Happy birthday, Pistol Pete
On this day in the year 1947, a baby was born to Petar and Helen Maravich in the western Pennsylvania steel town of Aliquippa. Unbeknownst to his parents and the rest of the world, this little boy would grow up to take the sport of college and professional basketball by storm before his untimely death in 1980 at the tender age of 40. It’s a wonder little Pete didn’t make his first appearance on earth with a basketball spinning on his index finger.
It wasn’t so much that Pete Maravich played the game of basketball with reckless abandon, scoring almost at will and in bunches, it’s the way he played the game that made it hard to take your eyes off the lanky boy with the floppy hair and even floppier gray socks.
Pistol Pete Maravich, as he became known at Needham Broughton High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, for his penchant of shooting the ball from his side as if he were holding a revolver, was a showman with the basketball in his hands and an unstoppable offensive whirlwind. Former Boston Celtic great John Havlicek called Maravich, “the best ball-handler of all time.”
Maravich’s father, Press, was a coach of the game that would come to consume him and his son until their last days on earth. Press Maravich, who would coach his famous son at Louisiana State University, got his young prodigy started on basketball drills when he was just 7 years old. Obsessively, little Pete would spend hours on end practicing long range shots, passing, and ball control tricks. He became a high school star who was coveted by many major colleges, but everyone knew the only place Pete ever considered going was to LSU to play for his father.
Back in the late 1960s, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity basketball, so Maravich didn’t make his debut in Baton Rouge until his sophomore year. The Southeastern Conference foes of the LSU Tigers didn’t quite know what to make of this brash young scoring machine who would routinely make no-look or behind-the-back passes seem commonplace. Under his father’s proud and watchful eye, Maravich would go on to lead the nation in scoring all three of his seasons at LSU, and finish with a career scoring average of 44.2 points per game. Pistol Pete’s college scoring records still stand to this day.
What makes things even more astonishing, is that Maravich put up his gaudy numbers in just three varsity seasons rather than four, and this was all before the advent of the 3-point line and the shot clock. Another interesting sidelight is that former LSU coach Dale Brown once watched the films of all of Maravich’s games at LSU and charted every one of his shots. By Brown’s calculations, if the 3-point line would have been used in college basketball when Pete played, he would have averaged an astounding 57 points per game for his career with the Tigers.
After being chosen with the third pick in the 1970 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks, Maravich would go on to a stellar professional career despite aching knees that had perhaps been worn down prematurely by the many trips up and down asphalt and hardwood courts. As well as the Hawks, Maravich also donned the uniform of the New Orleans Jazz, and with their move to Salt Lake City, the Utah Jazz. Pistol Pete retired in the fall of 1980 after spending half of a season with the Boston Celtics.
Following his career on the basketball court, Maravich became a devout Christian, traveling the country making guest appearances at churches and speaking of his new-found faith. Maravich once told an audience at one of his stops that he would rather be remembered as a Christian than a basketball player.
Healthy and active his entire life, it came as a shock to the sports world when Maravich collapsed and died of heart failure while playing a game of pickup basketball at the First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, California, on January 5, 1988. An autopsy revealed that Pistol Pete had a rare congenital defect. He had been born without a left coronary artery, which supplies blood to the muscle fibers of the heart. Doctors were amazed that he had lived for 40 years. Those of us who remember watching him play were thankful.
Pistol Pete was my idol as a little boy growing up here in Glenwood. I practiced dribbling the round ball and I shot at any hoop I could find until my fingers cracked. I wore out basketballs and converse shoes at Sayre Park, not to mention driving Coach Stubler and Coach Chavez crazy with my penchant for behind-the-back passes. Mine didn’t hit the intended mark nearly as often as Pete’s.
For those of you reading this who are much too young to remember Maravich, there are obviously all the internet videos to check out, but there is also a great series of instructional videos on ball-handling, passing and shooting that Maravich made before his death.
Homework Basketball is the appropriate name of the tapes, and I would encourage all parents of elementary through high school players to take a look.
I remember the first time I ever got to see Pete play in person. It was the spring of 1978 and Coach Chavez loaded all of us Demons who wanted to go in a van to Denver to watch the New Orleans Jazz face the Nuggets. Of course I was going!
When we got to McNichols Sports Arena, our tickets were for way up in the end balcony, but when I spied the Pistol warming up in the New Orleans purple, I grabbed fellow Demon Rick Eccher and we headed down to get a close seat near the court, past unsuspecting ushers.
At this point in his career, Maravich was playing basically on a single leg. One of his knees was battered and bandaged so badly that he was just a shadow of the great player he once was. I think my eyes were as big as lollipops that day as I watched every move of my hero. Despite his injuries, Maravich battled Denver great David Thompson that day, dropping 29 points on the Nuggets. The Jazz lost, but that was no matter. I had been in the presence of the best basketball player who ever walked on this planet, and I knew it.
In 1996, Maravich was voted one of the 50 greatest basketball players of all time, and in 2005, ESPNU named him the greatest college player of all time. If he were still with us, Maravich would have been 69 years old today. I have no doubt that he would, from time to time, be on the hardwood shooting jumpers and flipping fancy passes.
I’m biased, but I think Pistol Pete would have run circles around the golden boy Steph Curry and the rest of his Warriors. But then again, I believe in magic. You had to be a believer if you ever watched Pistol Pete Maravich play.