Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 2 vs. the Rockets

Celtics (1-0) vs. Houston (0-1)
April 11, 1980
Boston Garden

The Celtics held serve and defeated the Rockets, 95-75, to claim a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semi-final match-up.  Only leading by three points at intermission, the Celtics hit Houston with an offensive barrage in the second half, featuring a total of six scorers in double-figures.

Pete Maravich and Larry Bird from INSIDE SPORTS
Led by Larry Bird’s 14 points and 8 rebounds, Cedric Maxwell added 13-10, and Dave Cowens delivered 11 and 9.  Seven more assists from Tiny Archibald, and forcing another 23 turnovers from the Rockets, allowed Boston to remain undefeated at home in the post-season.  The C’s contained Rockets big man Moses Malone to under 20 points (17) and under ten rebounds (7).

This marked the first occasion that the C’s had won two straight at home in the playoffs since making quick work of the San Antonio Spurs in April of 1977.  The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan provided detail coverage of the win, with Boston’s defense severely limiting the Rockets from ever taking off:

The Celtics simply choked the Houston offense in the second half, as the Rockets hit on just 12 of 40 shots from the floor in the final 24 minutes.

Larry Bird blocks Billy Paultz

“Tonight we played solid team defense,” Bill Fitch told Ryan, “but Dave Cowens and Chris Ford were exceptional.  I’ve said all along that Cowens is the best defensive center in the game, and tonight he gave a defensive clinic out there.  It helped that Houston didn’t shoot well from the outside.  That way we were able to give Dave some help in the middle (with Malone).”

Dave Cowens defends Robert Reid

After helping deliver the Celtics their first division title since 1975, Pete Maravich had been a non-factor in the first two playoff games.  Though the comparison for Pistol Pete had been Larry Bird, Maravich wasn’t receiving any run on the floor due to the accurate shooting of Chris Ford (10 points, 5 steals in game 2).

Ford limited the future Hall of Famer Murphy to only nine points, and Cowens gushed to the Globe about Ford’s play.

“I thought Chris Ford gave us a heckuva game,” said Cowens.  “He was more than Chris Ford with the three-point shot tonight.  He made some big steals when we needed them, played solid defensive, and made some smart passes.”

Pistol Pete’s Last Shot, from the second volume of Inside Sports in April of 1980, included a marvelous look at the career of Maravich through the eyes of Pulitzer-prize winning writer David Halberstam.  The story began with a look at the entrance of Bird to the historic franchise, while the 31-year-old Maravich learned how to swallow his pride on the Celtic bench.

The Celtics are the Celtics again, the once and perhaps future champions, and they have the Rookie, and the excitement is palpable.  The Celtics are special anyway, the only basketball team with a genuine tradition.  They even look like their past, the uniforms curiously unfashionable, the green sneakers cut too high, the pants cut too long, making the players look heavy and dumpy – a touch of yesteryear.  On the road the crowd comes early to the games, and the people – not just little kids and teenagers but grown men and women – throng around the Celtics basket, wanting to be near the Rookie, hoping to see, even in the warmup, something singular.  The Rookie is aware of this, but he withholds his touch, even his look.  He is comfortable within himself only as a basketball player, never as a showman, and so he is deliberately restrained.  There will be nothing flamboyant in the warmup.  It is as if he is determined not to gratify them, until the allotted 48 minutes of basketball.  Then he will delight them, but only if it serves his game, and that of his teammates.

Maravich, Bird, and Cowens

As incredible as both men were at the game of basketball, their two philosophies on the court differed immensely.  Out of necessity, Maravich played the role of The Show, while Bird bristled at such an idea in a team game (For all the hype, the talk of matchups, the Bird versus the Magic Man, see it on CBS (Magic loved the hype; loved the show biz; Bird hated it)) and on a team where he clearly looked to Dave Cowens as the its leader.

In the warmup drill, the Veteran… shows more panache.  There is to even the simplest a style; nothing about him was ever ordinary, his signature was on everything he did, and though he was once the autograph, now the crowd barely sees him.  It is looking for the Rookie, not the Veteran.  There is a sense of instant replay about all this, for the Veteran was once the Rookie.  People turned out for him, not his team, and they marveled at him and were often (regrettably) oblivious to the game and, more, to his teammates.  Now all that is gone, and he is holding on by a thin thread.

