Original Old School: Forever Showtime
“Pistol” Pete Maravich, the original Magic Man.
A little less than two years ago Mark Kriegel penned Pistol: The Life Of Pete Maravich. The book revived talk about Pete, letting people in on the secrets of one of basketball’s forgotten greats. From his ill handle to his floppy socks, SLAM tried filling you in 13 years ago. In case you missed it, here’s the story which first appeared in SLAM 5.—Tzvi Twersky
by Phil Berger
In the mind’s eye, he is gliding down-court on the fast break with those familiar loping strides, the ball yo-yoing from his fingertips, his shaggy hair flying up. There is no sense of urgency. The man is pokerfaced and in command. The dark haunting eyes take in the traffic. The moment belongs to Peter Press Maravich, who makes the play the way only he can.
With an NBA defender crouched before him, ready to spring right or left, Maravich chooses to give the moment a flourish. In the blink of an eye, he lets his dribble hang as he waves his hand sideways through the air, a phantom swipe at the ball that is a prelude to the real thing—a dead-on lookaway pass that he throws with the same flickering hand motion on the very next beat, leaving the stun-gunned defender dead in his shoes and Maravich’s teammate floating in for the easy lay up.
It is done with Buster Keaton deadpan and executed so seamlessly—fake pass, real pass—that it leaves a hard-core hoops witness charged with the pleasure of the game’s possibilities. And that, friend, is what made Pistol Pete Maravich a special case. A very special case.
Oh, yeah. He had the stats. But as a skinny 6-5 guard, Pistol Pete was never merely about p-p-g, even though for three seasons (from 1967 to 1969) he averaged 44.2 ppg at LSU in Baton Rouge—3667 career points that made him the greatest scorer in major college history—and then went on to average 24.2 ppg in 10 NBA seasons with the Hawks, Jazz, and Celtics, including a league-leading mark of 31.1 ppg in 1976-77.
It was not scoring, though, that was Hall-of-Famer Maravich’s legacy. He was a man who brought excitement to the arena through the plays he made—passes through the legs, behind the back, around his neck. At a time when the game was far more staid than it is these days, this white guys could spin left or right with his dribble, go behind his back, through his legs, cross it over…do combination maneuvers—one from column A, one from column B—with a looseness and intricacy that made the Globetrotter look uptight and buttoned-up.
Pistol could step to the right and throw a bounce pass in that direction that would, with properly applied spin and cocked wrist, end up in the hands of a teammate racing down the left side of the floor.
Driving right against Mike Riordan, the tenacious Knick, he once flipped the ball behind his back, caught it in the lane and then, resisting gravity as he drifted left, twisted his body back to the right and scooped the ball underhanded with his right hand into the basket.
Amazing stuff, executed with a flair all his own. At a time of changing attitudes and cultural polarization—these were the late Sixties of Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath and the Vietnam War—Maravich was another of the elite free spirits in sport, doing his own thing.
“You’d have to say that Pete brought razzle-dazzle, partytime, showtime to the game,” said Pat Williams, present GM of the Orlando Magic, who was GM of Maravich’s Atlanta Hawks for part of the Pistol’s stint there. “Twenty five years ago, he was what Shaq is now.”
At LSU, Pistol discarded the team’s white-and-black trimmed socks and donned an old pair of faded grays that he was fond of. Those socks were so worn that they drooped to his ankles as soon as he swirled into motion. They became a trademark of his while in college.
Even the basic jump shot was different when Pistol executed it. Often he looked off-balance or even ungainly in the air. His legs drifted in opposite directions or hung limply. They didn’t stay tucked together and there was no kick of the heels upon release. The ball would spin sideways because he shot off the side of his left hand.
“I’ve always shot that way,” he said. “I know the ball doesn’t spin right, but the most important thing for me is to be a two eyed shooter. You’ve go to have two eyes on the basket for depth perception. My release isn’t as high as Oscar’s [Robertson] or Jerry’s [West], so I put my left hand to the side to get it out of the way.”
