Pistol Pete and Friends
Barry Mendelson, promoter, TV producer and entrepreneur, displays two framed memories: a needlepoint picture and a faded photograph of 35,000 people seated in the Superdome. Perhaps worthless in monetary terms, each is priceless in the eyes of the man who ventured to New Orleans 30 years ago to form and promote the New Orleans Jazz basketball team.
“This needlepoint was made by a fan,” Mendelson explains as he places it on the conference table at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. “This picture is of a record-breaking night. We were playing Dr. J, and we had won seven or eight games in a row.”
He leads a visitor to another framed piece leaning against the wall with the word “Jazzmatazz” blazing over the image of a basketball player like a rainbow. “This poster was the first time a professional sporting team reached out and did a piece of art,” he says.
Mendelson’s needlework, photograph and poster are part of a three-month exhibit opening Oct. 8 at the Ogden to celebrate the New Orleans Jazz’s 30th anniversary. Some of the memorabilia in the exhibit came from his office walls, and others came from adoring fans. The anniversary celebration also includes a one-hour TV feature, produced by Los Angeles-based Mendelson Entertainment Group LLC, that will premiere on the opening night of the exhibit and air on WYES-TV/Channel 12 on Oct. 26.
“For us, the Jazz exhibit belongs here because it’s looking back to a time when New Orleans was in a period of change,” says Mary Beth Haskins, Ogden’s public information officer. “Everything was changing then – for the better – that’s why we were so excited about the idea.”
The exhibit and TV special are also a celebration of Mendelson’s return to the city that he loved so long ago. He calls New Orleans “the promised land”: The years he spent here running the business end of the Jazz and bringing Broadway plays to the Saenger Theatre led him to managing Madison Square Garden and into other entertainment ventures, such as TV specials and ice-skating productions.
In 1974, when the owner of the Jazz recruited him to be general manager, he was an energetic 30-year-old hell-bent on making the struggling Jazz team a must-see for every New Orleanian. Now he is a tanned and fit 61-year-old imbued with the calm intensity of someone who has mastered competing traffic on California freeways.
In many ways, Mendelson has come full circle. Not only is he reliving his former days with the Jazz, he also is picking up a project he left behind when he moved to New York in 1988.
Having recently moved back to New Orleans with his native-born wife, Sandi, he renewed negotiations to build and operate an $8 million amphitheater on the Mississippi River. But with that project still in its planning stages, Mendelson spent much of his summer searching his belongings for Jazz collectibles and preparing for the October exhibit and TV show.
“I always wanted to do a love letter to the Jazz,” he says. “Opening night for the exhibit will be a fund-raiser for WYES and the Ogden. In some ways, that will be closure of the love affair I had with that team. It was that special to me.”
The Ogden retrospective will include many photographs, including one of Pete Maravich sporting a goatee and long hair. It captures the lanky, 6-foot, 5-inch Maravich on the day he joined the team. Legendary for his superstar style and astounding scoring record, he was the star of the show.
The exhibit also includes the game ball from the famous New York Knicks game in which Maravich scored a miraculous 68 points. At that time, Pistol Pete’s feat was the third most points ever scored in a single NBA game. An NBA biography says that his performance now ranks as the 11th-best single game in NBA history.
The TV program, entitled “The Night of Pistol Pete: The 30th Anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz,” uses the Knicks game, played on Feb. 25, 1977, to reflect on the team’s five-year stay in New Orleans. It also includes interviews with former players such as Rich Kelley and Aaron James, ABA All-Star and Jazz commentator Red Robbins, broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley and first head coach Scotty Robertson. Maravich died in 1988, at age 40, of a heart attack.
Mendelson’s road to the Jazz and his nearly four-decade career in sports and entertainment began after a stint in the Army. “I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he said. “I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. And I did.”
A native of Rochester, N.Y., he worked as the radio play announcer for the games of the New York Jets and as color for the Giants. After two years with the Boston Celtics, he moved to Los Angeles to be media director for the Forum stadium, home of the Lakers. At that time, Jack Kent Cooke owned the stadium and the basketball team, so Mendelson gained experience in two areas, he says. Later, he managed the career of player Jerry West. who eventually moved into Lakers management.
