Pete Maravich: The Ultimate Showman
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in January 1997.
The Ultimate Showman
Everything about Pete Maravich's game was show business. He was easy to tell apart from most players, not because the back of his uniform bore the name PISTOL PETE before the National Basketball Association banned the use of nicknames. He had long, shaggy brown hair and wore long floppy socks that looked as though they needed washing. He mastered practically every shot known to man and invented a few himself.
by Sam Goldaper
That he had the ability to go left of right with ease made it near impossible to overplay him. He shot the ball from anywhere and everywhere on the court, even if he should have been passing it. When he did pass, it was not your ordinary pass. It was through his legs, behind his back or any other way he might have invented at the spur of the moment. In short, it was always show time when Maravich passed or dribbled the ball.
With freshmen banned from playing varsity ball, Maravich literally put Louisiana State on the national basketball map during the three seasons he brought new-founded basketball excitement to the collegiate game. By the time he completed his senior year as the College Player of the Year, he had rewritten much of the NCAA's record books that included such feats as 3,667 career points and the highest per game average (44.2). He also set nine other NCAA records, 16 in the Southeastern Conference and 22 school marks.
At 6-5, 190 pounds, Pete got his points from outside or on drives, for he was not thick enough to stand riveted to a spot and casually toss in shots. He came swiftly down court, body low, legs so long and bony that his calves were as wide as his thighs. He faked, dribbled to the side 20 to 30 feet out, and leaped high and his shots were feathery and mightily arched toward the basket.
Team owners were aware of the fans' reaction to Maravich's flamboyance and excitement in the way he played the game. They saw him lusting to be the center of attraction for the league or for any struggling franchise that needed his scoring and showmanship to put people in the seats and excite them.
With those memorable attributes and the NBA and the ABA locked in a bidding war for talent, the days leading to the 1970 college draft were marked with guessing games as to which league would win his draft rights and how much it would cost to sign him. The winner was the NBA and Tom Cousins, the Atlanta Hawks' owner. In need of selling tickets and filling seats in football-crazy Georgia, Cousins dealt Zelmo Beaty, his 6-9 center, to San Francisco on February 2, 1970, for the Warriors' first draft pick, the third overall. It was the deal that paved the way for the Hawks to draft Maravich.
When the draft got underway on March 20, the Detroit Pistons, with the first overall pick, opted for Bob Lanier, the huge St. Bonaventure center. The San Diego Rockets used the second choice for the 6-8 Rudy Tomjanovich of Michigan. While both teams filled specific weaknesses in their front lines, they left Maravich for the Hawks.
The stage was now set for the battle between the Hawks and the Carolina Cougars, who owned the ABA's first pick. The winner would send Maravich into the pro ranks with more fanfare and money than anyone in basketball history.
As usual, Pete went to his father Press, who had coached him at LSU, seeking advice whether to sign with the Hawks or the Cougars. Looking his son in the eye, Press provided a quick solution to Pete's predicament.
"You've always wanted to play against players like Jerry West and Oscar Robertson," Press said. "You won't find them in the ABA." Enough said.
The reverberations of Maravich's acceptance of the Hawks' $1.5 million, five-year offer on March 26, 1970, echoed with excitement throughout the NBA.
The news conference in the Tara Room at the Marriott Hotel shook downtown Atlanta. The huge gathering repeatedly screamed and applauded as the proceedings evolved into a real circus sideshow. Men and women, girls in miniskirts, kids and little old ladies jammed the room to get a glimpse at Maravich. Everything from a Brownie Hawkeye to TV cameras, mounted on tripods, snapped and purred at Maravich, who stood silently, dressed in a gray suit with a dark blue shirt and a red and blue tie.
The thinking around the NBA was that if Maravich could make the adjustment to the pros quickly enough, there might be no stopping the Hawks for a long time. Advance ticket sales double as everywhere you looked there was an advertisement or a commercial featuring Pistol Pete and promising untold delights for the offseason.
The opening game against the Milwaukee Bucks was scheduled for network television. Hawks management began talking again of building a new coliseum and unveiled dazzling green-and-blue mod uniforms.
Pete's first day of training camp in Jacksonville, Florida, was active with reporters and Atlanta brass hoping to catch a glimpse of why they had spent so much money getting him.
"When I arrived," Pete recalled, "I felt the spotlight shining brightly on me, and I knew the sharks were ready to strike if I did not pan out and prove myself to be the showman and the player the college ranks had labeled me to be."
