The Alluring Legend Of ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich

Some people are taken far too early, and “Pistol” Pete Maravich was one of them. To honor him, the Atlanta Hawks are retiring his jersey Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Zach Cronin
Mar 3, 2017 · 10 min read
Wikimedia Commons

Born Peter Press Maravich on June 22, 1947, in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, his mother and father had created a human whose basketball abilities dazzled at a young age. Before his days as a standout at LSU and in the NBA, Pistol was worked vehemently by his father, Press Maravich. The two had a great relationship, strengthened by their basketball bond, with Press always pushing Pete to become better and better.

Press spent most of his life as a coach, having stints in high school and the NCAA. He had also played two years professionally — 1945–46 with the Youngstown Bears of the NBL, and 1946–47 with the Pittsburgh Ironmen of the BAA. Yes, Pete Maravich’s father played in the inaugural season of the league that would eventually turn into the NBA.

Pistol was way ahead of his time. As a boy, he was enamored with the showmanship aspect of basketball, and it wasn’t uncommon to see him practicing a variety of dribble combos, mixed in with behind-the-back passes and shots from way beyond the non-existent three-point line. If he were around today, there would be weekly mixtapes of him from Ballislife, and SLAM would have had a feature on him as a high school phenom.

When Maravich went to LSU, he began to pick up steam, and his explosiveness was unrivaled and has been for the last four-plus decades. In three seasons with the Tigers, Maravich cemented himself as college basketball’s greatest scorer, and his records won’t ever be broken. If freshmen were allowed to play, his scoring numbers would be even more unbreakable, but the NCAA didn’t make that change to basketball until 1972.

He finished with 3,667 points in just 83 games, working out an average of 44.2 a night. The fact that Pistol did this when every field goal was worth two points is astounding, and he needed to average 38 shots a game for his career to reach that plateau. He was also incredibly efficient for someone who shot so often, and he left LSU with a field goal percentage of 43.8 — not too bad for a chucker. A slim, 6-foot-5 guard with short, floppy hair was the backcourt version of Wilt Chamberlain, and the inability to wrap your brain around his numbers is still present.

The stats get even more absurd once you hear this story: Dale Brown, a former coach at LSU, reportedly used to track all of Maravich’s shots. Since he was a gunslinger and never saw a shot he didn’t like, buckets rained from all over the court, and Ellis worked out the math — if he played the same way with a three-point line, Maravich would’ve averaged 57 points a night. Fifty-seven points. Also! He didn’t play with a shot clock, and that’s something that would’ve made him play at an even faster pace.

Unfortunately, LSU’s three-time All-American didn’t bring much success to the program that was coached by his father. The Tigers won games in the regular season but missed the NCAA Tournament every year of Pistol’s reign. Maravich, however, brought home enough hardware to open a trophy store, and it’s pinnacled by the Naismith Award he brought home in 1970. In addition to that, he was the SEC Player of the Year three-straight years and also won the AP and Sporting News POY awards in 1970.

On an individual level, Maravich and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are in a class of their own, and Pistol would easily be the greatest collegiate basketball player ever if he were able to bring home a NCAA title.

The 1970 NBA Draft featured a litany of big names, despite being weak overall; albeit, having 18-bajillion rounds back then waters down the strength of the class. Maravich was plucked third overall by the Atlanta Hawks, behind Rudy Tomjanovich and Bob Lanier. Lanier carved out a Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks, while Tomjanovic is up for enshrinement in the 2017 class.

Other names in that draft include Tiny Archibald, Calvin Murphy, Dave Cowens, Dan Issel and Geoff Petrie.

After a dreadful performance in the NIT (by his standards), some thought Maravich’s pro future was in jeopardy. Pistol, however, told SI otherwise:

“I haven’t even started thinking about the pros yet but I don’t think what happened in the NIT makes any difference. I don’t care if I only made one point or one assist. You don’t base an entire lifetime of basketball on one game or tournament. Nothing has gone right for me here, but it’s all over now.”

The 23-year-old made his debut on Oct 17, 1970, making him one of the first magicians to ever appear in a basketball game. Just as you expected, Pistol scored seven points in his debut — seven! Maravich collected himself as the months passed by, and he finished with 23.6 points a night on 45.8 percent shooting. His 4.4 assists were just enough to avoid the ball hog label, but who cares. He finished second on the team in both categories and got selected to the 1971 All-Rookie team. Despite a scintillating rookie campaign, Maravich didn’t do enough and got beaten out by Cowens and Petrie who split the Rookie of the Year honor.

Even with Maravich being a sidekick to Lou Hudson, who contrasted like Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, the Hawks underperformed that season and finished 36–46 overall. They still managed to make the playoffs, though, so there’s a silver lining.

The subsequent year was very non-Pistol-Pete-like, and his liberal play style yielded an average of just 19.3 points a night. Contrarily, his assisted boomed up to six, and, once the playoffs rolled around, Maravich kicked his scoring up to 27.7 a night, but the 36–46 (yet again) Hawks got dropped by the powerhouse Celtics in six first round contests. It was clear that Maravich got the hang of volume scoring in the NBA, and he finished fifth overall with an average of 26.1 points a night. Not only was he bringing the sauce on a nightly basis, but he was also dropping dimes, too!

A bank teller was the next job added on Pete’s resume, and his 6.9 assists a night placed him sixth overall behind Norm Van Lier, Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing, Lenny Wilkens and Tiny Archibald. Atlanta finally posted a winning record after back-to-back sub-500 seasons, but the 68–14 Celtics dispatched them in six games for the second-straight year.

