Ahh, "Pistol" Pete Maravich. One of the great conundrums of modern basketball. He was one of the most disciplined ever when it came to mastering drills. He was one of the most unbelievable "hot dogs" of all time. He loved the game. He hated the game. He was all about winning, but could never win the big one. Foreshadowing a whole mess of players to follow, he was the guy with the enormous contract who--owing to some personal demons, or something--didn't actually deliver the team success. He was one of the best things ever to happen to basketball, or possibly one of the worst, depending on who you ask and when you ask them. He was the Great White Hope, and a miserable drunk.
And, more than anything, he is a tragedy, felled by a congential heart defect at age 40, when he seemed to have finally found some measure of happiness in his life.
His story has been told a million times. (I even took a crack at it for a magazine some years ago, which you can read after the jump.) Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill, however, got the up close and personal family story from his widow Jackie. The result is the exhaustive 400-plus page (complete with an appendix) account of the life of a complicated man. It's called Maravich.
Here's a Maravich tale, from the summer of 1968, when Maravich--who had just failed to make the Olympic team--was working the legendary Campbell College Basketball School in Buies Creek, North Carolina. The camp has featured the likes of John Wooden, Pete's dad and coach Press Maravich, Bobby Cremins, Lefty Driesell, and countless others (as well as Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Nate Archibald, and Bobby Hurley). It starts with Pete Maravich getting a taxi to a tavern, where he gets in trouble with a local for talking to the wrong girl:
He shot out of the booth and pushed through the crowd, hoping that once he got through the back door exit, he could lie in wait and hit the man with a surprise punch. "I was really going to get this guy when he came out," Pete said. "But he never came." Thinking his tormentor had been talked out of the confrontation, Pete headed towards a dimly lit telephone booth to call a taxi. But as he crossed the parking lot, the man exited the bar, screaming obscenities.
Pete turned and started walking towards the man. But he never saw the man's accomplice who slammed Pete in the back of the head with a blackjack. The blow knocked him to the ground and drew blood. Pete struggled to his feet, screaming wildly at his two assailants, but it was no contest. They beat him to the ground and pounded his head repeatedly with the blackjack.
With blood streaming down Pete's face, a woman emerged from the dark and knelt beside Pete. She smiled. Pete recognized her; it was the woman from the bar. As Pete lay there, she removed a .25 caliber pistol from her purse and put the barrel into Pete's mouth. Then she cocked the trigger.
"You're a dead man, 'Pistol Pete,'" she whispered. "How about that?"
Pete's reaction must have surprised her. He didn't beg or plead for his life. "I began thinking of al the junk in my life and how one pull of the trigger could make it all go away," he recalled. "I would suffer no more disappointments. I wouldn't have to try for the championship ring. I thought I would finally have peace if she would just pull the trigger."
Of course, she didn't.
And it makes me think a ton of thoughts, from what an incredibly unhappy guy he must have been to, you know, what happened with Stephen Jackson (or Paul Pierce years ago, or Tony Allen, or a million others with names we don't know) wasn't a new story. It was an old story told a slightly different way.
My G-rated version of the Pistol Pete story, from HOOP, follows.The Patron Saint of Flash
Wherever “Pistol” Pete Maravich played, people ridiculed him, and called him a “Hot Dog.” Then they bought season tickets.
By Henry Abbott
Raised Christian, Press and Helen Maravich were in the habit of taking their family to church every Sunday. It wasn’t easy though. The kids clearly didn’t want to be there, especially little Pete. It was all they could do to keep him in the pew throughout the service.
Pete was so wound up about basketball (and winning a college scholarship to impress his cash-strapped college coach dad) that he couldn’t stand the thought of putting down the ball for a even a few hours to hear about God, while some player somewhere was practicing the whole time trying to beat Pete out for that free ride to college.
Plenty of people practice basketball hard. But young Pete, a skinny, awkward, unpopular coach’s son from a tumultuous home, declared at a very early age that basketball was to be his personal salvation. He wasn’t so interested in school, or girls, or God. He only knew the big round ball he kept in his bed with him at night. Maximizing his ability was all that mattered.
