Maravich's creative artistry dazzled

Updated: March 21, 2006, 1:33 PM ET
By Bob Carter | Special to ESPN.com

"Pete Maravich was Showtime before there was Showtime. The only problem with Pete Maravich was the four other guys; he just didn't relate to the rest of the team. A team was Pete Maravich and anybody who was inbounding to him," says columnist Robert Lipsyte on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

The show. Pete Maravich lived for it. Basketball fans died to see it. While Pistol Pete is the NCAA Division I all-time leading scorer, it was his game show that dazzled, as he displayed his creative genius, the kind of sleight-of-hand artistry that left crowds gasping.

A skinny white guard from LSU, he was a Harlem Globetrotter in skill and spirit, if not uniform.

Pete Maravich averaged 24.2 points during his 10 NBA seasons.
Passes flew behind his back and backwards over his shoulder, eyes looking one way and the ball heading another. His deft dribble often twisted defenders onto their heels, the ball flashing smoothly between his legs, behind his back and through tight openings. Shots came from all angles and distances.

"If I have a choice whether to do the show or throw a straight pass," said Maravich, a three-time All-American, "and we're going to get the basket either way, I'm going to do the show."

At a summer camp, coach Lefty Driesell critically told him that Oscar Robertson succeeded without flamboyant passes. Maravich quickly defended his style, saying he wanted to be a millionaire: "And they don't pay you a million dollars for two-hand chest passes."

"He was like a great singer," said broadcaster Chick Hearn, "with a style all his own, a pacing that was different, a flair for the unusual." Besides his ability to control the basketball, the star with the droopy socks was quite a marksman. Though Maravich played before freshmen were eligible for the varsity and before the three-point shot was established, he loved gunning from long range.

At LSU, where Pistol Pete played for his father Press, he set still-standing Division I records with his 44.5 average for a season (1969-70), 44.2 average for his career (1967-70) and his 3,667 points. Maravich's three-year total was 418 more points than runner-up Freeman Williams of Portland State scored in four seasons in the 1970s. In the NBA, Maravich was selected to five all-star teams and was later voted among the league's 50 greatest players. He averaged 24.2 for his 10 seasons and one year led the league with a 31.1 mark.

The scoring didn't endear him to all, however. Maravich never played on a championship team in college or the pros, a fact noted by critics. While Pat Riley marveled at the floor show, he called Maravich "the most overrated superstar."

Peter Press Maravich was born on June 22, 1947 in Aliquippa, Pa. His father Press, who had played professionally for the Pittsburgh Ironmen of the Basketball Association of America and become a coach, began teaching Pete the game when he was seven.

Pete played three seasons (1967-70) at LSU under his father, Press Maravich.
Practicing four to five hours a day as a youth, Maravich developed an array of ballhandling and passing skills, a repertoire that amazed even his father. "I gave him the fundamentals," said Press, who had also played guard. "But the between-the-legs, behind-the-back, blind stuff Pete does, I never even thought of that."

While his father coached at North Carolina State, Maravich became a 32-points-per-game scorer at Broughton High School in Raleigh.

In 1966, his father accepted LSU's coaching job and Maravich accompanied him there. As Press's first varsity squad at LSU struggled to a 3-23 record, Pete led the freshman team to a 17-1 season. Over the next three years, the 6-foot-5, 170-pound Maravich dominated offensively as the Tigers went 14-12, 13-13 and 22-10.

Press had one rule for his son that overrode all others: Shoot when open, and keep shooting. Maravich excelled as a passer, too, but his father thought the team would fail if his son didn't score big. "We win with Pete," Press said. "If he gets special treatment, it's because he is so special."

Maravich led the nation in scoring all three of his seasons, averaging 43.8, 44.2 and 44.5 and reaching 50 points 28 times. He shot 43.8 percent from the field and 77.5 percent from the foul line.

But he felt the pressure of the situation, at times popping off to his father. "It's hard when your father's the coach, too," said Maravich, a player who loved to party. "Sometimes you don't know where one leaves off and the other begins."

In his senior year, when Maravich was voted Player of the Year, he scored 69 points against Alabama, a record for points against a Division I opponent. The mark stood for 21 years. He also set a Division I record by making 30 free throws (in 31 attempts) against Oregon State.

The Atlanta Hawks, eager to get a Southern player with renown, traded up in the 1970 draft to get Maravich with the third pick, right after Bob Lanier and Rudy Tomjanovich were selected and just before Dave Cowens. Preferring the stability and recognition of the NBA over the ABA, Maravich signed with the Hawks -- over the Carolina Cougars -- for a record contract of almost $2 million over five years.

Maravich's spectacular play continued as a pro.

The Atlanta Hawks drafted Maravich with the third pick in the 1970 NBA draft.
He averaged 23.2 points his first season and made the league's all-rookie team, but the Hawks went 36-46, a drop of 12 wins from the previous year.

After slipping to 19.3 ppg the next season, Maravich averaged 26.1 and a career-high 6.9 assists in 1972-73 and earned his first all-star selection in leading the Hawks to a 46-36 record. But this was the only winning team Maravich played on in his first nine NBA seasons.

Pistol Pete never could escape the notion that he played mostly for himself, that the team was secondary. Playing for mediocre teams, he never came close to a title.

"Raw-talentwise, he's the greatest who ever played," said Lou Hudson, a Hawks teammate. "But always, no matter what he does, he will be a loser. That's his legacy. It never looked easy being Pete Maravich."

Maravich, though, made the game look easy. In 1973-74, his last season with Atlanta, he averaged 27.7, second in the league to Bob McAdoo's 30.6. Before the next season, he was traded to the expansion New Orleans Jazz, who thought the state legend would be a great start to a franchise.

After a rough first season -- the Jazz went 23-59 as he shot a career-worst 41.9 percent and averaged 21.5 points -- Maravich's play improved. In 1975-76, he averaged 25.9, third best in the NBA, shot a career-high .459 and was voted to the all-league first team.

The next season, he led the league with his 31.1 average, hitting 40 or more points 13 times, and again was first-team all-NBA. On Feb. 25, 1977, he scored 68 against the New York Knicks and defensive wizard Walt Frazier.

Knee injuries and a bacterial infection marked Maravich's 1977-78 season, when he averaged 27 points but missed 32 games. He was sidelined for 33 games the following year, but, wearing a knee brace, he lacked his old agility though he averaged 22.6.

After the Jazz moved to Utah in 1979, Maravich was not a favorite of coach Tim Nissalke and was waived after playing in 17 games. He signed with Boston and played 26 games alongside rookie Larry Bird. A part-time player, he had a small part in the Celtics' 1980 Atlantic Division title.

Overweight and with his quickness gone, Maravich -- at 33 -- retired on Sept. 20, 1980. The first two years of retirement were the darkest period of his life, as he was depressed without basketball.

But then in 1982, Maravich came out of his stupor when he found religion, saying God had talked to him. He gave up drinking and turned to a vegetarian diet. Living with his wife Jackie and their two sons Joshua and Jaeson, Maravich seemed to be a picture of health.

In an interview in 1974, Maravich had said, "I don't want to play 10 years [in the NBA] and then die of a heart attack when I'm 40."

Unfortunately, this is what happened. On Jan. 5, 1988, he collapsed after a three-on-three pickup game in Pasadena, Calif., and died of a heart attack. Pete Maravich was 40.

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