In Heir to a Dream, written by Maravich and Darrel Campbell, Pistol Pete noted his frustration on Causeway Street.  After initially “feeling as though I was some kind of alien or a disease for which they needed to find a cure,” Maravich’s confidence grew when Fitch gave him the kind of playing time that allowed him to get his reps and find some continuity on the floor.  But the starting two-guard position belonged to Chris Ford.

I did everything they [the Celtics] asked me to, but the circumstances were hauntingly similar to what had happened in Atlanta when I was asked to go to New Orleans.  A lot of promises were made but most never came to fruition.  I did play a little with the Celtics and my time was even increased on the court here and there, but never to half the game as I had been told.

Maravich felt the other players on the Celtics harbored some resented toward him; in the team’s eyes, it a tight-knit team that reinvented Boston as a winner took some umbrage at the new guy receiving more than they perceived as his fair share of attention.  For Maravich, it was difficult not to harken back to his days of glory, particularly when he shared the belief that his tank was far from empty.  Halberstam’s story continued with some accounts of Pistol Pete in his heyday:

Everyone has his favorite Maravich story.  One writer remembers Maravich driving against a defender, the defender arms up, poised to block a shot, Maravich faking slightly, then flipping the ball above him and bouncing it off his head into the basket, as a driving seal might have done.  Hot Rod Hundley remembers Maravich on a fastbreak  with men on both wings, pushing the ball hard on the last dribble, flipping it in front of him with his right hand, as if to pass left, and then, with no break, suddenly slapping it with his left hand to the player on his right.  When he was called for a travel, he yelled at the ref, “How can you call it a travel when you’ve never even seen it done before?”

Bereft of a great white hype, or even marketable white superstars, Halberstam detailed the ongoing struggles of the NBA in 1980.

Pete Maravich on the Celtic bench

Now Maravich arrives at the moment Bird ascends.  A star is born; a star descends.  Bird appears with such similar credentials that the comparisons are inevitable, a dazzling passer, a white fix for what some think is an endangered game.  Boston loves Larry Bird; CBS loves him even more.  It is a moment to reflect on the style and character and luck of both men, for the story of Pete Maravich, much of it poignant, so much of it unfulfilled, tells something about the game, expanded and promoted beyond acceptable limits…

Maravich did not enjoy the same fortune as Bird upon entering the league.  Bird was placed on a team with a new coach, a new owner, a rejuvenated Dave Cowens, and the greatest architect in the history of professional basketball in Red Auerbach.  Maravich, meanwhile, was placed in a much different predicament.  Drafted by the Hawks to be a white superstar who would crush the gate, his arrival, salary, and media attention in Atlanta fractured a team that appeared to be on the brink of contention.

Maravich was the creation, both victim and beneficiary, of modern sports married to modern media.  In cities with dubious basketball constituencies, he was the show.  Basketball was not just a sport – the camera had helped change that – it was theater as well; there were arenas to be built, tickets to be sold, commercials to be filmed, products to be hyped, ratings to be boosted.

Now, merely ten wins away from a long-awaited championship, Maravich struggled to stay on the floor for the Celtics, playing only a combined 20 minutes in the first two games of the series.  There appeared to be a foreclosing on his mortgage on the fourth quarter.

The fixation with the ring, which was genuine, was not just a fixation with a championship and a desire for professional bauble, but an awareness of what his career had not been.

Maravich says he loves [his role with the Celtics], the idea that everything is for the team, for the Celtics.  It is a wonderful atmosphere, he says, free of the burden of statistics.

Maravich may have been free of the burden of statistics, but battles on and off the hardwood were far from over.  In the meantime, the Celtics traveled to Houston in hopes to take a commanding 3-0 lead on April 13, 1980.

 

 

Game 2

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.

  • John

    Good post. I don’t understand why Pistol Pete retired so early.

  • http://twitter.com/JustinBarrasso Justin Barrasso

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll get into more as the season ends, but Maravich and Bill Fitch could no longer coexist. Maravich returns for the following pre-season but retires that fall.