So he practiced like a maniac. Anything that you could get good at by practicing alone in a gym, Maravich mastered from an early age. His father developed a series of unusual drills, which Maravich helped demonstrate to crowds (including the occasional half-court hook shot) in clinics all over the country.
To perfect his ball handling in all conditions, he blindfolded himself and dribbled in the living room. He snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to see what it was like to dribble in the mud of a thunderstorm. He went to movies alone, sat on the aisle, and dribbled with one hand from the opening titles right through to the closing credits. A lot of kids dribbled to school—he dribbled to school on his bike.
Maravich starred on the high school team starting when he was just a tiny eighth grader. (That’s when they started calling him “The Pistol.”) The second he joined the Louisiana State varsity team at the beginning of his sophomore year, he began a series of three consecutive years averaging well over 40 points a game. His record of 3667 points in three years for a 44.2 college career average might never be broken. It has been decades since anyone even averaged 40 points for a single season in the NCAA.
As a pro, he made the top ten all-time lists in scoring average, points in one game, and free throws made, despite playing just nine seasons. He made the top 25 in all-time career points. He also brought his trademark floppy hair and floppy socks to Madison Square Garden one cold February night in 1977, and torched the Knicks for 68. (Seven years earlier, in a college game, he had scored 69 points by taking an unreal 57 shots.)
Performances like that earned him a reputation as a flashy player. But he wasn’t just flashy. He was an evangelist of flash. He was a pioneer of gunning, and the high priest of razzle-dazzle. He released a series of basketball skills videos designed for little kids that teach the kinds of moves that still occasionally get players like Jason Williams benched for being too showy.
But to Maravich, crowd-pleasing was no joke. At an early age, his father taught him that it was a serious part of the game worth perfecting, and it became an important skill in college. He and his father arrived at LSU together as father-coach and son-player on a mission to make basketball popular on a campus and in a city that had been lost in football fever. Pete’s showmanship was the key to making it happen.
Making things more serious was the fact that Coach Maravich had just barely been able to support the family as a basketball coach. Filling the stands night in and night out would make Press a hot coaching commodity—and help ensure income for the Maravich house for years to come.
Before the Pistol, the world of basketball—especially white basketball, which the SEC most definitely was in those days—thought that good players, those who worked hard, got in great shape, and truly understood the game, were never showboats. At a time when hardly anyone well known (except Bob Cousy) ever attempted a behind-the-back pass, Pistol practiced hundreds of them every day. In his senior year, they made him player of the year for skills like that.
Maravich’s game was slippery, crafty, and showy. He twisted, arced, faked, and tricked. But mostly he shot the ball. All the time, from everywhere. He took tough shots, impossible shots, and he made way more than his fair share.
Highlights of his career are legendary, and are still passed among players at every level—including in the NBA. Watch them and you’ll notice that in almost all of them, Maravich has the ball, working his way deftly through a series of feints and maneuvers.
He practiced tricky passes like behind-the-neck passes, but wasn’t exactly religious about passing when double-teamed. Look closely and you’ll see that in more than one Maravich clip, a teammate stands wide open under the basket, screaming for the ball.
Inevitably—these are Pistol Pete highlights, after all—Maravich ends up shooting himself. He plants his feet, rises up and lofts the ball high, with a beautiful release, over the outstretched fingers of the double-team. In they go, jumper after jumper. The man is a scoring machine. Again and again they fall. The forgotten teammate under the basket? Like everyone else, all he can say is “wow.”
The Pistol set all kinds of records, but more than anything, he sold tickets. People saw him play once and fell in love with the game forever. The ability to draw crowds made him especially valuable as a pro. His first NBA contract, with the Atlanta Hawks, was then the largest contract ever in pro sports.
When Atlanta played on the road in Philadelphia, Philly fans kicked off a tradition of Maravich-baiting that would last throughout his career. They hung an enormous banner that asked “Why does a hot dog cost 15 cents in Philadelphia and two million dollars in Atlanta?” They only proved him right, though: Love him or hate him, they always showed up in huge numbers to see him play.