It’s bizarre for one of the league’s premier players to improve, but their team regress. This was the case in 1974, Pistol’s final year with the Hawks. He averaged 27.7 points and shot almost 46 percent from the field and was as dynamic as ever, but Atlanta finished with 35 wins and missed the playoffs, kicking off a five-and-a-half year postseason drought for Maravich.

In May of 1974, Atlanta parted ways with their floppy-haired maestro and traded him to the New Orleans Jazz.

That season did not bode well for Maravich. Any home-state advantage was a myth, and he had his worst season as a pro in conjunction with the Jazz struggling mightily. Between three head coaches and 22 players, Maravich was the only constant for the 23–59 squad: 21.5 points, 6.2 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals. The all-around numbers were solid, but a ghastly 41.9 clip from the field is what made this is worst campaign ever.

For an expansion team, the Jazz improved quickly and steadily. Their 23 wins improved to 38 in year two, and Maravich returned to his unrelenting, crowd-pleasing form. On the shoulders of his 25.9 points (third in the league), Pistol got selected to the All-NBA First Team for the first time, and that was with him playing just 62 games because of injuries.

1976–77 was peak “Pistol” Pete. He was 29 for that season and fully engulfed in his prime. The dazzling play made him must-see, and he was now half entertainer, half basketball player. His career climaxed on Feb 25, 1977. That night against the New York Knicks, Maravich exploded and dropped 68 points before fouling out. At that time, it was the most points tallied in a game by a guard, and he did it without a three-point line. Thinking about how reliant teams are on threes now, it’s just bonkers. By the night’s end, Pistol made 26-of-43 shots and 16-of-19 free throws.

“I could have scored more. I missed a lot of easy shots early in the game,” said Maravich afterward. I’m sure you could’ve.

Fouling out of the same game where he utterly torched the opponent is most Pistol thing ever. It was a culmination and manifestation of everything he was as a ballplayer: wild, eccentric, dazzling and sensational.

The success and numbers observed that season put the injuries behind Maravich. He looked almost entirely healed and led the league with an average of 41.7 minutes a night over the course of the 73 contests he suited up for. And if you thought that the Jazz were going to make the playoffs because Maravich was sensational, think again!

I’d like “Dumb Decisions to Fire a Head Coach Who Has a Winning Record” for 1,000, please. This person had a 14 wins and 12 losses at the time of his removal.

*Buzzes in*

Who is Butch Van Breda Kolff — the Jazz’s predecessor to Elgin Baylor, who was the guy they replaced with Kolff just two seasons prior. Hindsight’s 20–20, and I don’t know if New Orleans was better off with Kolff over Baylor, but numbers don’t lie, and it certainly looks like they were after finishing 35–47.

At the conclusion of that campaign, Maravich posted an absolutely gaudy stat line: 31.1 points (led the league), 5.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds. Those numbers made him just the sixth guy, at the time, to average 30–5–5 for a season, according to Basketball-Reference.

Maravich’s recession didn’t happen quickly, but it was far too fast for any fan of his to bear. In just one year, he went from being one of the league’s most galvanizing superstars to a shell of his former self. He was Stephen Curry before Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose before Derrick Rose. His not-a-care-in-the-world play was incredible to watch, and he was doing things with the basketball that were borderline taboo. Once the injuries hit, though, he was unable to return to vintage Maravich.

After 73 games in 1977, he played 50 in 1978, 49 in ’79 and 43 in ’80. The numbers were good by most standards, but he was no longer “Pistol.” Pistol and Pete were different; like Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers. Pete was a regular guy who carried a celebrity persona around with him, and it seems like that was something he could’ve lived without. He made three All-Star teams in his last four years, but he walked away from the game after the 1979–80 season because of the repeated knee injuries.

The astonishing, don’t-blink-because-you’ll-miss-a-fake-behind-the-head-pass play was gone. All that was left was a volume scorer who made basketball entertaining. In an effort to go out on top, Maravich joined the Celtics for the ‘79–80 season, and he returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1973.

He realized it was time to walk away, and you have to commend that, but Maravich seemed … lost without basketball. As much as he had issues dealing with the celebrity he brought, the NBA helped him cope with it; when he was on the basketball court, nothing mattered except putting on a show. Maravich was 32 when he retired, and he was searching “for life” upon his exit, bouncing around between multiple religions and attempting to fill the void left by his exit from basketball.

He found it. Before his untimely death, Maravich became an evangelical Christian and began devoting his life to Jesus and God. At one point, he said, “I want to be remembered as a Christian, a person that serves [Jesus] to the utmost, not as a basketball player.” If he had lived a longer life, he could’ve written that new chapter, but what he did for basketball cannot be outdone, and his legacy as a Christian would’ve needed to have been prophetic to trump his NBA and NCAA career.

Maravich died abruptly at age 40 while playing basketball at a church in Pasadena. His passing came shortly after his father’s and, while unfortunate, the circle of life was completed. The most paramount things in his life were his faith and basketball. He practically came out of the womb shooting long shots after pump fakes. “I feel great,” said Maravich before collapsing on the court because of heart failure, and I can see why he’d say that.

As the Hawks honor Pete Maravich on Friday, they’ll be the fourth team to do so. Both the Jazz and Pelicans have retired his number seven, and the LSU Tigers retired his number 23, named their arena after him and will be erecting a statue outside of said arena in his honor.

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Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

Zach Cronin

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Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

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