The Sports Lounge presents… REMEMBER THEM: New Orleans Jazz
I know that technically the New Orleans Jazz are not a defunct franchise. The franchise still exists today as the Utah Jazz. But for the people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas, the New Orleans Jazz and the team in Utah are not the same. So, I wanted to give a little look at the team in its New Orleans days.
The Jazz, formed in 1974, were the 18th team to enter the NBA and began their existence with a blockbuster trade. They received former LSU standout Pete Maravich from the Atlanta Hawks for two 1st round, three 2nd round, and one 3rd round draft picks to be spread over the next 3 years. The first season, they played home games at the Loyola University Fieldhouse, former home of the ABA’s New Orleans Buccaneers. The court at Loyola was raised so high from the stands, that the NBA Players’ Association made the team put a net around the court to help prevent player injuries. After that first season, the team moved to the Louisiana Superdome, now called the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Superdome was definitely in better condition, but the high demand for the venue and lease issues made the Superdome a hassle for the team too. There was also the concern with Mardi Gras parades in the area and the team possibly playing a month on the road to avoid the carnival celebration. It is crazy to think that now, with the Hornets/Pelicans playing in New Orleans, Mardi Gras isn’t considered a hassle but just an extra celebration.
While in New Orleans, the Jazz did not produce a great product on the court. Their best season was in 1977-78 when the team finished 39-43. Not stellar by far. To add to their lack of production, the Jazz were about to endure the worst of the court. After what would be their final season in New Orleans, the Jazz had to watch as the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Magic Johnson with a pick they acquired from the Jazz two years prior in a trade for Gail Goodrich. Now, anybody who has watched basketball knows that that was one of the biggest busts in NBA history. Johnson went on to become the face of the Lakers and one of the all-time greats. Goodrich was basically ineffective as a member of the Jazz.
After the 1978-79 season, despite fairly good support, the owners did not feel that New Orleans could support the team. I was not around at the time, but maybe after seeing the ABA’s New Orleans Buccaneers leave just a few years prior, the people of New Orleans were hesitant to get fully behind another basketball team. And, I’ve always felt, south Louisiana has always been and will always be a football first region. But, no matter the reason, the Jazz moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City, UT. Salt Lake City was a smaller market than New Orleans but the owners felt that they could support the Jazz after the city maintained the ABA’s Utah Stars.
The team was gone. And with this, the team maintained the Jazz nickname and the purple, green, and gold colors, the colors of Mardi Gras. Utah is not known for its Jazz music like New Orleans is. Nor does the state hold the carnival celebration that makes New Orleans a destination for tourists every year. This upset many of the people of New Orleans then, as it still does today. When the NBA returned to New Orleans in 2002, the team kept the nickname they brought with them from Charlotte, the Hornets. Many people wanted Utah to give the name back, but it would not happen. The same thing happened recently when Hornets owner, Tom Benson, wanted to change the name of the team. Jazz was still taken, and the Hornets became the Pelicans, an homage to the old minor league baseball that played in the city.
But moving on, the Jazz were lucky enough to get one of the best players ever when they arrived in New Orleans. “Pistol” Pete Maravich was a standout player at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. While at LSU, Maravich was 3-time SEC Player of the Year, the Naismith College Player of the Year, and a 3-time NCAA 1st Team All-American. In 2005, ESPNU named Maravich the greatest collegiate basketball player of all time. He was drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and also played for the New Orleans/Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics. In the NBA, he made the All-Star squad five times and was named to the 1st and 2nd All-NBA teams numerous times. Maravich tragically passed away in 1988 from heart failure. It was due to a birth defect that was never noticed. He was only 40 years old.
Maravich made his mark on the world of basketball and in Louisiana. In 1996, he was voted as one of the 50 greatest players in the NBA. He was one of the youngest players to ever be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. LSU renamed their basketball gym the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in his honor. And his #7 was retired in Utah by the Jazz and in New Orleans by the Superdome itself and by the Hornets in the New Orleans Arena. The Hornets retired the number at halftime of their first home game, which happened to be against the Utah Jazz. Maravich is one of 4 players that had a number retired by a team that they did not play for.
As I stated earlier, the NBA would be absent in the Crescent City from 1979 to 2002 when the Charlotte Hornets came to town. And after a few years, there were rumors of the Hornets relocating. Heck, even today, people question whether the city of New Orleans can sustain an NBA franchise. It is a question that only time will answer. As a fan, I hope that the newly christened Pelicans can be around for a while. The games are a fun experience no matter how the team is playing. Let’s just hope we don’t lose another franchise and leave basketball fans searching for a new team to support.