Revisiting Pistol Pete’s short (but memorable) time in Utah
The Jazz and New Orleans were synonymous—and Pistol Pete Maravich was synonymous with both. So in the summer of 1979, one man’s opinion seemed to matter most of all.
“I think everybody wondered what Pete thought,” said David Fredman, the team’s former head of public relations.
Maravich was a legend in Louisiana. He set the NCAA’s scoring record in three years at LSU while averaging 44 points per game. When, in the summer of 1977, he signed a five-year contract extension with the Jazz, he made it clear where he wanted to be.
“I’ve said it before and I sincerely mean it when I say that I’ve been all over the United States and there is no better place to live and work than the city of New Orleans,” Maravich said.
Two years later, the franchise’s most iconic player put on a brave face as his team left his beloved home behind.
“Of course, I love this part of the country,” Maravich told reporters on June 8, 1979, after the Jazz’s move to Utah had been made official. But I’m a professional basketball player. I realize that I must go where the team goes. I’ve never been to Salt Lake, but I’ve heard some nice things about the area. I’ve heard the fans in Utah are some of the most knowledgeable in basketball.”
The Pistol’s time in Utah would be short lived—less than half of one season, a campaign marked by injury and conflict and DNP-CDs. But it’s a credit to Maravich’s legend and importance to the Jazz franchise that four decades later, his brief stop in Utah still stirs up emotions for the men who brought him to Salt Lake City and then sent him packing.
Tom Nissalke, the first head coach of the Utah Jazz, had been a Maravich fan. Nissalke coached at Tulane in New Orleans in the 1960s and frequently made the drive to Baton Rouge to watch Maravich’s dazzling performances.
“If he were playing today,” Nissalke said, “he’s Steph Curry.”
But Nissalke was less than enamored with Maravich when he arrived in Utah a decade and two knee surgeries later.
“He was very much a recluse when he was here,” Nissalke recalled in the fall of 2018. “He never tried to lead the team. I think part of it was he sensed he couldn’t anymore.”
Maravich had been optimistic before the start of the 1979-80 season, the franchise’s first in Utah.
“I’ve been doing a lot of weightlifting and rehabilitating exercises to strengthen my knee,” he told reporters in June of 1979. “The knee’s starting to really feel good again. I expect to have a real good year next season. It was difficult for me to sit back and watch us build the worst record in the league last year.”
Nissalke, like many others, could see that Maravich was unhappy with having to leave New Orleans. The star guard’s knee, however, was an even bigger problem.
“He didn’t want to come here. Not that many players did at the time,” Nissalke said. “And when he came here he had a bad knee. He couldn’t really run anymore. We would have practice and in the old days he would have dominated any practice we ever had. He would have gotten 50 or 60 on anybody we had.”
Nissalke saw a shadow of a former star and sat it at the end of the bench.
On November 27, 1979, the Jazz hosted the Lakers. It was Pistol Pete Maravich Poster Night, but Maravich never got into the game.
“People were yelling, ‘We want Maravich! We want Maravich!’” former Jazz general manager Frank Layden recalled. “It became a real bone of contention.”
So Layden went looking for a solution. He called Boston’s Red Auerbach, who he knew liked Maravich and his father.
“Would you want Pete Maravich?” Layden recalled asking.
“He can’t play, can he?” Auerbach surmised.
“No. His knee is shot. It’s like a noodle and that’s the end. However, he loves to play and he loves to practice. He doesn’t say boo. The other players will like him and we want to get him a ring before he’s done. He’s done a lot for the league.”
They struck a deal.
Next, Layden had to talk with Maravich. The two men met at his North Salt Lake home, where Layden gave the player two options—he could be waived and retire or he could join another team. Either way he would get paid.
Maravich wanted to keep playing.
“He said he thought he’d be better next year,” Layden said.
Maravich had been benched for 28 straight games before he was waived on January 18, 1980. Still, the move was not an easy one for many within the Jazz organization.
“It was tough for [former Jazz owner] Sam Battistone because he’d had him in New Orleans when Pete was great,” Nissalke said.
Fredman, now the Jazz’s director of pro player personnel, still has heartache over the way Maravich’s tenure with the Jazz ended.
“I always try to be a team player,” Fredman said. “But personally, I didn’t think the Jazz handled that well at all.”
Maravich only played in 17 games for the Utah Jazz, but he averaged 17.1 points and 3.2 assists in those contests.
“I did think he could still play,” Fredman said.
All these years later, Fredman still smiles thinking of the Jazz’s second ever win at the Salt Palace. Maravich came alive, scoring 21 of his 31 points in an eight-minute burst in the third quarter to beat a Jerry Sloan-coached Chicago Bulls team.
“I always tease Jerry Sloan about it to this day,” Fredman said. “Jerry was coaching in Chicago and Pete had a great game. Jerry always says he doesn’t remember that game.”
Sloan was indeed there.
“Once a great player gets going, I don’t think there’s anything you can really do to stop him,” Sloan was quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune the next day. “You just hope he shoots himself out of it.”
A few months later, Maravich’s time with the Jazz would be over. But that memory would stay fresh in Fredman’s mind forever.
“That was fun to watch,” he said. “People had written him off. He’s done? He wasn’t totally done. I don’t want to overdramatize it, but for me it was kind of like when Babe Ruth was done and he hit three homers in his last game.”
Maravich finished the season with the Boston Celtics but decided to retire the next fall at the end of training camp. That’s when Layden offered Maravich a job—a chance to return to the Jazz as an assistant coach.
“He could work with our guards. He loves the game and I think we owe it to him,” Layden said. “I called Pete up and he said, ‘No. I’m happy. If I can’t play anymore, I don’t want to travel. It’s over and I had a good run.’”
Maravich returned to Salt Lake City in December of 1985 when the Jazz retired his number, hoisting his No. 7 jersey to the rafters.
“I’ve always felt a closeness to the Jazz and Sam [Battistone],” Maravich said at a news conference then. “I enjoyed playing here, for the time I was here. If I had my druthers, I wish I could have finished my career with the Jazz, but I don’t have any bitterness toward anybody. At that time, I was going through some mental problems of my own. I wasn’t mentally prepared to play basketball.”
Maravich struggled under the weight of expectation at different times during his career. He admitted to considering quitting in the middle of one game in New Orleans—after scoring 35 points in one half.
“I was tired of scoring,” he told reporters in 1985. “I was tired of having to do this and do that and then the next day, if we lost, it was his fault, his fault, his fault. If I passed, it was never enough; if I shot, it was always too much.”
Looking back, Nissalke has had some regrets over the years. The Jazz won just 25 games that first year in Utah.
“If I had it to do it over again, I probably would have said, ‘Let’s play him anyway because he’s a better player than these young players we have,’” Nissalke admitted to The Salt Lake Tribune at Maravich’s jersey retirement.
“Frank has told me that if he had that to do over again, he wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. But it did,” Fredman said recently. “Pete was one of the greatest entertainers the game of basketball had ever known on any level. It probably could have been handled differently.”
Three years after the retirement ceremony, Maravich died while playing a pickup basketball game from a rare and undiagnosed heart condition. He was just 40 years old.
When he looks at the rafters at Maravich’s No. 7, Fredman feels some solace about the way the legendary player’s time in Utah played out.
“That was a great moment, and I think it did a lot to bring the whole franchise together,” he said. “I felt like he forgave from his standpoint.”