August 21, 2017

They’re Pistols

Thirty-two years after his final game and more than two decades after his death, Pete Maravich remains a unique and divisive figure in the history of American sports.  Maravich was perhaps the most entertaining basketball player of his time and certainly the most watchable college basketball player of all time.  In three seasons at LSU (1968-1970), Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game and, with his colorful socks and mop of hair, looked like the lovechild of Pete Seeger and Elgin Baylor.

Maravich was born in Pennsylvania but his blood was Cajun as he played college ball in Louisiana and then, after spending his first four NBA seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, moved to the New Orleans Jazz for whom he would play five seasons including his most spectacular.  Maravich was flashy, brilliant, confounding, frustrating and, deservedly, a Hall of Famer and it’s painful and supremely unjust that he died so young, of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, in 1988 at the age of 40.

Much of what makes Maravich such a debate starter is his style of play and philosophy toward basketball.  He scored a lot, yes, but wasn’t so keen on trying to stop the other guy from scoring.  Maravich said he never understood his defensive detractors noting that when he would look at the box score at the end of the game and he had scored 40 points and the guy who was guarding him had scored only 20 “isn’t that defense?”

Maravich’s blood, hubris and plan of attack is alive and well in the state of Louisiana and has long since captured the hearts and minds of the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints are football’s merry band of Pistol Petes adorned not with sloppy socks but a regal fleur-de-lis.  And while Sean Payton’s apostles don’t shoot jump shots they do run a fast break offense that scoffs at ball control and clock management and lives by the belief that footballs were created for the one and only purpose of being moved past the goal line.

The Saints unapologetically pistol-whipped the Detroit Lions, 45-28, on Saturday night in New Orleans in their NFC wild card game, rolling up an NFL playoff record 626 yards of offense.  Quarterback Drew Brees, as always, was the point guard of this pigskin blitzkrieg completing 33 of 43 passes for a Maravichian 466 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a whole lotta funk and fun.

The Saints are to offense what Picasso was to nudity.  They make the practice of moving the football a transcendent, Avant-guard affair in which shock is common, yardage is sacred and points are more valuable than time.  Whether it’s through the air or on the ground, New Orleans never concedes that another touchdown cannot be compiled and only turns off the guns when the game is safely in hand as it was tonight when the Saints, graciously, took a knee at the end rather than punk those Lions with a 52-spot.

It seems as if nothing can stop the Saints as long as…they’re playing inside.  Especially on their home carpet.  The Saints are now 9-0 at home this season, averaging 41.5 points per game and, in their last three home games, including the playoff victory over Detroit, have scored exactly 45, 45 and 45.  But on the road the Saints turn from Pete Maravich into merely George Gervin, putting up 27.2 points per game.  It seems the only thing that might be able to slow down Brees, Payton, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Robert Meachem and the rest of the French Quarter is an act of God.  The Saints are sinfully offensive but can they score in the cold?  The rain?  The wind?  San Francisco?

New Orleans now has a date in San Francisco with the 49ers who sport the NFC’s top defense, allowing just 308 yards per game which is what Drew Brees can usually rack up with a sneeze.  The weather forecast for San Francisco next Saturday is sunny and 60 degrees so maybe the indoor Saints won’t turn blasphemous in such conditions.  If the weather holds, the Saints will roll and will almost certainly find themselves in Green Bay a week later for an NFC Championship game tussle with the Packers which will be a rematch of the NFL’s opening night thriller.  The Packers won that one, 42-34 at Lambeau Field on a warm September night.  The average high temperature in Green Bay is 24 degrees in January which is a field goal below New Orleans’ road game points average.

Pete Maravich was unstoppable but he never had to play at Lambeau in January.  If the Saints can get past the Niners then brave the elements and beat the Packers (assuming, of course, Green Bay makes it that far) it will be a religious experience and a remarkable triumph.  It can happen so long as the Saints think warm thoughts and keep on chuckin’.

…As the Saints continue their playoff march they are accompanied in their home state by the quest of Pistol Pete’s alma mater to claim college football’s national title.  LSU hosts Alabama at the home of the Saints, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in the BCS Championship game on Monday night.  With a victory, the Tigers will claim their third national championship since 2003 and Louisiana will be to football success what California is to fake body parts.

Is there something in the water?  In Walker Percy’s 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome, a heavy supply of sodium is added to the drinking water and LSU’s football team goes unbeaten for three years.  No mention was made of the Saints, though.  Back in the 1980s, the Saints had a good defense but were nothing like the offensive juggernaut they are today.  Back then, a team averaging 41 points per Sunday in New Orleans was something that not even science fiction dared to play with.

The truth has turned out to be more fantastic than fiction.