A look back on Maravich, 25 years after his death
(Editor’s note: Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of LSU legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich. In remembrance, we’ve dug into the Tiger Rag vaults to uncover the reaction to Maravich’s untimely death at the time. This column was published in the January 16, 1988 edition of the magazine. The photo is a painting by Baton Rouge artist Jacob Zumo, whose art you can find by CLICKING HERE.)
He was the NCAA scoring king who reigned on the basketball court with majestic grace. But Peter Press Maravich had a vulnerable quality that made his heroics even more remarkable. Even when he lit up the scoreboard like an arcade, the “Pistol” looked more frail than his adversaries. He was a mortal performing superhuman feats. Last week, Pete gave us all a lesson in mortality when his heart stopped at age 40 after a pickup game at a California gymnasium. The last words have been written about Maravich the man, but enough prose will be composed about Maravich the legend to fill a library.
The legend of Pistol Pete began in 1947 in the steel hamlet of Aliquippa, Pa. His father Press placed a basketball in the crib of son Peter, who didn’t stop playing the game until his death last Tuesday. Pete grew several inches taller than Press after his father advised him to hang from a door frame to increase his height. At 6-5, Maravich was the perfect size for a scoring guard. But his long, lean limbs were easy targets for more muscular backcourt players who would bump and shove Pete all over the court. Still, the “Pistol” kept firing away until he rewrote the college record books with 3,667 points and a 44-point per game average.
Maravich continued his scoring assault in the NBA with a 24-point average for 10 seasons. But he was slowed by a knee injury and forced to retire prematurely at age 33. “I felt like a car without brakes,” said Pete. The scoring king was forced to leave the game without the championship ring that eluded his grasp.
For Maravich, his racehorse pace on the court was matched by a fast lane lifestyle outside the arena. When the Pistol dribbled out of the NBA in 1980, he had put plenty of miles on his slender frame. The adulation millions of fans paid him for his athletic triumphs could not erase the pain of his personal tragedies. In one decade, Maravich broke the NCAA scoring mark, signed a record contract with the Atlanta Hawks, saw his father fired at LSU, returned to New Orleans as a charter member of the Jazz, had his mother take her life, led the NBA in scoring, ruined a knee, migrated to Utah and Boston, and retired. His quest for happiness continued without the unfulfilled goal of an NBA championship to shoot for.
Two years after his last basket, Maravich’s relentless search for satisfaction culminated with his conversion to Christianity. His religious conviction was the driving force in the final five years of his life. “His last 45 minutes on this earth were spent at a church playing basketball, which seems rather fitting,” said Dr. James Dobson, who eulogized his friend at Saturday’s funeral.
Former University of Florida Coach John Lotz remembered the evangelistic fervor which consumed Maravich in the last few years. “Pete would finish most of his talks by saying, ‘Seek pleasure and happiness and you’ll never, never, never find it,’” Lotz said. “‘Have the wisdom to seek obedience in Christ and happiness will find you.’”
Certainly, Maravich discovered a reservoir of strength after becoming a born-again Christian. Basketball was no longer an escape from reality, but a forum for Maravich to share his testimony. Maravich and his father shared Bible verses in the final months before Press Maravich died of bone cancer last April. “Get things organize up there and I’ll join you someday,” said Pete at his dad’s funeral. He then buried his father with a basketball.
A painful shoulder kept Maravich off the court in the last few months, but Dobson said Pete enjoyed his final game and commented how he missed the game. Yes, it was appropriate for Maravich to die at a church playing basketball. The game provided him fame and Christianity gave him an identity. The last words Maravich spoke last Tuesday were, “I feel great.”