Unbeaten

Relive Pete Maravich's record-setting night from 45 years ago that still holds today, as told by Wayne Federman.
by January 31, 2015
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Forty-five years ago, on Saturday, January 31, 1970, Pete Maravich surpassed Oscar Robertson to become the most prolific scorer in men’s college basketball history. Since that time, thousands of DI basketball players have taken a shot at surpassing Maravich’s mark—all have fallen short.

Of the many NCAA scoring records that “Pistol” Pete Maravich still holds today, it is his career average of 44.2 points per game that is most astonishing. Imagine a player scoring 40 points in a game and hurting his scoring average.

The next highest career average is Austin Carr who averaged 34.6 points per game while playing at Notre Dame.

“In the history of college basketball there have been other marvelously talented players—Wilt, Russ, Elgin, Big O, West, Bird,” wrote S.I.’s Curry Kirkpatrick. “But at the top of his game, when he was smoking out another outrageous 50-point night, absolutely nobody, no time, nowhere approached Maravich.”

Let’s revisit that historic night in Baton Rogue.

The record Pete was gunning for was Oscar Robertson’s 2,973 total points scored while playing for University of Cincinnati from 1958-1960 (33.8 per game). Pete stood 40 points shy of the record but the LSU’s Ag Center (aka The Cow Palace) was over-capacity and buzzing with anticipation because Pete was averaging a head-spinning 46.3 points going into the game.

So, an average game for Pistol Pete would yield a new scoring champion.

“Sitting and standing, they were jammed into LSU’s Cajun Cow Palace, 11,000 of ’em, with a feeling of membership in an exclusive club,” reported Peter Finney in The Sporting News. “A feeling shared by folks who watched Roger Maris hit his 61st home run, Bobby Jones hole out for his 1930 grand slam, and Roger Bannister break the four-minute barrier in the mile.”

The LSU Tigers came out on a mission, they surged to a healthy 53-40 lead behind Pete’s 25 first-half points. As LSU headed to the locker room, Pete looked confident—needing just 15 more points to break the record.

In the second half, Maravich came out serious and determined. He raced down the court and converted a driving layup for his 27th point but his momentum caused him to crash into the padded post under the backboard. The impact stunned him and the overflow crowd went still. After several seconds on the floor, Pete shook off the cobwebs and continued his pursuit of Robertson’s mark.

With 7:58 left in the contest, Pete banked in a 25-footer from the left side over the Rebels 2-3 zone, giving him his 39th point and tying the great Robertson. Maravich mistakenly believed the bank shot gave him the scoring title.

“I thought I broke it on the basket that tied it,” Pete later confessed to a reporter. “But then I heard the roar of the crowd start up again.”

The moment had arrived. A slew of photographers lined the Ag Center’s baseline, news cameras churned, and the delirious crowd stood and cheered.

But then Pete Maravich, the skinny, floppy-socked, shaggy-haired, basketball magician, went cold.

A 23-footer clanked off the front of the rim. Then a 20-footer from the right side hit the back of the iron and bounced over the backboard. With each missed shot the anxiety in the arena ratcheted up creating an unbearable tightness.

“I was only one shot away, but the next three minutes seemed like forever,” Pete recalled in his autobiography.

“One more…one more…one more…” the crowd chanted hoping to will the basketball prodigy into the record books.

Finally, with just under five minutes remaining, Pete’s college roommate, Jeff Tribbett, dribbled to the top of the key and passed off to Bob Lang, just a few feet to his left. Lang zipped the ball across the lane to Pete who found a soft spot in Mississippi’s zone. Pete caught the pass, gathered, jumped, and snapped his right wrist. Catch and shoot. The ball traveled 17 feet and gently swished through the cotton net.

That was it.

The arena went bananas. “Have you ever heard such an ovation in all your life?” University of Mississippi radio announcer Stan Torgerson exclaimed. “This crowd is wild!”