Combine the jump shot with looping one-handers and big, sweeping hook shots from either side, and that was the rest of Maravich’s bag. The standard part at least. Try to catalog every shot he took and it’d take a lifetime.
“Maravich,” said Magic Johnson, “was unbelievable. I think he was, like, sort of ahead of his time in the things he did.”
“He could do things with a basketball I’ve never seen anybody do,” said Rick Barry.
“The best showman of all time?” said Isiah Thomas. “I’d probably have to say Pistol Pete.”
What impressed his peers, delighted the crowds—even those that might be inclined to deny him. Once when opposition fans heckled him during pre-game warm-ups, LSU’s Maravich seduced them by throwing behind-the-back passes into the stands to one heckler after another, all while smiling his boyish smile.
It was pure showtime—a celebration of his dazzle and the sheer joy of improvising that the hardy pioneers of the game had never dreamed of. It took considerable nerve at that point in the game’s evolution to throw fancy passes or use a slick dribble. Mess up and you looked the fool. But Maravich didn’t care. When he was on the court, the night belonged to him.
“It’s my style,” he said. “I do it for the benefit of the team, for the fans and for myself. I don’t throw a behind-the-back pass just to hot dog it. I throw it to meet a situation. I throw it to excite the crowd. I bet at least 90 per cent of the people want to see my show. You can’t tell me just 10 per cent want it. Like I say, if I have a choice whether to do the show or throw the straight pass, and we’re going to get the basket either way, I’m going to do the show.”
Showtime. It became part of the Maravich game his sophomore year on and made the LSU road company a giddy troupe. “I loved the away crowds,” LSU teammate Rich Hickman later said. “I’d almost prefer to play on the road than at home. There were only a few instances where you could actually call the crowds ‘vicious.’ Most times they wanted to see Pete shown up, and they’d cheer every mistake he made. But when Pete would get hot and start to put on that show of his, they would invariably jump on the bandwagon and be cheering us as much as for their own team. It was a great feeling.”
He came to play and played to please. Maravich loved nothing better than to dazzle a crowd. He did it against Georgia in LSU’s final game of the 1968-69 season. In the last seconds of a hard-fought double-overtime game, Maravich began dribbling around the court to kill the clock and preserve LSU’s 88-80 lead. Pistol darted in and out of traffic, putting the ball through his legs, behind his back, doing everything with it but shoot.
That he saved for last. With just a few seconds left, Pete dribbled toward the LSU bench with three Georgia players in pursuit. Hearing the countdown of the Georgia crowd he waited until just before the final buzzer to let fly a 30-foot hook. The ball, as Pete recalled later, “didn’t touch anything, just oxygen.”
And like Babe Ruth pointing his homer, Pete performed that shot with a flair. As Hickman remembered: “Even while the ball was in the air, Pete turned his back and started running off the court with hands up in the victory sign. Then the ball went in…swish…just like that. The fans loved it. They ran out onto the court and actually carried us off. And this was in Georgia.”
Later, more than a thousand Georgians waited outside the LSU locker room to see Maravich and get his autograph. And the Pistol was as excited by the shot as they were. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “They didn’t take any films of that game, but I don’t mind. When I’m 70 years old and telling my grandchildren about the shot, I imagine the distance will match my age.”
Pistol Pete Maravich did not materialize in a vacuum. Uh uh. The game was virtually breathed into him by his old man.
In Logstown, Pa., not far from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Pete’s father, Press, took to a sport that was completely alien to the immigrant Serbs who eked out their existence in steel mills like Kidd Drawn Steel, Vulcan Crucible Steel, Jones & Loughlin.
For the many Serbians who settled there in the 1920s, the mills were the only way to make a living and most of them expected their children to follow in their footsteps after graduating high school. Many did. But ones who didn’t had to find another way out.
For Press Maravich, it was basketball.