No team values the ability to “put butts in the seats” more than an expansion team, so the group that founded the New Orleans Jazz in 1974 practically traded a whole team to bring Maravich back to Louisiana as the first Jazz player ever. Six of their highest picks—two in the first round, two in the second round, and the second and third picks in the expansion draft—went to Atlanta. This made Maravich king of an expansion team, which was condemned to mediocrity by the very trade that brought him.
Maravich was always passionate about winning. When he broke the all-time college scoring record, the game stopped, and his LSU teammates hoisted him on their shoulders. Rather than parading before the crowd, he looked embarrassed at all the hoopla, and begged repeatedly to be put down. When a reporter asked him what it felt like to break the record, Maravich was dismissive, saying that the game wasn’t over, and he was focused on trying to win it.
Winning wasn’t always in the cards, though. The father-and-son LSU teams were strong, but never won a championship. They came close to an NIT title in Maravich’s senior year. Maravich confesses in his autobiography that after pulling off a strong win over Oklahoma, he stayed up too late and drank too much. Hung over and exhausted, he struggled mightily in the semifinals against heavily favored Marquette—ending his college days with one of his weakest games.
In the pros, he still couldn’t find a way to consistently win games. He made the playoffs three times with Atlanta, but never went far. In nearly six seasons with the Jazz, Maravich’s teams never even won 40 games in a season.
The early Jazz did start to show promise in the 1977-78 season. They rattled off eight strong wins in a row, and seemed to have finally shaken the expansion curse. Then, in what might have been the ninth victory in the string, Maravich leapt high in the air to send a between-the-leg pass halfway down the court to a fast-breaking teammate. The Jazz got the two points, but lost Maravich, who collapsed to the court with severe ligament damage in his knee. He was leading the league in scoring, and was top ten in assists, steals, and free-throw percentage at the time. The streak was swiftly forgotten with a string of losses, as Maravich looked on, too injured to play. He never regained his peak form after that injury.
In the twilight of his career, Pistol finally got a chance to earn the one jewel missing from his basketball crown: a championship. Shortly after the Jazz moved to Utah, he moved to the green pastures of the Boston Celtics, where the Larry Bird era was dawning. He played a few games and saw playoff action at the end of the 1979-80 season.
In training camp the following fall, it was clear that the Celtics, with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Nate Archibald, and Robert Parish were unbelievably talented. Maravich knew this was the team that could win him a ring. But the aging Pistol also knew he couldn’t stand to watch it all happen without being a major player. Before the season started, he announced his retirement, preferring to watch the Celtics march to the 1981 title from his living room, rather than the bench.
A remarkable career behind him, Maravich seemed to realize that all the money, the adulation, and the honors that stretched from the eighth grade to the Hall of Fame did all kinds of things for him, but they did not make him happy. Complicating matters, he was forced to deal with his mother’s alcoholism-induced suicide, followed by his father’s passing away after a painful battle with cancer.
Deprived of his parents, including his father and hero, he learned the hard way that his conviction that basketball alone could not guarantee happiness. His autobiography, Heir to a Dream, describes a life as a troubled loner who had a hard time making close friends on or off the court. (In hundreds of pages outlining his basketball-playing days, he hardly ever mentions any of his teammates.)
Looking for answers, he tried a number of things including survivalism, “UFOlogy,” astrology, mysticism, and alcohol. In late 1982, he returned to the very institution that he had fled so eagerly every Sunday as a child—and became a born-again Christian.
He ran basketball camps, made videos, spoke at every kind of seminar and gathering imaginable, and seemed happy. His often sheepish face beams brightly in the photographs from this period, when he also became the youngest player ever inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Then, on the morning of January 5, 1988, shortly after telling friends that he felt great, he collapsed to the floor during a game of pickup basketball, shocking onlookers. He was declared dead shortly thereafter. He was just 40 years old, and left behind his wife Jackie, his sons Joshua and Jaeson, and a legacy as one of the most skilled offensive players ever to play the game.
His name will far outlive him, in part because his theory of basketball has been proven right. It was his idea and his father’s idea that the best basketball, even championship basketball, need not be unimaginative, restrained, or strict. With the right preparation and hard work, winning basketball can be fun, instinctive, and creative.