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The final day of 'Pistol Pete' Maravich

The Hall of Famer died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1988 at 40.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

‘Pistol Pete’ was one of the flashiest ball-handlers to ever play in the NBA.

PASADENA, Calif. — The beauty of pickup ball is how the culture dunks on your income, race, religion, politics, occupation and type of car you drive. Your status is determined by what happens once the sides are chosen. Then it becomes pure basketball, accepting all recreational players willing to risk an ankle sprain for the love of hoop.

And that’s why he walked into the gym here at the First Church of the Nazarene at dawn on Jan. 5, 1988, to embrace a game he’d played all his life. A 40-year-old who recently found God also chose to reconnect with basketball, and this calling was every bit as spiritual.

“He’s here,” announced Dr. James Dobson, who organized the weekly pickup games. “Pete’s here.”

Pete Maravich obviously had credentials far beyond the collection of middle-aged 9-to-5ers who excitedly negotiated amongst themselves to be his teammate. This was a rare exception to the pickup rule where someone’s status did matter, although Maravich was no ringer, not seven years into retirement. He was still linguine-thin and kept a mop of hair, but he had knees that were duct-taped, a bum shoulder and more rust than an antique store. Most revealingly, his socks no longer flopped.

But: Here in everyone’s midst was a basketball legend, “Pistol Pete” in the dry-aged flesh, and so …

“Hey guys,” he said, cheerfully. “How’s everyone?”

Well. That question was unnecessary, because with Maravich in the gym, ready to mix with regular Joes, this was a you’re-not-going-to-believe-this story anxious to be told tomorrow at the office cooler. Everyone was thrilled, thank you very much. As fate would have it, that very same question would be repeated about 45 minutes later, this time with the tables turned.

Dobson, sizing up a sweaty Maravich while they stood near the free throw line, catching their breath between games:

“How do ya feel, Pete?”

“I feel great.”

Shaun Powell shares more details about Pete Maravich’s final day.

And then, when heart failure caused Pete Maravich to suddenly collapse face-first to the floor, the cruelty is how his body allowed him to live just long enough to tell that lie. Or maybe his defective heart showed mercy, allowing him to live long enough to throw slick passes and score thousands of points and dribble with amazing command in the first place.

Whatever the conclusion, a transformational NBA star died tragically and instantly in the prime of his life one January morning here in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just outside Los Angeles, and it would be three decades before that would happen again.

Pete Maravich and Kobe Bryant, both game-changers, were very special while very young, groomed by demanding fathers, performed at breathless levels and earned a space on the wall inside the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Curiously, their final resting places were only 20 miles apart. However: The difference in the public reaction to those deaths was big enough to fit their combined scoring averages.

When a helicopter carrying Bryant and others crashed into a hillside near Calabasas a year ago this month, folks as far away as France developed cantaloupes in their dry throats. The tragedy instantly became a where-were-you-at flashpoint in the lives of millions, the kind that get frozen in time and seared in the memory. Thousands of fans did group therapy by quietly loitering, zombie-like, outside of the Staples Center for days, and leaving behind basketballs and home-made sympathy cards for the Bryant family, and holding lit candles while wearing Kobe jerseys. Big, strong NBA players cried. Just the shock of it all, combined with the addition of his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, in the crash, was haunting. Beyonce sang at his memorial before 18,000 sniffling mourners at Staples.

Lakers legend Kobe Bryant prepares for his final NBA game against the Jazz in 2016.

Whoever was the Beyonce of 1988 did not sing at Maravich’s memorial at the First Baptist Church (Hundreds Mourn Basketball Great was the next day’s Associated Press headline) near the campus of LSU, where he broke records and any defense thrown his way. The Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics, the franchises Maravich repped in his 10-year NBA career, played the next game on the schedule, unlike the Lakers, who were too crushed about Kobe.

Except in Louisiana, where he lived and was adored then and even now, Maravich was the lead story only for a day. Certainly, the world changed since. Kobe’s career began just as the NBA’s popularity mushroomed; he also played in the age of 24-hour sports TV and for the world’s most appealing team; and social media now amplifies everything, especially for the famous. Twitter didn’t crash the day Maravich died because Twitter was two decades too late.

This wasn’t the first time Maravich was a victim of timing. His basketball tricks made him a highlight pioneer … in the 1970s, before TV actually showed basketball highlights. Few players could match the contents in his bag, which included behind-the-back passes thrown from 30 feet, between-the-legs dribbles with either hand, and body-contorting jumpers from any spot on the floor. Slow-motion replay wasn’t invented for him but it explained him. Maravich is one of the few players from bygone eras who wouldn’t need to overhaul his game to flourish today, and actually could be more effective now, with rules against hand-checking and the emphasis on the 3-pointer. Plus, he hurt his knees well before surgical medical advancements arrived to extend careers.

