Saturday marked 25 years since the LSU luminary passed away
By MARTY MULÉ
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
It was Back-to-the-Future basketball. LSU got to see what was coming long before the game evolved to what it is today.
That vision of tomorrow came in the skinny form of Pistol Pete Maravich, a round-ball savant who changed the sport from a mid-school year bridge between football and spring football at LSU . . . in the Deep South, really, and left an imprint on the national game - and record books - that may never be erased.
Really, think about it. How many players out there could average 44.2 points for three years, or if there was one in today’s world, stay in school and resist the pros for that long?
Maravich, the electrifying ball-handling genius, more than four decades after he played college ball, is still identified with LSU more than any team he played with in his 10-year pro career.
He hit the sport like a fireworks spectacle in the mid-1960s, and mesmerized fans for the following decade and a half. And Pete did it the hard way when he took the floor of the old John M. Parker Agricultural Center, the Cow Palace where LSU played then, a not-so-subtle indication of where basketball stood at LSU then.
The afterglow of the Maravich era was the impetus - along with the missionary zeal of Dale Brown, who succeeded Pete’s father, Press, as Tiger head coach - to basketball taking its rightful place as a major sport at LSU. He brought national attention, filled stands at a places in the South where that had rarely been done, and entranced spectators from one end of the country to the other with occasional television appearances, basketball being what it was in those days, and clips.
There was no 3-point shot, no shot-clock, even ball-handling was far more restrictive than today. Yet he scored 3,667 points, the Division I record that has held up now for 43 years, and was perhaps the greatest ball-handler of all-time.
It’s been said basketball at that time was seen in grainy black-and-white, while Pete Maravich was a stunning 3-D technicolor production.
Like a shooting star Maravich lit up the basketball skies, then faded out. It’s 25 years Jan. 5, 1988, that Pistol Pete dropped dead on a basketball court at age 40 after a pick-up game with friends in California. A congenital heart condition that normally would have killed him by his mid-teens finally got him.
It was a passing most of us would accept. Maravich had demons through most of his public life with alcohol. At the end he had peace in a new-found devotion to Christianity with his wife Jackie and his two sons, Jaeson and Joshua.
But what he left for those who saw him play was a consensus that here was one person who truly came along far ahead of his time. As Sport magazine once wrote on the game’s transcendent figures: “If Pistol Pete were born 50 years from now he’d still be ahead of his time.” In the book Remembering Pete Maravich, the late Coach John Wooden of UCLA recalled, “I remember seeing Pete when he was in junior high, and even then he could do more things with a basketball than I had ever seen anyone do, and that includes the Harlem Globetrotters.” Former Alabama coach Wimps Sanderson reiterated, “Maravich could do more with a ball than anyone who ever played. He expanded the game.”
Ex-teammate and opponent Jim Barnett spoke more of Pistol’s ball-handling. “In our day, we had to dribble with the hand on top of the ball. When Pete was coming down on the fast break, at any given moment the ball would be out in front of him like it was suspended in air, and he would make a swipe at it with his right as though he was going to pass it to his left, but would go underneath the ball and then twist his right hand over so it was facing back to the right and pass the ball that way to the right wing, and he did it smoothly and quick. The guy was just ahead of his time.”
There’s a realistic thought that had Pete had come along in the 1990s instead of the 1960s, there might have been a need for two record books, one for Pistol Pete and one for the rest of basketball.
Consider this: in his All-Pro NBA career Maravich scored 15,948 points, again before the 3-point shot. Between college and professional basketball, with the advantages players today have, and realizing maybe a third of all his shots came from 3-point range, Maravich may have scored 5,000 points at LSU and 25,000 as a pro.
“There’s no question he regularly would have had 70-point games under today’s rules,”‘ said Joe Dean, a former All-SEC player and later LSU’s athletics director.
As it was, Maravich had to settle for just a 69-point effort against Alabama as his scoring highlight.
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His shooting came under fire by purists at the time, though his three-year percentage was a respectable 45 percent - way more than respectable when the difficulty of some of his attempts is taken into account.
But the feeling was Maravich, despite being hampered by intricate defenses just to stop him, had to shoot for LSU to have a chance to win.
