A Miracle Heart

by January 05, 2013


Without basketball Pete became severely depressed. He likened it to being a heroin addict who has to quit cold turkey. He wondered what was the point of it all? All those hours, days, months and years of methodically practicing alone in a gymnasium. He became bitter, gave away his basketball memorabilia, and stockpiled gold Krugerrands, certain of an impending global financial crash. He was despondent and, in his darkest moments, suicidal.

Then, in late 1982, he found the answer to his searching: Christianity. It was through Christ he finally experienced peace, purpose and happiness. The remaining years of his life were spent in contentment. He started a Christian/vegetarian youth basketball camp and began to share his testimony.

At about the same time something else, quite unexpected, started to happen. The reputation and influence of Pete Maravich, the basketball player, was also reborn. It began in early 1984 and continues to this day.

In February 1984, the NBA premiered a new promotional tool called All-Star Weekend. Hoping to capitalize on the rising popularity of its brand, the League presented a slate of fan-friendly basketball exhibitions as bonus television programming the day before the All-Star game.

There was a dunk contest, a three-point competition, and an Old-Timers game. At age 36, Pete was asked to play in the Old-Timers game. He didn’t want any part of it. But his wife, Jackie, insisted it would be great for him. So he reluctantly agreed.

He showed up at All-Star weekend looking nothing like an old-timer. He was a svelte 190 pounds, having embraced a new, vegetarian health-food diet. His knee had completely recovered and there was a spring back in his step. It wasn’t that surprising, just five years earlier he was the starting guard in the actual NBA All-Star game.

Most astonishing for Pete was the amazingly warm reception he got from the fans: He couldn’t believe they still cared so much.

But it wasn’t only aging fans who were thrilled to see Pete. Several young NBA stars, who grew up watching Pete Maravich, were effusive with their appreciation of Pete’s ahead-of-his-time basketball contribution. They didn’t consider him a selfish showboat, in fact, just the opposite: they loved his daring creatively on the court and tried to emulate some of his impossible passes and shots.

Two players in particular, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, talked at length about Pete and his profound influence on their games.

Isiah: “The guy who changed basketball for me was Pistol.”

Magic: “That’s where I saw it all, from Pistol Pete. That’s where I got it from.”

The League itself was also changing. The flamboyant moves that Pete was harshly criticized for during his pro career were now openly encouraged and celebrated by the mid-1980s. Led by the “Showtime” Lakers, basketball highlights were played over and over on the burgeoning sports cable network ESPN.

The future of basketball, which Pete foresaw, was starting to manifest.

After the All-Star game festivities, the NBA called Pete with an offer to play in a series of exhibition games overseas. The Basketball Hall of Fame inducted him on the first ballot. Pete’s NBA jersey was retired in Salt Lake City. His high-school jersey was retired in Raleigh. He provided color-commentary for NBC college basketball games. He joined a Christian Globetrotter-type exhibition team. And he was commissioned to write his auto-biography.

Pete had tried to turn his back on the game but eventually realized that his star-crossed basketball journey was a critical element of his Christian transformation and the perfect tool to help him spread “the word.”

Just months before he died, Pete video-taped a four-volume basketball instructional series called Homework Basketball. The videos contain detailed instructions of the many “creative fundamentals” Pete and his father developed years earlier.

On the tapes Pete enthusiastically demonstrates an array of shooting, dribbling, ball-handling and passing drills (he didn’t have much to say about defense). The drills range from simple to nearly impossible. Despite the cheesy music and graphics, it’s a fascinating and revealing look at how, through years of compulsive practice, a boy made himself into one of the most skilled players in basketball history.

In early 1988, Pete’s heart finally gave out while playing ball in a church gymnasium. He left behind his beloved wife and two young sons. He now lives on in the hearts of those who knew him, the memories of those who saw him, and in old news accounts, photographs, film and videotape.

But Pete also lives on in the many generations of basketball players who continue to echo his style of play.

We see flashes of Maravich in college hotshots like Stephen Curry, Jimmer Fredette and JJ Reddick—all high scorers who thrilled us with Pistol-style shooting exhibitions.

We see Pete in the creative, crowd-pleasing, passing and dribbling skills of NBA guards Steve Nash, Chris Paul or Jason Kidd.

When Boston’s Rajon Rondo unleashes his signature “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” ball fake—it’s just another classic Maravich move (most famously executed on Jerry West back in January 1972).

And in the Spanish wonder, Ricky Rubio, who bears a weirdly close resemblance to Pete both physically and stylistically, we can see Maravich-like passing, ball-handling and astonishing court vision.

It’s fun, but unfair, to hyper-glorify those who played in the past: real flaws get airbrushed out leaving a false, pristine image. Pete Maravich, the dazzling basketball magician, was not without weaknesses as a player. He was, at times, a temperamental teammate. He was voted one of the NBA’s Top 50 players but never led any team, college or pro, to a Championship. And, for all the talk of being the greatest ball-handler ever, he had a lot of turnovers. In the ‘77-78 season—he averaged 5 per game.

Current Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman has had a unique perspective on Maravich and several players who evoke his spirit. Adelman was Pete’s teammate in New Orleans. He later coached the flashy Jason Williams in Sacramento and is currently Ricky Rubio’s coach. (He also coached Steve Nash and Magic Johnson in All-Star games.)

From Adelman’s point of view, in 2012, there is really no comparison when it came to skill level: “I’ve never seen anybody as talented as Pete was handling a basketball.”

Pete Maravich left us 25 years ago: a mystical, legendary figure in the history of the sport. A tortured visionary, with a miracle heart, who opened up basketball up to a world of imagination, self-expression and possibility.

There will never be another Pistol Pete Maravich but you can always check out his old basketball highlights online. Or even better…just look around. You can still see him.

Wayne Federman co-authored the authorized biography of Pete Maravich, MARAVICH, with Marshall Terrill and Jackie Maravich (“The definitive biography of Pistol Pete.” ESPN). Wayne appeared on both ESPN’s Sports Century: Pete Maravich and the CBS documentary, Pistol Pete: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich—where he also served as senior consultant. He is a WGA Award nominee who has written for Bill Maher, Kevin Nealon, Sarah Silverman, The Muppets, The Harlem Globetrotters, Seth Rogen, and was the head monologue writer for Late Night w/ Jimmy Fallon. Wayne has also appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League, 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.