Mendelson credits Cooke and West as important mentors: Cooke taught him about marketing, and West taught him about basketball.
West, in fact, played a key role in Mendelson’s move to New Orleans because he met the Jazz’s original owner, Sam Battistone, at a Lakers game. “Sam walked up to us. He was an acquaintance of Jerry’s. Jerry introduced him to me.”
Battistone had obtained permission to start an expansion franchise in New Orleans because of the state’s construction of the Superdome. But many challenges awaited the young team. Battistone and Mendelson had to build a team from scratch, and the Dome wasn’t finished until the Jazz’s second year on the court.
“It was like we were opening new territory,” Mendelson says. “One of the things we realized we needed was a star. That’s when we placed a premium on Pete Maravich.”
Maravich seemed the logical choice for the team because he’d made his mark playing for Louisiana State University. During his three seasons playing varsity, he averaged between 43.8 and 44.5 points per game. As a senior, he set an NCAA record for racking up 50 or more points in 10 of the year’s 31 games.
The Jazz traded players and gave up draft choices to secure Maravich from the Atlanta Hawks. But even with him on the court, the team faced many challenges, some stressful, some comical.
The team played in the Municipal Auditorium for its first season, but during Carnival, it moved to the Loyola Field House to make way for the krewes’ balls. The Loyola court was 6 feet off the floor, but players’ union rules prevented professional players from playing on elevated courts because of safety concerns.
“We got a Louisiana fishing net,” Mendelson says, “and we literally wrapped the court in the netting.”
The unusual setup required the Players Association’s approval, so president Bob Lanier came to test the net.
“He was 350 [pounds] and nearly 7 feet, with a size 23 shoe,” Mendelson says. “He got out of the cab and found out where the net was. Then he took off running and jumped in the net. The net held, and he said, ‘If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for the players.’ He got back in his taxi cab and left New Orleans.”
Another time, a major flood stranded Maravich in his Metairie home, and he couldn’t get out to make a game. Mendelson says more than 4,000 tickets had been sold, and another 7,500 people braved the rain and showed up at the door. The Sheriff’s Office sent a pirogue after Maravich and later took him to the game in a cruiser with its lights flashing. “There was a big article in The New York Times,” he says, “and we won!”
Mendelson’s marketing strategy was to draw as many people to the games as possible through gift giveaways and inexpensive terrace tickets sold on the day of the game. The team gave away $1,500 Rolexes. Terrace tickets cost $1.50.
“Games weren’t games,” he says. “They were events. We approached sports like show business more than anyone had in that point in time.”
He applied that show business philosophy at the Jazz’s first game. Al Hirt played the national anthem, and the Olympia Brass Band led the team out.
Sometimes show business came to the Jazz, as was the case when Jack Nicholson attended a game. The actor watched Los Angeles clobber New Orleans, even though Maravich had scored more than 40 points. Mendelson says Nicholson praised Maravich: “ ‘Pete, you were magnificent tonight.’ ” With the giant American Indian character in Nicholson’s movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in mind, Maravich responded, “Jack, we needed the chief tonight.”
MAKING THE MOVE
By the 1977-1978 season, the Jazz had climbed its way to a playoff shot, missing it by two games. The following season, however, an injury kept Maravich off the court frequently, and the ownership, citing attendance losses, decided to move to Salt Lake City.
By then, Mendelson had left the Jazz. In 1980 he became a general partner in the Saenger and in 1988 acquired the management of Madison Square Garden.
Even though he ended his association with the Saenger several years ago, he says he returned to New Orleans recently because of family. He now lives in New Orleans and Folsom.
Moving back also allowed him to renew discussions he’d started in 1987 with the Port of New Orleans to build the amphitheater on the river. The port approved a resolution in June to allow him to develop and operate the 4,000-seat amphitheater on the site of the present Louisa Street Wharf in Bywater. The facility, scheduled for completion in April 2006, will host musical events, movies and other entertainment.
The facility’s proposed location at a bend in the river makes it ideal for an amphitheater, Mendelson says. “The view is spectacular looking back at the city at night.”
“This project has been a 17-year odyssey,” he adds, “with a 16-year intermission.”