And so, it’s reasonable to conclude this: Had he played this decade with current technology to repair those knees, and died in today’s viral world under the exact same suddenness as in 1988, the reaction from passing of “the Pistol” — who was a year younger than Kobe at the time of their deaths — would be seismic.

If nothing else, Maravich’s death left a tattoo on the pickup players who witnessed his final moments. Those accountants, lawyers and businessmen are still shook by the sight of Maravich lying on his stomach, foaming at the mouth. Some in the group hysterically searched for help while others were too stuck to the floor to move. Maravich died; they wear the scars.

“Pete could’ve died anywhere in the world but he died with us and there’s got to be a reason for that,” Gary Lydic said. “We were just a bunch of guys in a gym. We didn’t know him, never met him before. We couldn’t figure out why he was with us. Still can’t.”

Maravich was in town because that’s where his journey of faith led him. He flew to California from his home in Covington, La., to tape a Christian radio show for the Focus on the Family ministry led by Dobson. By then, Maravich found a purpose in his post-basketball life after a desperate personal search that detoured through depression and a bout with the bottle.

As a child prodigy, basketball was all Maravich knew. His father, Press, schooled him early and often. The two were inseparable through college because Press was his coach at every step. Some stories of Maravich’s quirky practice techniques had the ring of truth; others were fanciful. Like: Did he really sharpen his ball control by dribbling out the window from the car passenger seat while his father drove slowly?

After a college career that surely will never be repeated — Maravich averaged 44.2 ppg for three years without the 3-point line (!) or shot-clock (!!) — his NBA career was brilliantly bittersweet. When healthy and at his peak, Maravich was a hellish offensive player, a five-time All-Star, twice named All-NBA First Team, and led the league in scoring at 31.1 ppg in 1977-78 when he dropped 68 in a game. But, he only played 43 games after the introduction of the 3-point line. His defense often lagged. He was trapped on mostly mismanaged teams, never with a champion. And he hobbled his final three seasons, injuries stealing his movement and confidence.

When basketball was done with him, Maravich acknowledged he was “lost” and, after spending his time drowning in sorrow and solitude right after retirement, he embarked on an age of rediscovery. He tried Hinduism, went vegan before it was trendy, and even became a UFO truther. Ultimately, he arrived at Christianity and the religion affected every facet of his rebirth.

He was a sought-after speaker for church groups and gatherings and agreed to spend a few days in Pasadena at the request of Dr. Dobson, an evangelical leader and influential national voice.

Dobson also was a passionate pickup player and for three days each week led a different kind of congregation at the Pasadena church.

“I loved to play and inviting Pete was one of the most audacious things I’d ever done,” Dobson said. “He was showtime before anyone knew what showtime was.”

The usual pickup gang was alerted days earlier about a special guest, and the player assigned with bringing Maravich from the hotel at 6 a.m. was Lydic, who couldn’t sleep the night before. Lydic parked at the San Dimas Inn and was embarrassed about using his dented Chevy Blazer to transport a VIP, but Maravich put him at ease instantly by extending a handshake and saying, “This must be the man.”

As Lydic tried to change lanes from the on-ramp, he swerved suddenly to dodge a speeding van. He remembers thinking: “Lord, not now, not with Pete in the car.”

Along the way, Lydic told Maravich about his father, who was fighting cancer in Dayton, and how it drained the family and him personally. Maravich suddenly perked up. His own father, Press, lost a four-year battle with prostate cancer the previous spring. Pete took over his father’s life those final years — seeking alternative and holistic medicines in Germany, spoon-feeding him, changing his clothes, even bathing him.

“Gary,” said Maravich in the car, “I’ve been there, and I want to go through this with you.”

They arrived to see the players waiting. Norm Moline had earlier searched his mother’s attic and found a Maravich rookie card he hoped to get signed, and also brought a camcorder to video the action. Ralph Drollinger was the only player besides Maravich with any pedigree; Drollinger jumped center for two John Wooden championship teams at UCLA and had lunch in the NBA. Chris Hancock was anxious to play with and against Maravich and then return home to celebrate his daughter’s birthday, obviously with much to tell, even to a four-year-old.

Drollinger and Maravich were put on opposite teams to make it even. The former pros shared a wink and a nod, which was code for: Let them have their fun.

