In the spring of 1970 the Atlanta Hawks pulled off an improbable move by signing the most prolific scorer in the history of college basketball to a lucrative contract. "Pistol" Pete Maravich made the final decision, choosing to join the NBA's Hawks over the ABA's Carolina Cougars, but the subplot is much more complex.
To fully understand, one must first become familiar with the key players in this story:
Maravich was the epitome of a one-man travelling show. He averaged an amazing 44.2 points per game over his three-year career at LSU (still an NCAA record today) while playing in front of a packed house on a regular basis, whether the game was at home or away.
NBA vs. ABA
The American Basketball Association began operations in 1967 to rival the existing NBA, and by 1970 it had begun to aggressively pursue to top basketball talents through its own draft of amateur players and the recruitment of existing NBA players.
Atlanta Hawks (NBA)
The Hawks relocated to Atlanta from St. Louis in 1968, and in their first two seasons they performed well on the court (combined record of 95-69) but poorly at the box office (4,597 per game) while playing in Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum (capacity 7,000).
Carolina Cougars (ABA)
The Carolina Cougars began operations in 1969 as the ABA's first "regional franchise" while hosting games in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte. With the top pick in the secret ABA draft in 1970, the Cougars and their owner Jim Gardner had selected Maravich and were very optimistic about signing the young star.
Zelmo Beaty / Draft Pick
Beaty averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds for the Hawks during the 1968-69 season before making the decision to switch over to the ABA to play for the Los Angeles Stars. He had to sit out the 1969-70 season in order to be cleared to play in the ABA, and during that time the Stars (and the ABA) were facing uncertainty. There were rumors that Beaty was interested in returning to the NBA, and the San Francisco Warriors acquired his rights from the Hawks in exchange for "a player, or players, to be named later." One of those players was understood to be the Warriors' first round pick in the 1970 draft.
Note: Beaty never played for the Warriors, opting to play for the relocated Utah Stars of the ABA, where he went on to win the 1971 ABA championship.
As the 1970 season came to a close the San Francisco Warriors lost 18 of their final 22 games. A first round pick that was anticipated to be sixth or seventh overall was suddenly third, and the possibility of Maravich being available became fairly realistic.
Still, whoever drafted Maravich knew that they would immediately enter into a bidding war with their ABA counterpart, driving the price up higher than any amateur player had ever demanded. Bob Kent, the most unlikely player in this story, was involved in both sides of the negotiations.
Kent had been a rival of Pete's father, Press Maravich, when both of them were coaching at small colleges in West Virginia in the early 1950's. He went on to move into arena management and by 1970 he had become one of the top executives in the industry. Kent worked as the General Manager of the Greensboro War Memorial Coliseum when the Cougars began operations.
It was in Greensboro that Kent became friends with the Cougars' General Manager, Don DeJardin, and he was glad to help when he was asked to contact Press about Pete on the Carolina team's behalf.
Tom Cousins was the owner of the Hawks and he was responsible for bringing the team to Atlanta in 1968. Cousins and his family made their fortune in the real estate business and part of the bigger picture of bringing an NBA franchise to Atlanta was the construction of a new downtown arena. He recruited Kent to be a consultant during the planning process and then to stay on to manage the arena once it was built.
With the relocation and the ambitious goals of his new employer, Kent's loyalties quickly shifted from the Carolina's to the Peach State.