The Man and his Soul
ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION
During the first week of January 1988, Covington entrepreneur Larry Smith, then relatively fresh out of college, asked basketball Hall of Famer and Louisiana hoops legend Pete Maravich if he wanted to play some pick-up basketball.
Maravich said he’d love to, but the basketball great then invited Smith, the owner of a building supply store with which Maravich had done business, to come with him to an early-morning young businessmen’s breakfast later that week.
Smith checked his busy schedule and regretfully declined. Just a matter of days later, Maravich was dead, the victim of an unexpected heart attack at the age of 40.
To this day, 25 years later, Smith still regrets his decision not to accompany Maravich to the breakfast.
“That was probably the biggest mistake of my life, not going with him that year,” says Smith, who became close friends with Maravich during the Louisiana State University legend’s latter years. “It’s the biggest regret of my life.”
For Smith and many of Maravich’s other friends and family members — as well as the entire sports world — the hoops star’s sudden passing, the result of a rare congenital heart defect, was a major shock.
In fact, at the time of his death, he was playing basketball in California with a small group of friends, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, for whom Maravich had taped a radio interview shortly before. Dobson has since said that his friend’s final words, uttered less than a minute before Maravich collapsed on the court, were, “I feel great.”
Almost immediately, reaction to Maravich’s death represented an outpouring of grief for the man who, perhaps more than anyone, had put Louisiana basketball on the map.
Times-Picayune reporter Marty Mulé wrote that Maravich “turned a state and a region on to basketball.”
“Maravich, one of the flashiest, most flamboyant players in the history of college and professional basketball, turned the South into a fertile basketball area with his exploits at LSU,” Mulé penned on the front page of the Jan. 6, 1988, Times-Picayune.
Maravich’s basketball career – both his record-setting, near-mythical college years at LSU and his time with New Orleans-Utah Jazz in the professional NBA – had been marked by showmanship and supreme confidence bordering on, according to some, arrogance. But by the time of his death, friends said Maravich had transformed to a down-to-earth, humble, loyal man dedicated to his born-again Christian faith and his community, especially children.
Gone were the persistent problems with alcohol and spiritual wandering that had plagued the few years immediately after his retirement from basketball in 1980. After he converted to Christianity in ’82, a reassuring peace and tranquility had settled over Maravich’s once-troubled soul. In fact, a few years before his death he said he wanted to be remembered not as a hoops star, but as a faithful servant of Christ.
Now, a quarter-century after his untimely death, those who knew and loved Maravich reflect on what could have been if the basketball superstar-turned-devoted community figure had lived a full life, or even been alive today.
“When Pete Maravich turned his life over to Jesus Christ, he became a markedly different human being,” says Bud Johnson, a former LSU sports information director who now works for the university alumni association. “His all-consuming attachment to his sport left little room for a well balanced life. His laser-like focus suddenly was directed toward Christianity and spreading the word.
“He transferred his ability to concentrate on writing lyrical prayers, making talks to young people and giving his time and money to those less fortunate than himself,” Johnson adds. “He could call up the scriptures as effortlessly as he did making a behind-the-back pass.”
Smith recalls coaching youth basketball players with Maravich in Covington, where the former basketball superstar had settled after retirement, and seeing him interact with the youngsters on the court. Smith says that while Maravich would playfully show flashes of his hoops skills, dribbling the ball between his legs and joshing with the kids, his devotion to making the youths’ lives better was abundantly evident.
“He’d be out there with the kids horsing around,” Smith says. “He’d be out there doing drills with them, and you could just tell he loved it.”
But Maravich’s story began several decades before in Aliquippa, Pa., where he was born in 1947, the son of famed basketball coach Peter “Press” Maravich, who quickly began teaching his offspring the fundamentals of the hardwood game.
The younger Maravich then spent hours practicing what would become the staples of his college and pro careers – trick plays, behind-the-back passes and head fakes. After successful prep careers at Daniel High School in South Carolina and two North Carolina schools, Broughton High and Edwards Military Institute, it was during his high-school years that he picked up his celebrated nickname, “Pistol,” from his proclivity for launching a shot from his side, as if drawing a revolver.
After Press Maravich became the varsity coach at LSU, he offered Pete a spot in the Tiger basketball program. The younger Maravich immediately became a star, first for the LSU freshman team, then for the varsity squad, racking up record numbers of points and posting game scoring totals in the dozens.
By the time Pete graduated from LSU in 1970, he had tallied an NCAA-record 3,667 career points by averaging a whopping 44.2 per game over a three-year varsity career, also a college standard. That is in addition to a slew of other game, season and career marks, many of which still stand; three straight first-team All-America selections; and several player-of-the-year accolades in 1970.
In addition, he helped turn around a moribund LSU program that went 3-20 in the season before he arrived on campus, guiding the Tigers to a 20-8 record during his senior campaign.
Maravich’s legend only grew from there. The Atlanta Hawks took him with the third overall pick in the 1970 NBA draft. His first two pro seasons were somewhat rocky, but during his third year with the Hawks, the Pistol exploded, averaging 26.1 points and 6.9 assists per game, numbers that improved in ’73-’74.
That performance, as well as the creation of an expansion NBA franchise in New Orleans, spurred Maravich to return to the Pelican State in 1974, where he became the centerpiece of the newly created New Orleans Jazz.
“Once a disciple of basketball in football country, Pete spread the word of Christ to every audience he could find. His basketball camp for young boys concentrated on spirituality, nutrition, making life changes and adjustments and then basketball.”
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.”