“Me and Pete were amused by the other guys trying to impress us,” Drollinger said.

Maravich moved slowly and gingerly. He already confessed he hadn’t played in months, and even then, rarely. His sore shoulder restricted his range of motion. He blended in, much to the surprise and relief of a group that initially feared a one-man takeover.

“I remember Pete throwing up one shot that banked in that he didn’t intend to bank,” Hancock said.

The two games were typical of half-court pickup ball, first to 20 wins the game, then extended breaks for wheezing middle-agers. Moline videoed the first game, then handed his camcorder to someone else and played the next.

“Pete was funny,” Moline said. “We would do some spin moves trying to impress him and he said, ‘Don’t believe your own headlines.’ He was having fun, a real enjoyable guy. Just teasing and joking.”

After a second break, and as others went for the water fountain, Maravich and Dobson stayed and spoke. Right before saying how great he felt, Maravich took a practice shot, which was retrieved by Lydic under the rim.

“I went to rebound it and started to pass the ball back to Pete and before I could do that, boom, he hit the floor,” Lydic said. “I knew he had a great sense of humor. I started to walk over and I was believing he was going to jump up in my face. But that was not the case. As I got closer I saw his eyes going back, his face was turning a different color and Dr. Dobson began giving mouth-to-mouth.”

Players hustled back into the gym. Moline ran to the church office to dial for help — this was before cell phones. Hancock canvassed a near-empty campus looking for someone who knew CPR. The others gathered around Maravich and dropped to their knees. Some prayed, some wept.

“We were pleading with God to not take Pete now because he had a platform, he was sharing his journey,” Lydic said.

A caravan followed the ambulance to St. Luke’s Hospital. Once there, the players bowed heads and held hands in the waiting room. It was just five minutes later, or maybe seven, when the doctor emerged. He didn’t need to speak. The men already knew “Pistol Pete” died not in an emergency room, but at church and on a basketball court, the twin sanctuaries where he felt most at peace.

Someone called his home in Covington. His wife, Jackie, screamed. His two boys, Jaeson (then age eight) and Josh (five), were summoned from St. Peter’s School unexpectedly and quickly. They arrived home to see 20 to 25 cars parked along the street. When told by their mother what happened, Jaeson ran upstairs, looked into the bathroom mirror and started crying. Josh, too young to comprehend what it all meant, just wanted to know when his dad was coming home so they could shoot on the Nerf hoop in the attic again.

Somehow, despite yearly team physicals since high school, Maravich’s congenital heart defect went undetected. He was born without a left coronary artery, which supplies blood to the muscle fibers of the heart, and the right artery, which had compensated for the imbalance, was overwhelmed. It was a medical miracle he lived 40 years and that millions of fans weren’t deprived of a “Pistol Pete” no-look pass thrown off the dribble with a flick of the wrist.

James Dobson name-drops Maravich in speeches at conventions and on radio programs. Two years after Maravich died, Dobson suffered a minor heart attack in a pickup game, near the very same spot on the floor where Maravich collapsed.

A look at the exterior of the First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo via First Church of the Nazarene)

Norm Moline is sure he still has the original copy of the hazy video of Maravich’s final minutes somewhere; he’ll have to search for it, same as he did years ago for those Maravich cards which were never signed. Moline says until his recent divorce, the Maravich death was the worst day of his life.

Drollinger said he was prepared psychologically for the Maravich death from his family’s brush with near-tragedy years earlier. His father stumbled and fell deep in the Sierra Nevadas during a hike and a rescue-team helicopter crashed trying to save him; another was summoned and airlifted him just in time.

“What I took away from that day with Pete is, you never know, with the fragility of life, whether today will be my last day,” he said.

Lydic began a series of basketball camps in Maravich’s memory, continuing a line of work that Maravich dabbled in post-retirement. Lydic’s camp prioritized kids from single-parent households because “Pete’s wife was now single with two boys.”

Parker Gymnasium at First Church of the Nazarene is unchanged. The hardwood stays polished and sunshine blasts through the windows at each end. There is nothing that indicates this is where Maravich spent his last breath.

“It doesn’t come up often,” said Melody Bundy, an executive assistant at the church. “Most of the staff know what happened, but the number of people who were around that time is dwindling.”

The gym stays busy, used for a vast amount of events and serves as a multi-purpose space. Preschool activities are held weekly, plus day camps and other programs for children.

Tuesday and Friday nights are reserved, though. That’s for the men’s pickup league. Games start early and can run late. It’s a schedule that’s gone uninterrupted since Pete Maravich collapsed.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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