The Man and his Soul
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It took both Maravich and the team a season or two to warm up – with injuries hampering the Pistol’s output – but by the 1976-’77 outing, he posted his best season as a professional, leading the league in scoring with more than 30 points per game, including 13 40-point-plus games and a 68-point tour de force against the Knicks.
The Jazz’s decision to bring Maravich back home was paying off for everyone – the team, Maravich and Louisiana basketball fans, who embraced the LSU grad’s flashy, gritty performances. It was pure hardwood kismet.
“Whatever happened, the New Orleans Jazz and Pistol Pete Maravich captured the imagination of the fans,” says Barry Mendelson, who served as the executive vice president of the Jazz during Maravich’s time with the squad. “It was magical.”
Unfortunately, the wave of enthusiasm quickly crashed. Knee injuries and a burgeoning problem with alcohol began to hamper Maravich’s performance, and the Jazz franchise languished both on the court and in the financial ledgers. In 1979, the operation moved to Salt Lake City, which signaled the end of the magic Mendelson described.
Maravich’s knee problems worsened, and he was benched for much of the campaign. But in January 1980, the Jazz placed the Pistol on waivers where he was picked up by the Celtics, who were building a 1980s dynasty with Larry Bird and company.
But, thanks to worsening knee issues, Maravich wasn’t as productive and retired at the end of the season. His final career pro stats: 24.2 points and 5.4 assists per game. (In addition, Maravich played before the advent of the three-point line, the existence of which would have greatly boosted his scoring totals.)
The Jazz retired his number in 1985 (something the New Orleans Hornets later did as well), and Maravich was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in ’87.
In the two years following his retirement life was anything but rosy for Maravich, who became a recluse and drifted spiritually until becoming born again in 1982. From that point on, the Pistol found a tranquility and dedication to his community and church family, especially in his adopted hometown of Covington.
He and his wife, Jackie, had two sons, Jaeson and Josh, both of whom played high school and collegiate hoops. Jaeson has followed in his father’s footsteps in another way, hosting the type of youth basketball camps his father sponsored in his retirement years.
Maravich’s sudden and premature death has only added to his legacy and mystique. Twenty-five years later, his place in the pantheon of all-time basketball greats is secure, eternal and shining.
“Pete Maravich was one of the greatest offensive stars in the history of basketball, setting scoring marks that still stand to this day despite playing during a period that predated the three-point line,” says Naismith Hall of Fame president and CEO John L. Doleva.
“He was not only a great player but a true ambassador to the game.”
On the day after the Pistol’s death, The Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney, who authored Pistol Pete: The Story of College Basketball’s Greatest Star in 1969, wrote that only seeing Maravich play live could truly capture what the legend was capable of on the hardwood. But even watching game film from the Pistol’s career reflects his genius, Finney penned in the Jan. 6, 1988, issue of the paper.
“While film remains, everyone took away special images, many lost forever, of the kid in the floppy socks, with the pipe-cleaner physique, and those large, soulful eyes,” Finney wrote. He added: “But that was Pistol Pete. Instinctive. Inventive. Incredible.”
While many journalists and fans remember Maravich’s exploits on the court, it was his life after his 1982 conversion to evangelical Christianity that truly defined his life and legacy. Johnson says his friend made a considerable impact through his youth camps, which stressed spiritual and moral strength as much as on-court excellence.
“Once a disciple of basketball in football country, Pete spread the word of Christ to every audience he could find,” Johnson says.
“His basketball camp for young boys concentrated on spirituality, nutrition, making life changes and adjustments and then basketball. He sought out campers who had weight problems, or those who were angry or moody. He corresponded with many of them, and frequently sent them excerpts from the Bible.”
Johnson says that religious commitment burned brightly in his friend until the very end, despite growing health issues.
“I saw Pete a few months before he died,” Johnson says. “His color was awful. He had lost weight. But I remember he gave me a pamphlet with a Christian message. He was dedicated to his faith until the very end.”
Another friend, Larry Smith of Covington, says Maravich’s death was a jolt to both the local community and Smith personally. “It was very upsetting to me,” he says.
Soon after his friend’s passing, Smith visited Jackie, Pete’s widow, at the family home in Covington. He says Jackie asked him to take Jaeson and Josh to basketball practice, something their father would have wanted even after his passing.
It was the least Smith could do to honor the memory of a man who had changed Smith’s life so deeply.
“He has a good heart, and he was easy to talk to,” Smith says of Maravich. “People said he was introverted, but I didn’t see that. He had already become born again.”
And a quarter-century hasn’t dimmed such affection from those close to Maravich. Neither has the passage of time eroded the impact the Pistol had on the sport of basketball. His on-court genius and fearless, inventive play helped open up the game and presaged the high-octane offenses that now dominate the college and pro game.
But it was perhaps Maravich’s pure passion for the game – and, later, for his family, his friends and his faith – that truly defined the essence of Pistol Pete.
“Pete was a very caring guy,” another Maravich friend, Steve Davis, was quoted saying by The Times-Picayune after Maravich’s passing. “A lot of people didn’t know that. He didn’t get the publicity for that part of his life that he got for his basketball ... You don’t go around making stories about people doing that. But he did a lot of things for this community that people didn’t know about.”