The exhibition season began and the discontent manifested itself noticeably on the court. The Hawks lost five of their first six preseason games and finished with a 4-8 mark after losing to Milwaukee, 137-94.
When the regular season began, on October 17 against Milwaukee with the menacing Lew Alcindor, the game was billed as Maravich versus Big Lew. It was a mismatch.
Alcindor and the Bucks, devastating in the second half, won, 107-98. Maravich didn't get into the game until the second period. He quickly stole a pass, drove down the court and shot a 10-footer for his first NBA basket. He finished with 7 points.
In the next game against San Francisco, he again scored 7 points. In the sixth game against San Diego, which was not exactly preoccupied with defense, Maravich scored 5 points.
But the Hawks were in as much trouble as Maravich. They kept losing and Coach Richie Guerin stuck with his plan and did not rush Maravich into the starting lineup until November 14, the 13th game of the season against Chicago. He never left the starting lineup again as his shooting percentage of 33 percent and 13.4 scoring average jumped to 23.3 points on 46 percent shooting from the field.
Still the shooting was the most drastic improvement. From the early floundering days he became a bona fide shooting threat. He quit taking the bad off-balance shots and worked on his defense, which became respectable. The flashy pass was forsaken for a good pass as he began making strides toward becoming a good all-around player.
By the time the season drew to a close, Maravich was probably the NBA's best rookie. However, he did not win Rookie of the Year honors. That was split between Dave Cowens of the Celtics and Geoff Petrie of Portland.
After four seasons with the Hawks in which Maravich averaged 23.2, 19.3, 26.1 and 27.7 points, respectively, the need for another marquee player surfaced again.
This time the thinking belonged to a nine-man group headed by Fred Rosenfeld, a successful Beverly Hills attorney who on March 7, 1974, committed them to play $6.1 million to put an NBA expansion franchise in New Orleans.
Rosenfeld and his associates immediately decided that their franchise, unlike most others, would not have to struggle for years to become competitive. Thus, on May 3, 1974, with the franchise still nameless, New Orleans mortgaged a large portion of its future in a trade that brought Maravich and his 24.3 scoring average to New Orleans. The deal, which they call "The Louisiana Purchase," was like a homecoming, since Maravich had played his college ball up the river from New Orleans, and he was greeted as a hometown boy.
The new franchise, which gave itself the wondrous nickname of Jazz and took on the purple, green and gold colors of the Mardi Gras, leveraged itself heavily to bring Maravich's moves, shots and innovative passing that stunned purists to New Orleans.
Basically, a team was being traded for one player, as the Jazz gave up its No. 1 picks in 1974 and 1975 drafts; it's second picks in the 1975 and 1976 draft (Bob Kauffman a forward and Dean Meminger, a guard, its second and third selections in the expansion drafts); and Atlanta was given the option to swap first round picks in the 1976 and 1977 drafts.
The trade met with heavy criticism on all sides, but the Jazz brass were undaunted and argued that with the addition of Maravich, it had guaranteed the new franchise instant respectability.
Rosenfeld, the club president, Bill Bertka, the vice president and the rest of the ownership even went so far as to claim that Maravich and Stu Lantz, who played out his option with the Detroit Pistons, would give the Jazz the best backcourt in basketball.
Maravich also won high praise from Scotty Robertson, the first Jazz coach, who named him captain.
"I want a person who is intelligent and capable of acting like a coach on the floor," Robertson said at the time. "Pete wasn't a logical person. He quarterbacks our offense, runs our fast breaks and is a proven NBA player."
Maravich's college and pro careers were filled with many a magical night. But it would be difficult to match or surpass the February 25, 1977, 68-point performance against the New York Knicks at the Louisiana Superdome. It was the seventh time in the season he had scored 40 or more points and the third time he had bettered the 50 point mark.
Prior to that eventful Friday night the Jazz overwhelmed the Knicks 124-107, no guard in NBA history had scored more points in a game than did Maravich.
With his eyes peering, Pistol Pete, employing practically every shot known to man and some that he invented himself, looked Walt Frazier, Butch Beard, Dean Meminger and Ticky Burden square in the eyes and fired 20- and 30-foot jumpers against them.