The game was delayed as Pete was paraded around the floor, interviewed, and presented with the history-making ball.

An AP wire photographer captured a tender moment during the deafening celebration. In the photo, Pete, on his teammates’ shoulders, is embarrassingly smiling at the throng of well-wishers. His father and coach, Press, is visible off to the side, proudly observing his son’s triumph.

The photo of father and son was later chosen by Pete to grace the cover of his 1987 autobiography, Heir to A Dream.

After order was restored, the game resumed and a relieved Maravich poured in 12 of the Tiger’s final 13 points as LSU downed Ole Miss, 109-86. Maravich’s line: 53 points (21-46, 9-11), 5 rebounds, and 12 assists.

Jackie Elliser, Pete’s college sweetheart and future wife, quietly watched the post-game frenzy. When she and Pete were finally alone he gave her the historic game ball. On the basketball he wrote:

To Jackie, the greatest girl in the whole world. I love you, Pistol Pete.

The news sparked another wave of publicity that further elevated the legend of Pistol Pete. Time Magazine, Newsweek, and a cover story in The Sporting News all chronicled the new scoring king. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson offered to fly him to New York for a taping.

Then, just when the buzz was starting to subside, a congratulatory letter arrived from the leader of the free world.

Dear Pete:

 

You can take great pride in your recent efforts which have established you as the leading scorer in major college basketball history. I just want you to know that the Nixons are among your fans saluting this success. Congratulations!

 

With best wishes,
Sincerely,
Richard Nixon

“Somebody will break it. Some young kid will come along and score the points,” predicted Press Maravich at the time. “But Pete’s name will be in the record books for the next 30-to-40 years.”

Now 45 years later, not one player has come close. In fact, the gap is widening.

As a point of modern comparison, recent college hotshots Stephen Curry, Jimmy Fredette, and Doug McDermott all led the NCAA in scoring. None averaged even 29 points per game for a season.

Will Pete’s scoring records ever be broken? It’s certainly possible, especially with the addition of the three-point shot. But, most likely, any player with that kind of scoring ability would probably leave college for the NBA.

Since the three-point line was adopted in the fall of 1986, there has been lots of speculation as to what Pete’s average would have been had he played with that distinct scoring advantage (estimates range from 48 to 57 points per game). Of course, no one knows for sure, but the imagination goes into over-drive.

Pete continued his scoring exploits in the NBA. He even led the NBA in scoring (31.1) over the 1976-77 season. If fact, he’s the last person to hold both an NBA and NCAA scoring title.

In a sad coincidence that sums up the star-crossed journey of Pete’s pro career, exactly eight years to the day after becoming college basketball’s greatest scorer, Pete suffered a devastating knee injury during an NBA game. He landed awkwardly after throwing a spectacular 40-foot, through-the-legs assist to teammate Aaron James. It was Pete’s 15th assist of the night. He was never the same player after January 31, 1978.

Although Pete’s average of 44.2 per game continues to cast a deepening shadow over generations of college sharpshooters—what really separated The Pistol was his mind-blowing arsenal of dribbling and passing skills. He was an artist and audacious entertainer who used the game of basketball to express himself and, nearly a half-century later, we still celebrate his dazzling achievements.

Wayne Federman co-authored the authorized biography of Pete Maravich, MARAVICH, with Marshall Terrill and Jackie Maravich. Wayne appeared on Sports Century: Pete Maravich and in the CBS documentary, Pistol Pete: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich—where he also served as senior consultant. He is a two-time WGA Award nominee who has written for Seth Rogen, Key and Peele, Kevin Nealon, Sarah Silverman, The Muppets, The Harlem Globetrotters, and was the head monologue writer for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Wayne has also appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm, New Girl, The Larry Sanders Show, The Tonight Show, The X-Files, and in the films Legally Blonde, Step Brothers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up. He can currently be seen telling Kenny Rogers, “I get the gist,” in a GEICO commercial.