‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich would have turned 75 years old today. Sadly he died back in 1988 at 40 years old, collapsing and dying unexpectedly of heart failure in the same place where he had spent most of his waking moments as a youth and young adult – on a basketball court, this time while playing in a pickup game. His last words, a few minutes before he died, ironically were ‘I feel great.’.
Maravich was so far ahead of his time that to this day there still has never really been a ‘next Maravich’. Amidst all of his scoring exploits, he was a next-level passer and playmaker. Maravich made passes that had never even been seen before. Underhanded full-court outlet passes, behind-the-back elbow passes, between-the-legs bounce passes – it was a creative arsenal that made defenders look silly. That combined with his ball-handing wizardry and long-range shooting made him a nightmare to defend. Imagine your typical college player at that time walking on to the court and trying to deal with Pistol Pete for 40 minutes!
Maravich is still the all-time leading scorer in the history of NCAA Division I, with 3,667 points. That’s 418 points more than the player in 2nd place on the list, Freeman Williams. It’s not hyperbole to say that this record will never be broken. At the same time, it’s unbelievable to realize that Maravich’s record will never be broken given the context under which his accomplishments were achieved. Consider:
– Freshman were ineligible to play for the varsity during that time. Maravich racked up all of those points in just 3 seasons, averaging 44.2 ppg (along with 6.5 rpg and 5.1 apg) over 83 games. He missed out on 700-800 points because of this.
– There was no 3 point shot. Maravich might have averaged an additional 4-8 ppg, so he missed out on another 300-600 points.
– There was no shot clock! Who knows how many attempts Maravich may have lost due to the opposition stalling, thinking that the only way to keep Maravich from scoring is to make sure that his team never had the ball.
To put this record in modern day perspective, someone who was a starter from day one and manage to accumulate 147 games played, could break the record by averaging 25 ppg (while somehow being that prolific for that long without leaving early for the NBA). A player such as Detroit’s Antoine Davis sort of fits the bill, having averaged 24.6 ppg over 111g in his first 4 seasons while being granted a 5th season of eligibility because of COVID-19. Assuming Davis plays 30 games in this extra season, he could break Maravich’s record by averaging 31.1 ppg. Unfortunately, no Division 1 has actually averaged that many points since Bo Kimble in 1990 for Paul Westhead’s ‘run and gun’ Loyola Marymount team that set an NCAA scoring record. In other words, it’s unlikely.
Mark Kriegel wrote an outstanding biography of Maravich titled “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich”, which is a must read for any basketball fan. Reading makes it clear how Maravich was unappreciated in his own time, forced to deal with a series of old-school coaches with outdated mindsets and jealous teammates with self-serving agendas. Somehow the most unguardable college basketball player ever was left off the 1968 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team. Originally headed for a more traditional basketball program at the University of West Virginia, Pete was essentially forced to attend LSU instead when his father was hired as head coach. The long-neglected program was built on his back, putting an unfair burden on the slender guard’s shoulders night after night. He was triple-teamed and beaten up. In what became a common theme throughout his career, other players were resentful of the attention that he received. His teammates were not at his level; too often a perfect yet unorthodox pass would glance off their hands or some other bruised body part. His opponents, especially the ones on superior teams, were quick to dismiss him as all style but no substance. In the pros, his black teammates resented the money and attention he received and often froze him out both on and off the court. He was called selfish even after averaging over 6 assists per game and enabling teammate Lou Hudson to edge him out for the team lead in scoring. If he picked up the check at dinner he was called a showoff; if he didn’t he was called a cheapskate. For long stretches, Pistol Pete seemed to gain no joy from the skills he had mastered and the game he has devoted his life to. He had multiple bouts with alcoholism and depression, and his knees eventually betrayed him.
He was unfortunate enough to play for two of the most mis-managed teams in NBA history. The Hawks managed to screw up their team before Maravich even stepped on the court his rookie year, allowing the team’s best veteran player, Joe Caldwell, to sign with an ABA team. The Hawks then blew the #5 pick in 1971 and the #9 and #10 pick in 1973.
Enter the expansion New Orleans Jazz, who overpaid for Maravich by including their 1st round pick the very next year in the trade, despite knowing that as an expansion team they would be losing a lot of games with or without Pistol Pete. Sure enough, that pick turned out to be the #1 selection, costing the Jazz the opportunity to pair Maravich with generational talent David Thompson. They then later overpaid again with even more draft picks for aging and oft-injured guard Gail Goodrich; when Maravich severely injured his knee and Goodrich underperformed, one of those picks became #1 in 1979 and the Jazz had to sit by and watch the Lakers select Magic Johnson.
In today’s world, Pistol Pete would be a social media sensation. His style would be emulated. His long range shooting prowess would be fawned over. His ability to run the fast break would be optimized. His team would become a free agent destination as other stars would want to be on the receiving end of those passes and would know that Pete’s drawing multiple defenders would get them open shots. Modern medicine would have fixed his knees and extended his playing career, and he would have access to mental health specialists for any dark moments where he needed help. He wouldn’t be counted on as the one attraction keeping his team financially afloat, or have to deal with his teammates or himself being traded because their team had concerns about making payroll. The modern NBA and the global exposure possible in a digital world would have been ideal in many ways for a player like Pistol Pete.
Amidst all of his trials and tribulations were brief moments and sometimes even extended periods where the brilliance shone through and could not be ignored:
– Leading the league in scoring in 76-77 by racking up 31.4 ppg, 5 more than anyone else.
– A 68-point performance at Madison Square Garden against a Knicks team with multiple HOFers and stalwart defenders, which actually would have been in the mid-70s if not for some questionable officiating – there were multiple incorrect offensive foul calls that resulted in Maravich fouling out with a couple minutes left ass well as negating made baskets.
– Two all-NBA 1st team selections and two all-NBA 2nd team selections
But in the end, it turned out that Pistol Pete Maravich’s most amazing accomplishment was that he played basketball at all. Upon his death, an autopsy revealed that he had a rare congenital heart condition; he was born without a left artery complex, one of the two complex systems that typically nourishes the heart muscle. His right artery complex was twice the size from 40 years of doing double the work. It’s generally unheard of for people in this condition to live past age 20 and exceedingly difficult for them to engage in any strenuous physical activity. It’s miraculous that he even survived his college basketball career, much less that he scored more points than any player before or after. To then have played ten more years in the NBA at a level high enough to be named on of the 75 greatest players in league history is incomprehensible. While every day he gains a new fan who comes across clips on YouTube that highlight his shooting, passing, and ball-handling, it’s his life and his passion for the sport of basketball which should be appreciated most.