In the late 1960s, basketball as we know it changed forever. Some scrawny kid out of LSU would influence a generation of future basketball players. From Julius Erving to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan, their showman like moves had their origins with him. Anyone who ever picked up and either dribbled or passed a basketball tried to emulate his moves. All other players are compared to him. He is the first gym rat. He is the original number 23. He is “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
I remember as a young child in the late 60s and early 70s of wanting to play basketball just like him. Take a look why…
Born in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Pete Maravich was the son of Press Maravich. Press played college basketball, and for a short time, pro basketball in leagues predating the NBA. Press began coaching shortly thereafter in 1949. Pete was only two years old. Throughout the 1950s, Pete lived and breathed basketball. Drills of dribbling and shooting permeated his life. At times, Pete said he practiced eight to eight and half hours a day.
Pete’s basketball prowess showed at an early age. In 8th grade he played for the high school varsity team. He was quite the dribbler but not strong enough to shoot a jump shot. The ball was shot from his hip earning him the moniker that would last a lifetime – “Pistol”. For the next five years, Pete continued to develop his basketball prowess wherever his father coached – Clemson, then NC State.
In high school, Pete’s growth spurt took hold. He shot up to 6’5″ tall. He was highly recruited to play at most major schools. His father took the position as head coach at Louisiana State University. Pete did not have much of a choice except to follow his father to Baton Rouge.
In the 1960s, freshman basketball players were not allowed to play at the Varsity level in the NCAA. At LSU, the freshman games became the place to be. They would start the freshman games before the Varsity and when the crowd had seen Pete play, the crowd would leave the arena nearly empty for the LSU varsity.
In 1967, Pete made the jump to Varsity as a sophomore and never looked back. For the next three years, he averaged over 44 points a game. He still is the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer with 3,667 points some 40 years later. Maravich played in an age where there was no three-point line, it is estimated Maravich could have averaged somewhere between 55 to 57 points had such a line existed.
At the time, UCLA was the team to beat. In the SEC, Kentucky was the team and the closest LSU ever came to beating Kentucky was nine points. For Pete’s sophomore and junior seasons, the team was a .500 ball club. His senior season saw the Tigers win 22 games.
Pete was selected in third in the first round of the NBA draft. A bidding war between the ABA and the NBA ensued with Pete signing a four year 1.9 million dollar contract. This figure was unheard of at the time. As a result, there was a lot of resentment between the Hawks players, Pete, and the owners. In addition, his race often became the source of tension on the team.
Pete’s transition to the NBA was not an easy one. While he did make the All-Star teams, things were not going well. Many critics considered Pete a ball hog or a hot dog even calling him “Pop-Gun Pete”. His passing style, while a crowd pleaser, sometimes irritated his teammates. Pete began to drink heavily while in Atlanta. This lead to a suspension and then his trade to the fledgling New Orleans Jazz in 1974.
Over the next five years, Pete grew into one the top scorers in the league. However, he still played a for a losing franchise. After nine years in the NBA Pete only desired a ring. The Jazz moved to Utah in 1979 and Pete went with for a short time before he traded to the Celtics.
At this point in his career, Pete was a reserve for a young team that lost in the Conference Finals to the 76ers. Pete decided to hang it up. Knee injuries had taken their toll on him. Unfortunately, the Celtics would win the NBA Championship the next year. Pete found this devastating. His whole life had been about basketball. He had been drilled from an early age to practice this or practice that. Now without basketball, Pete was lost. He said:
My life had no meaning at all. I found only brief interludes of satisfaction. It was like my whole life had been about my whole basketball career.
In the years after his retirement, Pete found solace and satisfaction in God. Born again, Pete traveled the country teaching others about God. Maravich had said he wanted to be remembered more for being a Christian than a basketball player. It was the only place he found peace. Throughout his NBA career, Pete often drank. It was through God that “Pistol Pete” just became Pete Maravich.
In the end, Maravich is fondly remembered for his basketball skills. His playground moves, dribbling prowess, and unfathomable passes were considered outrageous. But every time Jason Kidd or Magic Johnson has done such a pass, they are always compared to Maravich. And so will anyone else. Michael Jordan’s off-balance shot he later perfected late in his career can be directly attributed to Maravich. In college, Maravich rarely shot on balance. Pete’s leaners are legendary!
The only player comparable to him was Connie Hawkins. Troubled, like Maravich, Hawkins too was already a legend before he set foot on the court. But for Pete, it was only in his life after professional basketball did he ever find himself. For all those years, he lived, breathed, and ate the game. He gave it his all until there was nothing left. It only gave him money. It was religion that gave him everything else.