning at a 27-point clip—not too far behind his pace-setting 31.1 of last season—and scuffling with Denver's David Thompson for the league scoring lead. His other teammates are Forwards Aaron James and Nate Williams plus Guards James McElroy and Gale Goodrich, fully recovered from Achilles surgery and averaging 13.6 points off the bench.
It is ironic that on a team built around the nonpareil Maravich, the 26-year-old Robinson should turn out to be the savior. But by the end of last season the Jazz was in turmoil. Coach Butch van Breda Kolff had been fired and replaced by Elgin Baylor. General Manager Barry Mendelson, under pressure for having sold out the Jazz' future for Maravich and (later) Goodrich—seven first-round draft choices were either traded outright or conditionally swapped to Los Angeles and Atlanta—was dismissed by owner Sam Battistone. And the franchise was in danger of crumbling because Maravich, understandably tired of wasting his talents with relative nonentities, demanded a new contract. In a panic Battistone rehired Mendelson as vice-president and gave the general manager's job to 34-year-old Lewis Schaffel, an agent who represented 32 NBA players, thus effecting an astonishing switch from one side of the negotiating table to the other.
Schaffel's top priority was to keep Maravich in New Orleans. But even before he began talking money, Maravich stipulated that the Jazz sign at least one first-rate front court man—which was one more first-rate front court man than the Jazz ever had. Maravich's list of candidates included Detroit's Bob Lanier, Golden State's Jamaal Wilkes and Robinson. Wilkes had long since said he wanted to go to Los Angeles, and Lanier had as much as said he would prefer playing in a leper colony to playing behind a white superstar in the South. Schaffel had no trouble figuring what he had to do.
He offered Robinson a five-year, $1.5 million deal, or $225,000 more per year than the initial offer Robinson had from Atlanta GM Mike Storen. "Storen wanted to shop me around," says Robinson. "See how much I was worth before he made me a serious offer. That hurt. Atlanta was my team. I wanted to stay." Not surprisingly, Truck very shortly was gone from Atlanta. And so, incidentally, was Storen, fired by owner Ted Turner for, among other things, bungling his end of the Robinson case.
In August a happy Maravich signed a contract providing him with $2.5 million over five years. There were, to be sure, some minor casualties. As compensation for signing Robinson the Jazz lost Forward Ron Behagen to Atlanta. And they lost E. C. Coleman, their stellar defensive forward, through free agency to Golden State, though they chose a first-round draft choice in return.
None of that matters to Maravich, who is truly happy to be playing in New Orleans with Truck. "He is exactly what this team has never had," says the Pistol. "Consistency up front. On certain nights he's just devastating. We need rebounds to run, and we need to run to win. If Truck is sick or doesn't feel like playing on a particular night, we're in trouble."
Still, the Jazz has always been, and will remain, Maravich's team. He can get 50 points almost any night he chooses. But at 29 he has still not gotten over his occasional bratty habits of crying to officials, ignoring open men to shoot from 25 feet or screaming at less talented teammates when his often miraculous passes bounce off their faces.
Last week, during a 123-108 laugher over Indiana, Kelley stunned everyone on the floor by yelling at Maravich after he carelessly threw a pass out of bounds, "Run the goddamn play through, Pete."
Then, a few weeks ago, with the Jazz in the throes of an 0-5 road trip, Maravich was accused in the papers by an unnamed teammate of "not making sacrifices" and further criticized for getting "shut down" in a three-point loss to the Knicks in New York. In that game he made only four of 20 shots and refused to shoot in the tight fourth quarter.
Back under the Dome two nights later, Maravich played the martyr. "If they want me to sacrifice, I'll sacrifice," he said. He shot five times, passing up even uncontested layups. He made four field goals and handed out 15 assists as the Jazz beat Seattle 127-116 to snap the slump. But the boos that accompanied this performance ended Pete's sulk. A win at Houston followed, with the Pistol hitting 19 of 33 for 39 points.
Against Indiana last week Robinson and Kelley all but shattered the backboards. Truck ripped down 11 rebounds in the first period, 22 in the game, and scored 28 points, while Kelley had 19 rebounds and Maravich tossed in a routine 34 points.
On Thanksgiving night 14,448 fans saw the Jazz engage Denver in a no-defense, wild-turkey shootout. Trailing 129-127 with nine seconds left the Jazz worked the ball to Robinson, who swished a 20-footer over Bobby Jones to tie the score. Then, as the Nuggets' Brian Taylor brought the ball up for the last shot, McElroy slapped it away and Maravich glided home with the winning layup as time elapsed. A 28-point, 16-rebound game for Robinson, 17 rebounds for Kelley, 31 points for Pistol Pete.
Even before the excitement died down, the Jazz cast hungry glances at the 70,000 seats theoretically available to them in the Superdome and were heard to whisper the word "playoffs." The Dome is already the site of the largest crowd in NBA history (27,383 against Philadelphia last year) and the league's cheapest ticket ($1.50), and one team official said that crowds upward of 40,000 might not be too much to expect for future dates with Philadelphia and Portland. Burbled P.A. announcer Bob Longmire, who doubles as the team's sales director, "Can anyone possibly imagine what would happen to this place if we really got 40.000 people in here?" Yes, the Dome would take off for sure.