“We used to play ball on the street corner,” Press said. “Our hoop was any kind of box or basket that we could hook up on a pole. And the ball…what a concoction that was. We started with an empty can, then put a stone in it for weight. Next we stuffed and wrapped it in newspaper, and finally tied it all together with that black, electrical tape. Naturally, the ball didn’t have much bounce and that limited us. But we still played a hard, fast game. There was a lot of crisp passing and cutting, and quick, short shots. We played every night by the street light until the cops came and chased us away.”
As a high school student Press worked a night shift in the mill, but basketball would let him eventually put the steelworker’s mean existence behind him.
Press played basketball at Davis & Elkins College and, while matriculating at that West Virginia school, played under an assumed name for semi-pro teams. After graduating, he hooked up with Dutch Dehnert’s Detroit Eagles, touring the country and often playing as many as three games a day.
Then World War II broke out. Press joined the Navy and became a fighter pilot, flying hundreds of missions in the South Pacific.
After getting out of the Navy, he went back to the pro game. He played with the Youngstown Bears in the National Professional League in 1945-46 and the following year with the Pittsburgh Ironmen in the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of today’s NBA.
“The league towns were closer together then,” he said, “but we traveled in uncomfortable buses or on trains, through all kinds of bad winter weather. It was a challenging life. The players were much closer than they are today. No one had outside business interests that were as important as the game itself. Basketball was just starting to catch on with the public then and the men who player professionally were very dedicated to their sport, to traveling around and spreading the game.
“I remember playing in small towns like Oshkosh and Sheboygan. Sometimes the crowds were as big as three, four, or five thousand, but the arenas were something else. There was one place where the hoop was hooked directly over a stage. The kids sitting on the stage had these toy popguns that shot some kind of pellets. Every time one of our [plyers] drove to the hoop, [they’d] hit him in the face with pellets. And no one did anything about it.”
By the time his son Pete was born in June 1947, Press was coaching high school basketball back in Pennsylvania. He introduced him to the game while still an infant. Pete could barely walk and Press was already rolling a rubber ball to him along the floor of their Aliquippa home. That same rubber ball became a regulation basketball when Pete was about three—barely big enough to keep from being knocked down like a bowling pin by the ball.
By the time Pete was in grade-school, Press was the head coach at Clemson. He would take the boy into the locker room whenever his squads played. The sights and sounds of the game became ingrained in Pete. He watched the players dress, heard their talk and was privy to both the good and the bad times.
When Pete was about nine, Press began challenging him to games of “horse” at their backyard hoop. They were quite a sight—the crew cut, leathery-faced father and the thin, wide-eyed youngster, throwing shots, grinning, teasing, hollering.
To keep the boy’s interest up, Press devised drills for him that sometimes came to the coach in his sleep. “When that happened, I’d just write the idea down, show it to Pete the next day, and we’d give it a name,” said Press.
The “pretzel” was a hand-reaction drill. Pete placed his left hand behind his left leg and his right hand in front of and between his legs, leaning as he did. He’d hold the ball with his right hand; the object being to change hands with the ball, moving his hands in a figure-eight fashion around his legs. The trick was to keep the ball stationary, in front of his body and between his legs. He could do this faster than the eye could see.
For the “ricochet” Pete stood with his feet shoulder-width apart. He took the ball with both hands and threw it between his legs at a 45-degree angle, catching it behind his back. Then he threw it from back to front the same way, going back and forth continually.
In the variation called the “bullet ricochet,” he slammed the ball as hard as he could from way above his head and tried to catch it behind him. “You really can’t see my hands move on this one,” he once said,” they’re going so fast. People have sat there and said, honestly, truthfully, that they had no visions of my hand moving. They were a blur. It is that terrific WHAM when I bring the ball down that makes the whole thing so fast. This is a very dangerous drill, actually. I don’t think I have to elaborate on how much it hurts if you catch yourself in the crotch off the bounce. I knew one kid who did the bullet ricochet once and ended up in the hospital.”
In another drill, Pete would throw the ball up in the air and catch it behind his back, often jamming his fingers when he failed. He would start with throws of five and six feet and work up to 25 and 30 feet. In later years he’d see how many times he could slap his knees before getting his hands back to catch the ball. The object was to whip his hands behind him only after the ball had disappeared behind his head.