On other occasions he gave the Knick guards, against him, a head fake and scored on a push shot. He also drove by the much taller and stronger Bob McAdoo, trying to clog the middle, dribbling the length of the court for a basket that broke the Knicks' pressure defense, and even running down a photographer who was inadvertently blocking his path to the basket.
Before fouling out with one minute and 18 seconds remaining, he had already connected on 26 of 43 shots from the field and 16 of 19 from the free-throw line. The 68 points were one shy of his collegiate high at LSU.
Tied for the seventh best scoring total in the NBA history, Maravich surpassed the 63 points Jeffery West of the Los Angeles Lakers piled up in a 1962 triple overtime game against the Knicks. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the Knicks on May 3, 1962, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Elgin Baylor, Maravich's coach at the time, had a 71-point outburst against the Knicks on November 12, 1960.
Pete, who entered the game as the NBA's leading scorer (29.7), said he felt like a stage star waiting anxiously for an opening night review.
The reviews were excellent.
In its coverage of the game, the New Orleans Times-Picayune played on Maravich's nickname "Pistol Pete," which he acquired during his playing days at LSU. The paper displayed a pair of pistols atop the front page of its morning edition with a banner headline reading: "The Pistol Was Hot."
Maravich scored 17 points in the first 10 minutes before going out for a rest. He added another 14 in the second period, 17 in the third and 20 in the fourth.
"I have to give credit to Elgin," said Maravich. "He rested me at the end of the opening quarter, and that gave me the momentum I needed late in the game.
"But really, I had no idea I had scored that many points until E.C. Coleman told me during a timeout that I only needed three more for the record. I thought he meant my personal scoring high of 51 points earlier in the season. It's awful nice to set a personal goal and to get a victory at the same time."
If Maravich was unaware that he was closing in on West's mark for a guard, his teammates apparently were aware.
"I took a lot of kidding from the bench when I started getting close to Elgin's record," Maravich said. "I remember someone yelling from the bench, ‘Elgin is going to take you out because he's afraid you are going to break his record.'"
"Pete did everything possible, and I'm proud as can be of him," said Baylor, a Hall of Famer. "What more can I say after a performance like that? Tonight was just a great individual effort by Pete and a great team effort by all the guys."
The 1976-77 season ended with Maravich winning the league scoring title with a 31.1 average, but during their five-year stay in New Orleans, the Jazz changed coaches, team presidents and some 30 players. They kept losing games and fan support. Finally, after failing to make the playoffs once again or reaching the .500 mark, the Jazz relocated before the 1979-80 season in Salt Lake City.
On January 17, 1980, Frank Layden, then the team's general manager and currently its president, after failing to trade Maravich to Boston and Philadelphia, waived him instead. After rejecting an offer from the 76ers, Maravich, still looking for that elusive championship ring, signed as a free agent with the Celtics.
"I wanted to be a winner," Maravich said the first day with the Celtics. "I've wondered all my career how it would have been if I had gone to a winner in the first place. I've always thought the picture would have been different about me. My life would have been different. I've always wondered. ... Now I'm here."
Even though he played 26 games with the Celtics that season, he never got to wear a championship ring.
The Celtics, in Larry Bird's rookie season, posted a 61-21 record but were eliminated by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference final playoffs.
Maravich never played after that.
On January 5, 1988, Maravich, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986, collapsed during a pickup game in Pasadena, California, and died at the age of 40 at St. Luke's Medical Center.
Pete Maravich is gone, but his showmanship lives on with players the likes of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The legend of Maravich, the ultimate showman, will be remembered any time a player's flamboyant pass through his legs or behind his back brings the crowd to its feet.
It Was Simply Amazing to Watch
by Nathan Kirkham
For many Utah Jazz basketball fans, their introduction to Pete Maravich took place on the hard court of the Salt Palace on December 14, 1985, when Pete's number 7 was raised to the rafters during its retirement ceremony. During the presentation, a screen was lowered from the ceiling, and a short highlight film of some of Pistol Pete's basketball artistry was shown. For some, it was their first opportunity to see Maravich in action while he was still wearing a Jazz uniform. For all, the moves were spectacular. Repeated gasps and cheers rang out from the crowd as Pete Maravich put on a show for Jazz fans one last time.
"Pete had a globetrotter style about him that was unbelievable," says Jazz play-by-play announcer Hot Rod Hundley. "He was one of the greatest ball handlers that ever played the game – the best I've ever seen."
