East: ‘You gotta love it, baby’ — Hot Rod Hundley was an experience worth cherishing _lowres

FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2009, file photo, Utah Jazz broadcaster Rod Hundley prepares for his 3,000th broadcast with the Jazz, before the team's NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Hornets in Salt Lake City. Hundley, the former NBA player who broadcast Jazz games in New Orleans and Utah for 35 years, died Friday, March 27, 2015. He was 80. The Jazz said Hundley died at his home in the Phoenix area. (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson, File)

Hot Rod Hundley was a two-time All-American at West Virginia.

He was the first player selected in the 1957 NBA draft and was twice an All-Star during his six-year career with the Lakers in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

He spent the majority of his legendary broadcasting career with the Utah Jazz and had a network gig with CBS.

But around these parts, that’s all footnote stuff. Hot Rod — no need for last-name formalities with him — was first and foremost the New Orleans Jazz’s free-spirited radio play-by-play announcer.

Hot Rod, who died at age 80 on Friday in Arizona, was a central figure in a unique era in New Orleans sports history as part of the original Jazz staff in 1974. It was the start of a five-year run that was far more entertaining than the team’s record would suggest.

With Pete Maravich accumulating points and eye-popping assists at a rate reminiscent of his record-setting career at LSU, the Jazz were always worth the price of admission. Any victories — and there weren’t a whole bunch of them — were lagniappe.

“I’d walk the street in the French Quarter and people would ask, ‘How many did Pete get tonight? Pete got 40? All right!’ ” Hot Rod recalled a few years ago. “There was no ‘By the way, who won the game?’ ”

It was the mid-1970s, and the Saints were barely 10 years old and mostly a laughingstock. They were more than 30 years from winning a Super Bowl and seemingly farther than that from ever doing something so unimaginable.

So sports fans in New Orleans weren’t fazed by losses but, being New Orleanians, they did like to have fun. And the Jazz were fun.

Maravich was the most flamboyant player of his time, and Hot Rod’s flair for narration was the ideal complement to the antics of Maravich and his supporting cast. Dribbling was described as “hippity-hop” or “yo-yoing.”

Baskets scored by players being fouled were described as “good if it goes … it’s gone.” Aaron James’ long jumpers were “A.J. from the parking lot.” When the Jazz did secure a victory, it was “in the ole refrigerator.”

Then there was his signature catch-phrase — “You gotta love it, baby” — which became the title of Hot Rod’s biography and is inscribed in the media center named for him in the Utah Jazz’s arena.

The franchise’s quirky start in New Orleans added to its charm.

While waiting for the Superdome to be completed, the Jazz split its first season’s home games between Municipal Auditorium — a venue better suited to Mardi Gras balls — and Loyola Field House, in which netting was suspended from the ceiling to protect players from tumbling off the elevated court.

“The feeling around town was, you got to go see these guys,” Maravich once said. “They’re nuts.”

This Jazz ensemble was completed when Butch van Breda Kolff — whom the New York Times once aptly described as a “happy-go-lucky nonconformist” — was hired after former Louisiana Tech coach Scotty Robertson was fired 15 games into the first season.

VBK was quickly accepted as a man of the people in New Orleans. Think Rob Ryan, circa 2013.

For a brief period in the 1977-78 season, it all came together, kind of the way Hollywood’s version of the Cleveland Indians made their pennant run in the movie “Major League.” Think of Hot Rod in the Bob Uecker role.

But the Jazz’s run didn’t have a Hollywood ending. At the end of a midseason 10-game winning streak, Maravich threw a virtuoso between-the-legs pass against the Buffalo Braves and landed awkwardly, blowing out his knee. He and the New Orleans Jazz were never the same.

VBK was fired along the way and, two years later, the Jazz, with Maravich and Hot Rod in tow, moved to Salt Lake City.

Maybe the Jazz’s time in New Orleans wasn’t quite like being in Camelot but, for one brief shining moment, it was pretty cool.

Hot Rod’s presence in Salt Lake City seemed as incongruous as the name Utah Jazz, but he became a fixture there just as he had been in New Orleans and for a much longer time before retiring in 2009.

Maravich died in 1988, and VBK passed in 2007. On Friday, Hot Rod’s time came.

If there’s a basketball heaven, you know they have a hell of a band.

VBK is standing in front of his team’s bench, barking at the officials while Maravich riffs.

And a newly arrived voice captures it all: “You gotta love it, baby.”

Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.