“In Pete’s first SEC game as a varsity player, against Alabama,” Bud Johnson, then LSU’s sports information director, recalled, “the first three times down court he hit teammates under the basket, with passes right on the button. All three went right through their hands.
“You could see in his eyes what he was going to do next. Pete came down the fourth time - and put the ball up from (what is now) 3-point range. Pete couldn’t depend on his teammates. He had to do it himself.”
Detractors also enjoy noting he also never played in the NCAA Tournament, or played on a championship team. They need to put things in perspective. At the time only 24 teams - 44 fewer than today when half of entire conference qualify - made the tournament, and unless a team was champion of its league it didn’t get in. There really was very little more Pistol Pete could have done. The season before he donned an LSU varsity uniform the Tigers were 3-23. He never played on a losing Tigers team, and at the end of Maravich’s senior season in 1970 LSU was 22-10 and finished second behind Kentucky in the SEC.
That was represented a .700 percent improvement at LSU.
The same silly criticism of not winning a title could also be pointed at, say, such Hall of Famers as Ted Williams, Dan Marino, or Charles Barkley.
But here’s something to ponder: had Maravich really come along later than when he did, his game might have gone through the stratosphere. Longtime basketball analyst Billy Packer explained, “He had incredible range on his shot. This is something people wouldn’t be able to comprehend with him, that he was so great with the ball that you had to worry about his penetration line. If he had the 3-point shot, you would have had to to pick him up even farther away from the basket. That would have opened up even more penetrating lanes for him. Not only would it have been the number of points that he would have scored with so many of his twos being threes, it would have been almost impossible to guard him knowing you had to put so much pressure on him so far away from the basket.
“At the 3-point line, with people guarding him in a box-and-one or some standard form of defense, all you could do out there was contain him, trying to get him to move in some direction. He would have been a 50-point-a-game scorer without question.”
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And there was much more to Maravich’s game than shooting. There was nothing Maravich loved more than an assist, a statistic the SEC began tracking in his sophomore season. Untrained students were keeping those new - and subjective - statistics at most SEC arenas.
“Pete would practically have to hand the ball to someone on the way up to get an assist at places like Oxford, Miss., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.,” Johnson said. “He’d say say, ‘I get cheated on the road and you guys don’t help me at home. What he particularly loved about a basket was it couldn’t arbitrarily be taken away. If it went in, it counted.”
As a sophomore Pete had 105 assists. There is a compelling reason to believe Maravich may have been short-changed. Four of his teammates were among LSU’s top 10 percentage shooters. Dave Ramsden (.643), Al Sanders (.585), Bill Newton (.544), and Danny Hester (.514) were in the record books decades after the fact.
“Do you think it was their great shooting” asked Johnson, “or do you think just maybe there might have been a couple of pretty good feeds under the basket?”
That sophomore season Maravich not only led the nation in scoring (43.8), and had a team-high 105 assists, but was also LSU’s third-leading rebounder with 195.
Still, shooting is what caught people’s attention. Maravich lore always includes a double-overtime 90-80 victory at Georgia in which he brought LSU back from a 10-point deficit by scoring 58 points - and 24 of the Tigers’ last 29.
Herb White, later a close buddy with the Atlanta Hawks but on t night a Bulldog, recalled: “He was out there dribbling around and we were out there just trying to catch him and either foul him or steal the ball, and we couldn’t do either. He went into this kind of Globetrotter routine. Going between his legs and behind his back, and it was just incredible. Guys were falling down and couldn’t catch up with him.
“Finally, as the clock is running down, with about five seconds to play, he dribbled right toward our bench at the end of the floor, and then dribbled the ball out toward half-court - and as he got to half-court he just turned around and threw up a hook shot from like 40 or 50 feet and the buzzer went off as the ball was in the air, and he just knocked the bottom out of the basket - boom!
“It wasn’t the winning basket because they already had the lead, but it was the exclamation point. Our fans came pouring out of the stands, and they had him up and carrying him off the floor and it was a celebration down at that end, and it was our gym!
“That was the kind of excitement Pete could generate. He drove people crazy. No one had ever seen anything like that.”
Or anyone like that - before or since.
Marty Mule’ can be reached at MJM981two@charter.net