In many ways, the 1970s NBA of the New Orleans Jazz bears no resemblance to today’s league
Some of the stories from the initial few seasons of New Orleans in the NBA sound more like the stone ages of professional basketball, as opposed to something that took place a couple generations ago. For example, when the inaugural ’74-75 Jazz played home games at Loyola Fieldhouse – which used an elevated three-foot stage for its basketball court – the team put up nets all the way around the hardwood, for safety purposes. As Sports Illustrated explained of the reasoning behind the protective nets, “The NBA Players Association, conjuring visions of their dues-paying members hurtling off the edges, made the Jazz (pay) $5,000 for restraining nets.”
“Because of the elevated court, the nets were there to keep you from falling over the side of the floor,” New Orleans Jazz forward Aaron James said, laughing at the memory.
That bizarre setup is only the tip of the iceberg, however. In virtually every notable category, the 1970s NBA is almost completely unrecognizable when compared to today’s league. Here is a partial but lengthy list of many of the largest differences, based on interviews this month with former members of the New Orleans Jazz:
Reliable information on player salaries is spotty at best prior to the NBA instituting a salary cap in 1984-85, but consider this: When the league implemented that rule five years after the Jazz left the Big Easy, the entire salary cap per team was just $3.6 million. According to Basketball Reference, 10 of New Orleans’ 15 roster players in 2019-20 earned more than that individually. Even after you factor in rises in inflation and cost of living, today’s players make an infinitely better living than 1970s Jazz players did.
However, as James points out, there’s little reason for retired players like him to waste time dwelling on that fact. During parts of three seasons, Elgin Baylor was New Orleans Jazz head coach. One of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time, Baylor had been a star forward for the Lakers in the 1960s.
“But a lot of us (1970s players) made more money than Elgin ever did when he was a player,” said James, a career 10.8 ppg scorer. “Times just change.”
In newspaper accounts of Pete Maravich’s 68-point game vs. New York in February 1977, Jazz rookie Paul Griffin is quoted as saying in jest to Maravich, “It’s about time you earned your salary!”
Maravich was under contract that season for $600,000.
New Orleans Jazz official scorer Bob Remy – who later served for a decade-plus on the stat crew for the Hornets and Pelicans – still has ticket stubs from Jazz games. The most expensive ducats in the vast majority of the Superdome cost only $5 or $7. In fact, during some of the most well-attended games in the venue, thousands of fans gained admission for only $1.50. The Jazz hosted the Philadelphia 76ers and Julius Erving (“Dr. J”) in the Dome in ’77 and drew 35,077 fans, then an NBA record. A ’75 game vs. the Lakers featured 26,511 spectators.
The process of selling tickets to games was much less complicated 45 years ago, which was definitely a good thing, because in those days, NBA franchises only had a minuscule number of full-time employees. Remy recalls the Jazz having a staff of fewer than 20 people (everyone now has 100-plus). There were also far fewer assistants on coaching staffs; the team trainer doubled as equipment manager and travel secretary, among other responsibilities. Team security? It did not exist. Star players such as Maravich had to fend for themselves in situations where large gatherings of fans wanted an autograph.
Speaking of throngs of fans, Remy remembers a preseason road trip in which the Jazz were on a commercial flight, landing in another city – and apparently word got out that Maravich would be strolling through the airport. When the Jazz got off the plane, a hundred-plus fans were at the gate waiting for “Pistol Pete.” Yes, in those days, no teams took charter flights, so Americans wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to see entire NBA rosters sitting by their gate, waiting to get on a flight along with everyone else.
“If you were playing a back-to-back in two different cities, you had to get on the first available flight the next morning,” Jazz forward Paul Griffin explained. “So we had a lot of 6 a.m. wakeup calls, where we’d have a flight at 8 (then arrive in the second city the same day of the game).”
Due to NBA teams now relying exclusively on private flights, same-day travel never happens in 2020, barring a weather delay or some other unusual circumstance.
Not only did 1970s NBA teams travel by commercial flight, but the league’s schedule was also far less hospitable than it is today. Modern players sometimes talk about how fatigue can set in and affect them during the “dog days” of the season – right before the All-Star break – but many might be shocked to learn some of the details about the old schedule. When Maravich rang up 68 points vs. New York in a late February game, the Jazz had already previously played four back-to-back-to-backs that season. One of those three games-in-three-days sets featured October contests in the cities of New Orleans, New York and Cleveland over barely more than a 48-hour span.
During an infamous period of the 1970s and early 1980s, NBA Finals games were often shown on TV via tape delay, preempted by more popular network programming. As Griffin noted, when he signed with San Antonio for the 1979-80 season, the Spurs only broadcast 14 games all season on local television, all road games (many teams kept home games off local TV, theoretically increasing the incentive for fans to buy tickets). In the case of Maravich’s 68-point game, in hindsight, it is fortunate that the Knicks happened to be televising that night, because otherwise there may not be any footage of the historic scoring performance. There’s no video available from many historic NBA games, including Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point night in 1962.
Remy remembers seeing plenty of fisticuffs during games in the 1970s, with dustups happening so frequently that in general, no one made much of a big deal about them (perhaps partly related to the lack of media and TV coverage). At times, no foul was whistled even after a punch was landed; with no replay reviews available, if the referees didn’t see an incident in real time, they had no recourse but to just let the game continue. There were so many scuffles, Remy noted that a tongue-in-cheek joke among some media and fans about the NBA back then was, “I went to a boxing match and a basketball game broke out!” There was no such thing as a flagrant foul, either - the NBA did not enact penalties for hard fouls until ’90.
In ’74, when the New Orleans Jazz were a brand-new expansion team, not a single TV viewer tuned in to hear the final selection announced. Not only because the draft went a staggering 10 rounds, but also because it wasn’t even televised. The NBA draft has been a two-round process since ’89.
Despite being a fifth-round pick, Griffin played seven seasons in the NBA, appearing in 480 games. These days, he may not have even had the opportunity to try to make the team.
“They think you’re a long shot,” Griffin said of the perception of his roster chances when he was picked in Round 5. “The Jazz basically set me a contract (in the mail) and said, ‘Sign it.’ There was no negotiating, and I knew that.”
In perhaps the best tale that illustrates the difference between the NBA’s old school and now, when the Jazz opened their first season in ’74-75, the brand-new, inexperienced team started 0-11 and 1-16, with the only victory coming by a point over Portland. A higher-up at the Elias Sports Bureau in New York City started to notice that when the Jazz submitted stats by phone after home games, New Orleans players invariably were being given credit for more assists than the visiting team, despite losing by big margins (and therefore scoring fewer baskets). While calling in stats after one game, Remy remembers getting an earful from Elias, because the stat-keeping organization was upset about what they believed was a clear fudging of the numbers. Fitting for ’74, though, there were no game tapes available for anyone to review. There was no way to correct or adjust misinterpretations of statistics – a process that happens on a nightly basis in the NBA of 2020. Back then, the only “recourse” Elias had to try to fix the problem was to yell into the phone at Remy and exclaim, “Hey Remy from New Orleans! What the heck are you doing down there!?”