Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 75 vs. the Pacers

Celtics (56-18) vs. Indiana (34-41)
March 18, 1980
Hartford Civic Center

In the midst of legal battles with the Boston Garden, the Celtics returned “home” after a three-game road to the friendly confines of the Hartford Civic Center.  After a career that made stops across Beaver County, Pennsylvania all the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it really didn’t matter where he played: the only true home for Pete Maravich was the hardwood floor of a basketball court.  Buoyed by a vintage 31-point performance from Pistol Pete, the Celtics avenged a loss from eight days prior and defeated the Indiana Pacers, 114-102.

PMSportsIllustratedHawks

Those familiar with seeing Larry Bird’s name as one of the top two scorers for the Celtics will be suprised to know he didn’t even finish in the top three.  Maraich led all scorers with 31, followed by M.L. Carr with 23 points and 9 boards, and Tiny Archibald scored 15 points and contributed 7 assists.  The versatile Carr started in place of Cedric Maxwell, who was out with an ankle sprain, and Maravich got his first nod to start for the Celtics by filling in for Chris Ford.

Bird, however, still affected the game in other areas.  Along with his 14 points, he finished with 13 rebounds and 7 assists, as well as a number of key plays down the stretch to seal the win for the C’s.  In an interview with BSMW, Bobby “Slick” Leonard – Indiana’s radio analyst who won 529 games and 3 ABA championships with the Pacers — discussed a number of topics, including Bird’s first season in the NBA.

Slick Leonard

Larry had to get through that rookie year,” said Leonard. He had a great year, but he was a better player in the years after that.  Sometimes it takes a little time to break in.  He had to find out what the NBA was all about, then he turned it upside down.”

Leonard touched on the fact that Bird was nearly drafted by the Pacers.

Larry and I are pretty good friends.  I tried to sign Larry at that particular time.  Our owners did not want to wait a year [since Bird planned to finish out his senior year at Indiana State].  They did not want to wait another year, which was kind of sad.  It was probably better for Larry if he went to Boston.  We didn’t have the money that the Celtics had to pay him.  Larry and I still talk and get a few laughs about that.  Had we been a real strong, money franchise, he probably wouldn’t have been a Celtic.

Had the Pacers drafted Bird, they would have forever changed the NBA landscape.  With the third pick of the 1978 NBA draft, the Pacers selected Kentucky forward Rick Robey.  The Celtics elected to wait a year and drafted Bird at number six.

The 80-year-old Leonard, who played against Bill Russell and coached against Larry Bird, also discussed the struggled that the Pacers endured while transitioning from the ABA to the NBA, as well as his rivalry with Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach.

For us with the Pacers, the transition from the ABA to NBA was kind of tough because we were financially strapped at the time.  It was tough for us to get players, so that wasn’t easy, but at least we made it through.  The franchise now is in good shape.

Red Auerbach and I had a couple of run-ins.  We had a couple run-ins even way back when I was a player.  He came out on the floor one time at the referees, and he and I got into it a little bit.  And we had another run-in while I was coaching, so we weren’t very good friends.  This [feud] went back to my playing days with the Lakers.

[You would have problems with Auerbach] if you weren’t a Celtic.

So many questions also lingered over Maravich’s career in the NBA.  Marshall Terrill, co-author of Pete Maravich: The Authorized Biography of Pistol Pete, in an interview with BSMW, noted how close Maravich was to becoming a Celtic in the ’70 draft:

Maravich’s story with the Celtics was so heartbreaking because Celtics Head Coach Tommy Heinsohn (and Red Auerbach) wanted Maravich to run their offense when he turned pro.  However, it just wasn’t going to happen given that the Hawks paid a record breaking $1.9 million for his services over a five-year term.  But consider the possibilities of what might have happened had the Celtics drafted Maravich in 1970: instead of two rings in the seventies (1972-73 and 1975-1976), I believe the Celts could have easily beat the Bucks in the ’74 playoffs with Maravich running the office, giving them a third title.  Conservatively, you’ve got to believe the Celts would have clinched four or five championships with Maravich on the team.  When Pete finally was signed by the Celtics he said at a January 1980 press conference, “I’ve spent my entire career trying to get here.”  His career would have totally been different had he come to Boston first, where I believe, he truly belonged.

Terrill reiterated that Maravich, from day one, wanted to be a Celtic:

Pete totally bought into the Celtic mystique and Boston was the only team he dreamed about playing for when he was a kid.  When I say he dreamed of being a Celtic, I mean literally.  He focused on that goal from the age of 8 and visualized it for more than a dozen years.  When he was drafted by the Hawks, it put the kibosh on that dream.  The south needed a name like ‘Pistol Pete’ to draw crowds and they weren’t going to let him go play anywhere else.

In the March 19, 1980 edition of The Boston Globe, Bob Ryan reported on Maravich’s dazzling performance:

Wait till they see this box score in Philadelphia.

No Cedric Maxwell (sprained ankle). Only three field goals for Larry Bird (“He was dealt,” said Bill Fitch, “a pair of deuces and he still made the most of them”).  Only three field goals for Dave Cowens.  A four-point deficit after three quarters. All this, and still the fifth Celtic victory in large measure because of another fascinating entry in the box: Pete Maravich, 12-7-31.

The great Maravich show came with the Celtics leading by a 42-31 score.  First he went one-on-one and threw in a long stutter step jumper.  Next on the agenda was a long banked runner for a three- point play.  He finished it off with a 4-on-2 fast break swisher for points 20 and 21…

Included in his second-period performance was a one-minute burst that would have been very recognizable to the folks in Raleigh, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  With the Celtics leading by a 42-31 score, and with the fascinating quintet of Rick Robey, Carr, Jeff Judkins (as a forward), Gerald Henderson and Maravich on the floor, The Pistol went to work.  A stutter step followed by a long turnaround for two.  A high banked runner for a three-point play. A 4- on-2 pull-up fast-break jumper.

He had scored seven straight Boston points in 1:05 to give the team a 49-33 lead, and the capacity crowd of 15,622 was grooving on it.

On the heels of Bird’s clutch play and Pistol Pete’s hot hand, the Celtics packed up for a trip to Detroit, Michigan to play the Pistons on Thursday night.

 

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.