Hundley is one of only three people associated with the Jazz organization today who were also with the New Orleans Jazz when Pete Maravich was acquired during the club's rookie season in 1976. The other two are Jazz assistant coach Dave Fredman and recently retired trainer Don Sparks. All three had the opportunity to witness Pistol Pete in a Jazz uniform during his prime, and all agree it was a spectacular show to watch.
"He was one guy that fans would have paid to watch practice," says Fredman. "He did so many things with the ball that were ahead of its time. Stunts you see in today's game, Pete was doing in the 70s. He meant everything to the franchise, since he was the big drawing card."
Until the emergence of Shaquille O'Neal, LSU's most recognized product was Maravich. It was his performance in college that had created an atmosphere receptive to basketball in New Orleans. Former Jazz trainer Don Sparks had the chance to meet Shaq for the first time during the Lakers' recent visit to the Delta Center and learned just what an impact Maravich had on the young superstar. "When it was brought up that I had been the trainer for Pete," says Sparks, "Shaq's eyes got really big and said, ‘Oh yeah! I know all about Maravich." Then he smiled and said that Pete was the second greatest player ever to come out of LSU. Here's a kid that was probably in diapers when Pete was doing his thing, and still he knows all about him."
Hot Rod has been the voice of the Jazz from the beginning and called every one of Maravich's points. "Magic Man Maravich" was the term he used in painting the verbal picture of Pistol Pete's basketball wizardry. "It was a lot of un broadcasting for him," says Hundley. "We were a poor team down in New Orleans and weren't winning games, but the fans would still come out to see Pete, and he always delighted the crowd."
Maravich embraced the role of being not only a basketball player but an entertainer. "Sometimes it looked like the actual game of basketball made him bored," says Fredman. "Pete always wanted to do something more – something different – and create more excitement for the fans."
Some of Maravich's best moves were not shown during a game, since he opted instead to save some of his tricks for practice. Pete used to hit shot after shot while missing around with his teammates before practice or before a game during shoot around. "He would go out and hit 20 straight shots just to show he could do it," says Fredman.
First and foremost, Pistol Pete was a scorer. The all-time NCAA leader in points scored, Maravich continued his proficiency into the professional ranks. He didn't have the athleticism of a Michael Jordan, but he had great quickness. "Defenders knew he was going to go right, and Pete would beat them anyway," says Fredman. He still holds the record for most points scored by a player in a Jazz game. Never was his shooting as electrifying as the night he scored 68 points. "In those days, they didn't have the three-pint line, so really there's no telling how many points he would have scored had it been in place," explains Sparks. "Actually, he fouled out of the game on an offensive foul where he made the basket. Had it have counted, Pete would have had 70 points and should have been going to the line for 71." Apparently, the only one who could stop Maravich on that night was himself.
Sparks, Fredman and Hundley all remember vividly the night that changed Pete Maravich's career forever. The Jazz had just caused a turnover when Maravich spied Aaron James at the other end of the court standing wide open. Pete leapt up in the air and flipped the ball behind his back and between his legs to complete the perfect pass. In doing so, his right arm hit his right leg, which threw him off balance, and he crashed to the floor. "It happened right in front of me, about the same location where I sit now while broadcasting at the Delta Center," says Hundley. "The place went quiet as everyone could see he was seriously hurt." In the fall, Maravich rolled and tore the cartilage in his right knee.
After the accident, Maravich's game would never be the same again. "He was in the top 10 in four statistical categories when his knee went out," says Fredman. "He was leading the league in scoring and was in the top 10 in assists, steals, and free throw percentage. He was at the top of his game."
With limited mobility in his right knee, the career of Pete Maravich was cut short of what it could have been. Most fans in Salt Lake were never able to see him play in his prime, since he was on the downside of his career when the team moved to Utah. "He did however, have a couple of gamse where he scored in the thirties and put the show on for the people in Utah," says Hundley. "It let folks see what a great player he had been in the past."
Pete Maravich was the total offensive package. To Pete, the basketball was not another object on the court, but an extension of his hand. "I've never seen anyone able to pass, handle the ball, and shoot the way that Pete could," says Fredman.
It is argued that there have been players who could shoot the ball better or dribbled better. John Stockton could lay claim to being the superior passer. Pete Maravich's greatness was in his mastery of all three. "All those things combined, I have never had the opportunity to see anyone as great as he was," says Sparks. "It was simply amazing to watch."