Four decades ago, a team called the New Orleans Jazz, led by a dynamic local hero named Pistol Pete, wowed the crowd at the Superdome. Four decades later, many of those iconic players returned to New Orleans to recall the days of free french fries, discounted tickets, great crowds and a sad ending to a colorful chapter in the city’s rich sports history.
The gang really was all here, at Harrah’s Casino Saturday night, and the topic of conversion was Burger King french fries, Shoe Town discounted tickets — and most of all, memorable moments for some of the most memorable athletes ever to suit up in the Crescent City.
In conjunction with the NBA All-Star Game, in the 40th anniversary year of its founding, the New Orleans Jazz had a reunion.
All the familiar names — Aaron James, Rich Kelley, E.C. Coleman, Nate Williams, Slick Watts, Spencer Hayward, et. al. were in attendance.
Even the cornerstone of the franchise, the late Pistol Pete Maravich, was represented by his wife, Jackie, and his son, Jaeson.
Even opposing players of the era, such as Rick Barry and Calvin Murphy, made their way to the Harrah’s theater, where highlights of the team, which only lasted five seasons in New Orleans but left decades’ worth of memories.
There were the games at Loyola, with a huge net encasing the elevated floor, and Municipal Auditorium while the Superdome was being finished. There were huge crowds, fueled by promotions, surpassing 20,000.
“They were building a fan base,’’ Kelley said.
One night, when there were no promotions — on Nov. 5, 1975 — the Jazz, on a five-game victory streak, was scheduled to play Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the L.A. Lakers. A rainstorm inundated the city, causing widespread street flooding. The club had to get Maravich out of his Metairie home by boat.
But at tipoff time, with no giveaways to boost the numbers, 26,511 were in attendance for a 113-110 Jazz victory.
“That was unforgettable,’’ said James, the team’s first draft pick, another crowd-pleaser. James was native of New Orleans and a product of Grambling. “That was a night to remember.’’
For all those good times, they couldn’t last. The team was sent to Salt Lake City after the New Orleans city council enacted an 11 percent “entertainment’’ tax on the club, which made its existence in Louisiana untenable.
The club had promotions of free fries whenever the Jazz scored 100 or more points, and discounted tickets from Shoe Town for midweek non-marquee games.
“The thing I think I’ll always remember,’’ said Kelley, the 7-foot center/power forward from Stanford who always saw deeper into various situations than most, “is the fans. They weren’t the most numerous, but their passion was amazing. You never had to question when things weren’t going right. There is a certain sarcasm with New Orleans fans, and they let you know — and pretty quick.’’
James — remembered as “A.J from the parking lot,’’ the call from broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley for James’ long-distance jumpers — said his most vivid memory was Maravich’s 1977-78 halfcourt between-the-legs assist that had tragic repercussions.
Maravich came down awkwardly and wrecked his knee, ending his season. He was never quite the same afterward.
“We were really playing well at the time (finishing with 39 wins), and were thinking this was going to be our breakout years,’’ said James, now the athletic director at Grambling. “Without Peter, we kind of went downhill after that.’’
“I really thought we were going places that year,” he said. “Nothing was quite the same after that injury to Pete.’’
Maravich’s highlights — some of them almost hard to believe — drew the most applause.
Jackie Maravich said her husband’s greatest memory of the Jazz was the fans.
“They loved him, and he embraced them,” she said. “He really appreciated the fans, and Pete really played for them. They still love him.’’
Kelley, now an investor, consultant and director of several businesses and boards in the San Francisco Bay area, said he was “floored’’ when he heard of Maravich’s death. The ex-LSU star collapsed at 40 after playing a game of pickup basketball in 1988.
“First, to think he died doing what he loved more than anything in the world, playing basketball, and then to find out he lived his life with basically half a heart ... it was astounding. You couldn’t help but think what he might have been able to do with a whole heart. The thought of that possibility just boggles the imagination.’’