A Miracle Heart
Twenty-five years after his untimely death, “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s career still remains a wonder.
by Wayne Federman / @Federman
Twenty-five years ago, on the morning of January 5, 1988, Pete Maravich was casually competing in a friendly game of half-court basketball in a church gymnasium in Pasadena, CA. It would be his last moments on earth.
After playing several games at half-speed, Pete’s heart gave out. He collapsed and never regained consciousness. He was just 40 years old. That evening all three major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) featured stories about his incredible life and unexpected death during their news broadcasts. It just didn’t seem possible…Pistol Pete? Dead of a heart attack?
Seven days later when Pete’s autopsy became public, it provided a stunning revelation that recast Pete’s entire career. The coroner explained that Pete had lived his entire life with a severely defective heart. He was born without a left coronary artery. It was an ultra-rare condition that causes death in early childhood with only a small percentage of victims surviving past their teens.
Pete Maravich should never have been cleared to play organized sports in high school, let alone compete in the NBA.
It seemed nothing could keep Pete from playing basketball.
The Pete Maravich who collapsed in Pasadena was a humble and religious family man. Jesus Christ had come into his life five years earlier and transformed him. His burning dream of basketball glory, inherited from his father, was replaced with a totally new purpose. He now lived to be a good father and husband, read scripture, and share his testimony.
This quiet, grateful and content version of Pete Maravich stood in stark contrast to the young man who first burst into the nation’s sports consciousness in the fall of 1967. Back then basketball was Pete’s religion and he played the game like a man possessed.
If you’re not familiar with Pete Maravich, what you are about to read will seem absurd and cartoonish. In just 83 varsity basketball games at Louisiana State University (freshman were ineligible to play on the varsity until 1972) Pete scored 3,677 points. Again, 83 games, 3,667 points. That works out to an average of 44.2 points per game. No one who has ever played DI basketball has come close to a 44-point average over their college career. Not Wilt Chamberlain, not Larry Bird, not Michael Jordan. Held since 1970, it remains one of sports “unbreakable” records.
And there’s one more detail worth noting when writing about Pete’s scoring: he played before the NCAA instituted the three-point shot. Of course no one can say with certainty what Pete’s scoring average would have been (estimates range from 48 to 57 points per game) but it’s fair to say that all the college hotshots since 1986 have had a distinct advantage.
To illustrate the magnitude of Pete’s achievement, in 2011, BYU’s Jimmer Fredette led the nation in scoring with a 28.9 average.
Even though Pete scored more total points in three seasons of college basketball than anyone else has scored in four, it wasn’t just his spectacular scoring ability that made him so compelling to watch. He could also dribble and pass with mind-blowing precision and creativity.
During his childhood, with his father’s input, Pete developed a staggeringly complex and innovative basketball skill-set. In fact, acquiring those skills was his childhood. He would methodically and obsessively run exacting drills for hours on end, often alone in a gym, so that they would be second-nature when called for during an actual game.
Pete had a real talent for practice and repetition. He once explained his dedication to preparation, “You don’t get here by wishing it.”
Pete was also a born showman. On the court, he dripped charisma. He would effortlessly add subtle grace notes to each audacious shot or magical no-look pass. He loved bringing the crowd to their feet—it’s how he expressed himself. He was like a skinny white Globetrotter competing in a real game. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. It was other-worldy—a glimpse into the future of basketball.
Oh, and he had that sweet nickname: Pistol Pete.
Pete’s LSU teams sold out arenas from coast-to-coast as rabid fans flocked to get an up-close look at this sad-eyed, fearless, basketball magician who racked up points like no one before. Women screamed when he jogged out for the lay-up line and often stormed the court to try and rip out locks of his thick mop-top hair. Kids across the country began wearing his trademark floppy gray socks.
There were Maravich figurines, photo books, songs, magazine stories, posters…no college hoopster had ever experienced anything like it. It was Beatlemania on a basketball court.
After Pete’s record-setting years at LSU, it was time to take his act to the big time: professional basketball.
At the time two basketball leagues, the NBA and its upstart rival, the ABA, were desperate to sign-up Maravich and his dazzling bag-of-tricks. A fierce bidding war erupted and, when the smoke cleared, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks emerged victorious, signing him to the largest contact in the history of professional basketball. Just another record for Pete Maravich.
Unfortunately the outlandish dollar amount of his contract caused deep resentment and jealousy with many players in the League. The lucrative contract kicked off a period of great turmoil and unhappiness for Pete. His unique, creative, wondrous style was not embraced by many sportswriters, coaches and teammates. They thought it was needless showboating.
Plus Pete’s LSU reputation as a careless, shot-happy gunner hung on him like a heavy blanket. He tried everything to transcend his reputation but it was a battle he couldn’t seem to win.
Eventually, the unthinkable happened to Pete Maravich: He began to dislike basketball. It was almost Shakespearean: the very activity he had fervently dedicated his life to—now tortured him.
You could see it on his face and soon his body reacted. He came down with severe mononucleosis and later developed Bell’s palsy. He became increasingly moody and paranoid. He wanted out. He dreamed of winning just just one Championship to forever silence his critics…and then walking away.
Through it all Maravich had a special relationship with the fans. He was unshakeable in his belief that, in addition to trying to win every game, he had an obligation to entertain the crowd. After all, the people who came through the turnstiles were the reason pro basketball existed at all. They “paid the freight.” As a result, every city he visited had throngs of dedicated Pistol fans.
After four years, and three early Playoff exits, Atlanta management had enough of the Maravich show. He was traded to the expansion New Orleans Jazz for six players.
Playing in the massive Superdome, Pete slowly rediscovered some of his lost passion for the game. He had many spectacular nights, once dropping 68 points on the Knicks, and even leading the NBA in scoring. (He remains the last person to lead both the NCAA and NBA in scoring.) By his fourth season with the Jazz, Pete was playing inspired ball and steering the team to a Playoff berth. Then, it happened.
In the midst of a franchise-high 10-game winning streak, Pete suffered a devastating knee injury while throwing a half-court, between-the-legs pass during a blowout win over Buffalo. It was Pete’s 15th assist of the game. He was rolled off the court and was never the same after that night.
Pete courageously played on for two more seasons but it was obvious that he was damaged goods—both mentally and physically. There were still nights where he caught fire but Pete’s passion for the game had mostly been extinguished. He ended up as a reserve for the Boston Celtics and his final game was broadcast by CBS on April 27, 1980. He was offered a contract to play another year in Boston but he had had enough.
He walked away without ever winning a title. Right on cue, the Celtics went on to win the 1981 NBA Championship.
Pete’s exit from the NBA was inglorious and humiliating—the mirror image of his triumphant entrance. He became a cautionary tale of a player who cared too much about the game. And there was some truth to that.