These—and other drills—built Pete’s skill with the ball and imbued him with the confidence to be as wild and woolly as he could on the court. His life was basketball, basketball, basketball. He’d go to sleep with the basketball, wake up and dribble it blindfolded about the house before his parents or siblings awakened. He’d dribble the ball while riding his bicycle and, sometimes, from the passenger seat of the family car Press was driving.
When he wasn’t playing with the boys his own age, he was hanging out at Clemson, challenging varsity players to games of “horse” and “around-the-world” for movie money.
To Pete the movie house was just another place to practice. He’d dribble his ball to the show, find an isle seat, and continue bouncing the ball as he watched the film.
“The theaters,” he said, “had thick carpeting in all the isles and I bounced the ball real low, so it wouldn’t bother anyone. There were mostly old men and women, and a lot of kids there. The old men and women were watching the film for the tenth time and the kids were all busy talking, so no one ever complained about me.”
He became a prodigy of the game. As a 5-2, 90 lb. eight-grader, he made the varsity and became a starter at Daniel High in South Carolina, overcoming the resistance of skeptics to his size. From there it was onward and upward—to that storied collegiate career at LSU, where he was coached by Press…and then on to the NBA.
Along the way there would be critics lurking around every corner. In the beginning, there were the hide-bound purists, who yearned for the verities of the two-handed set shot and the basic chest pass and failed to see that the basketball world was passing them by.
Later, there were the folks who said he wasn’t a team player and who took his club’s so-so records as proof of his inadequacy. Whatever. It wasn’t always pretty.
His big-money contract as an NBA rookie—a reported $400,000 a year—left veteran Hawks who were making a fraction of that cool to him when he showed up in Atlanta.
“At that time,” said Pat Williams, “pro ball was new in Atlanta and in the south. Pete was there to ignite interest. It was a good club he joined. A very successful team [The previous season in 1969-70, the Hawks had won the Western Division title]. Pete was thrust into that mix, and there was resentment. A lot of ‘Here comes the great white hope.’ I’m sure it scarred him.”
So it seemed. In his autobiography, Heir To A Dream, Maravich harkens back to that moment he was traded in 1974 to the New Orleans Jazz, after four seasons in Atlanta, saying: “When I left Georgia I couldn’t help think of the people who had stabbed me in the back. But today I can look back and see that because of my own personal instability and rebellious nature, I was no doubt my own worst enemy.”
Williams’ “take” on the Maravich he came to know in Atlanta was that the player was a troubled man.
“He was very insecure despite all the fame,” said Williams. “He was seeking solace in alcohol—Pete said as much—and all the pleasures life had to offer, and finding nothing in it. He was a tormented man. So much acclaim. So much fame. But inwardly he was a frightened scared guy.”
As Maravich would put it year later: “Basketball had always been my provider, but it wasn’t providing me happiness.”
He retired after the 1979-80 season…and not long after, while lying in bed next to his wife, Jackie, heard a voice say, “Be strong. Lift thine own heart.”
Religion would fill his life, as basketball once did.
“He became a Christian,” said Williams, “and made a commitment to Jesus Christ. And with the same force of personality he brought to the basketball court, [Pete] became an evangelist, who shared his faith fearlessly. I heard him speak on a number of occasions. He was an outstanding communicator.”
In January 5, 1988, while in Pasadena, California, Maravich was playing a half-court pick-up game at the First Church of the Nazarene when he collapsed and died.
An autopsy determined that the 40-year-old Maravich had been born without the most important artery system that supplies the heart with blood. People normally have two systems. Pistol only had one. Medical experts afterward said that this rare condition usually precludes strenuous activity, and those born with it rarely live past 20.
“But for a guy to go 10 years in the NBA and have a congenital anomaly like that is, to say the least, very unusual,” Dr. Paul Thompson, a sudden death expert, told newsmen later. “How could a guy like that run up and down the court for 20 years?”
How? Peter Press Maravich was not your average guy. He was The Pistol. One of a kind.