My most memorable moments covering sports (Part 1 – The NBA)
The Wednesday night rebroadcast of Pete Maravich’s 68-point performance got me to thinking.
With the sports world on indefinite pause we have an opportunity to relive special moments such as Maravich’s virtuoso performance for the New Orleans Jazz in a 124-107 victory over the New York Knicks on Feb. 25, 1977 in the Louisiana Superdome. FOX Sports New Orleans aired the rebroadcast as it has been doing with Pelicans games recently.
There have been rebroadcasts elsewhere of other memorable events such as LSU’s recent CFP championship win over Clemson and the Saints’ victory over the Falcons when the Superdome reopened after Hurricane Katrina.
So as we await the return of sports, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, it seems like a good time for me to reflect on the most memorable events, people, games and seasons I’ve been fortunate enough to cover.
In the coming weeks I’ll be posting a 10-part series, dividing memories into specific categories and ranking the top five in each category.
Since the Maravich performance triggered this idea, I’m going to start with the NBA.
5. Pistol Pete Maravich
I didn’t cover the game against the Knicks, but I did witness it from the stands and enjoyed the replay.
But Maravich is on the list because of a story I wrote about him for the Times-Picayune on the occasion of the Utah Jazz retiring his jersey in 1985.
In a lengthy interview Maravich and I talked about the highlights of the Jazz’s tenure in New Orleans, which at five seasons was far too short as were Maravich’s NBA career and life.
We talked about the team’s first season playing in the Loyola Field House and the Municipal Auditorium while waiting for the Superdome to be completed, the 68-point game and the run toward the playoffs that came to an end when Maravich tore a ligament in his knee in 1978.
The themes I remember most from the interview were Maravich’s devotion to crowd pleasing as a player and the fact that he had found God, a discovery that brought peace and contentment to a previously turbulent life.
The T-P allowed me to write an unusually long feature, some 75 column inches, and other memorable interviews for the story were with coach Butch van Breda Kolff and radio announcer Hot Rod Hundley.
4. The Hawks playing at UNO
The departure of the Jazz to Salt Lake City in 1979 ended New Orleans’ first tenure as an NBA city. The Atlanta Hawks didn’t have much of a tenure here, but they did play 12 games at Lakefront Arena in the 1984-85 season.
The Hawks weren’t drawing well in Atlanta and promoter Barry Mendelson, a former New Orleans Jazz executive, gave them an enticing financial guarantee to play the games here. The goal was to demonstrate New Orleans’ viability as a home for another NBA team, but with no rooting interest in the Hawks and still understandably bitter over the Jazz’s departure, the community didn’t embrace the mini-season.
But there were a few memorable moments, including the Jazz playing the first game and Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan making an appearance, but the most memorable moment came late in the season when Larry Bird and the reigning NBA champion Boston Celtics came to town.
New Orleans has always had a large group of Celtics fans and it was standing room only for this game. Bird put on a performance similar to one by Maravich that was replayed, scoring a Celtics-record 60 points.
But that performance played second-fiddle to a bigger news story because it happened the same day that the New Orleans Saints were officially sold to a car dealer named Tom Benson.
3. 1986 NBA Finals
Even though the Hawks experiment didn’t work, the city was still hoping to land another NBA franchise. That quest was my main argument in trying to get the TP to send me to cover the Finals after Houston won the Western Conference finals and brought the title series practically into our backyard.
The sales pitch didn’t get a trip to Boston for Games 1 and 2, but it did get me to Houston for Games 3, 4 and 5.
The Celtics won the first two games, but the Rockets maintained a pulse by winning Game 3. Boston asserted command by winning Game 4 and Houston stayed alive by winning Game 5, which featured an ugly brawl between Rockets forward Ralph Sampson and Celtics guard Jerry Sichting.
After Game 5, I went home and the Celtics went back to Boston and won Game 6 to claim their record 16th NBA title.
2. The NBA returns
New Orleans’ more than two decades-long quest to bring back the NBA finally ended in 2002 when the league granted tentative approval of owner George Shinn’s request to move the Hornets from Charlotte into the recently opened New Orleans Arena (now the Smoothie King Center).
The NBA set very challenging goals in terms of ticket sales, suite sales, sponsorship sales, broadcasting rights, facility upgrades, etc., that the Hornets and the city had to meet in order to gain final approval.
Shinn’s right hand, Alex Martins, spearheaded a Herculean effort by Hornets and city officials to meet the benchmarks amid the backdrop of the Hornets competing for Charlotte in the playoffs.
The benchmarks were met and the league granted overwhelming approval in New Orleans’ biggest NBA win to date.
1. 2007-08 Hornets season
The Hornets spent most of the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons in Oklahoma City because of Hurricane Katrina. But they were building.
Coach Byron Scott’s team started their first full season back in New Orleans with a superstar point guard just approaching his prime in Chris Paul and an excellent supporting cast featuring David West, Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler.
The team won 56 games and the Southwest Division title, claiming the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They won a seven-game playoff series for the first time in franchise history when they beat a very good Dallas team in five games.
They took leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in their conference semifinal series against San Antonio as the home team kept winning. The Spurs held serve at home again in Game 6, forcing a deciding Game 7 in the Arena.
San Antonio showed its superior playoff experience in taking a big early lead, but the Hornets fought back and got within a basket late in the fourth quarter before falling short.
It remains the most successful – and entertaining – season the New Orleans’ NBA history.
One final note: I was struck during the season when Paul told me that Maravich had been a big influence on him. Paul hadn’t been born when Maravich retired, he was a toddler when Maravich died and he and Maravich were mostly very different ball players.
But one thing they had in common was exceptional skill at dribbling, passing and creating opportunities for their teammates.
When I asked Paul how Maravich came to be a big influence he said as a youngster he constantly studied and mimicked ball-handling videos that Maravich made.
Now a new, exciting chapter in New Orleans’ NBA history is being written by David Griffin, Alvin Gentry, Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and the rest of the Pelicans.
Hopefully that story resumes before too long.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…