Remembering Pistol Pete
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
“Uh, Mike, Pistol Pete died today.”
It was Jan. 5, 1988. I had just walked in the front door of my parents’ home after a day of teaching at Glenwood Elementary when my dad’s words hit me with a force equal to that of a sledgehammer. I walked slowly into the living room and watched the television in disbelief as ESPN recounted the tragic news.
Pistol Pete Maravich, my boyhood hero and basketball idol, had passed away earlier in the day while playing in a pickup basketball game at a church gymnasium in Pasadena, Calif. A heart attack had claimed one of basketball’s all-time greats.
This couldn’t be true.
Pete Maravich was a special one ” on and off the court. He is still the leading scorer in NCAA Division I basketball history. Pistol Pete, the skinny kid with the quick trigger finger, Globetrotter moves and floppy socks, mesmerized the college basketball world by averaging an unheard-of 44.2 points per game from 1968-70 at Louisiana State University. This was in a day of no three-point line and no freshman eligibility. Maravich scored 3,667 points for LSU in just three varsity seasons.
Years later, former LSU coach Dale Brown charted every college game Maravich played. With the three-point line, Brown calculated that Pete would have made 13 3-pointers per game and had a career scoring average of 57 points per game.
In 1970, Maravich was drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. He was the third overall pick in the draft and signed a contract worth $1.6 million ” one of the richest in all of professional sports at the time.
Pete played 10 seasons in the NBA, being chosen to the league’s all-star team in five of them. A knee injury, suffered during the 1978 season, and a bout with alcoholism, cut Maravich’s pro career short. He retired as the 16th leading scorer in league history, averaging 24.2 points per game.
What made Pistol Pete so unusual is that he wasn’t just a basketball archetype ” he was several. He was a creature of contradictions, never looking people in the eye and preferring to be alone most of the time. Pete knew he was the white hope in a black sport. Maravich longed to be a soloist, stuck in a game that requires an ensemble.
Haunted by the fact that he never played on a championship team, Maravich became a recluse following his retirement from the game. He told friends he was “searching for life.” Pete studied Hinduism, practiced yoga, became a vegetarian, and took an interest in Ufology, the study of unidentified flying objects. Once, in an attempt to make contact with extraterrestrial life, he painted a message on his roof: “Take me.”
Maybe what Pete really meant was, deliver me.
In 1982, Pistol Pete became a Christian and traveled the country sharing his new faith. A few years before his death, Maravich said, “I want to be remembered as a Christian, not as a basketball player.”
As people go, Pete Maravich certainly wasn’t the norm, but most of the great ones aren’t. Pete’s life always seemed to include that extra behind-the-back pass, or an unnecessary between-the-legs dribble.
For me, the story that tells the most about Maravich the basketball player, came from Pete’s junior year at LSU in a game against Georgia.
The Pistol had just tossed in a hook shot from deep in the corner for his 57th and 58th points to lead LSU to victory.
It’s said that the fans were going nuts. They poured onto the floor and carried Pete on their shoulders to the locker room. Fans have been known to carry their sports heroes off the floor or field following exceptional performances. That’s nothing unusual.
What makes this story so unique is that the game was played in Athens, Ga. The Georgia Bulldog fans carried Pistol Pete on their shoulders.
Mike Vidakovich is a freelance sports writer for the Post Independent.
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