When he saw the young coed coming up the hill, her arms full of books, Pete Maravich reached into his Volkswagen and grabbed his basketball, tucking it under his arm. Without the ball, he was shy, reserved, soft-spoken. With it, he was confident, bombastic, brash.
And for this occasion, he would need all the confidence he could muster. Freshmen at LSU in the fall of 1966 were the lowest of the low. The upperclassmen forced them to buzz their heads, and the only cover for their bad haircuts were ill-fitting beanies, whose tiny bills, when upturned, revealed their last names sandwiched between the words “Dawg” and “Sir” – an accessory this particular Dawg had no interest in donning at the moment.
Instead, he slid on his sunglasses and leaned against his Volkswagen, parked at the top of the small hill overseeing the north side of Tiger Stadium, just across the street from the basketball offices in the Gym Armory. When the young lady was near enough, he leaned against the car and called out to her.
Shocked, she looked up.
“Oh, hi. Hi. Do I know you?”
Pulling his glasses back, he replied: “I’m Pete Maravich.”
Her face remained unchanged.
“Aren’t you a track star or something?” she asked, before continuing to class and leaving her would-be suitor in the dust, as humbled and embarrassed as the many defenders he’d soon torch time and time again in a legendary college career.
It was, quite likely, the last time Pete Maravich went unrecognized on LSU’s campus.
Before he’d scored a single one of his 3,667 varsity points – then and still and probably forever an NCAA Division 1 record – before he’d zipped any behind-the-back, between-the-legs, or no-look dimes, before he’d pulled on the now-retired No. 23 jersey and rocked his trademarked floppy socks and flowing locks, before his name adorned the Assembly Center, before the Assembly Center was even built, and even still before he’d earned the signature Pistol nickname, Pete Maravich was simply a 6-foot-4, 160 pound freshman with a bad haircut and mediocre game with the ladies.
In 1966, when Maravich arrived in Baton Rouge, freshmen were still ineligible for varsity competition, so the 741 points, 187 rebounds, and 124 assists he piled up in the ’66-67 season aren’t included in his historic numbers. His team’s 17-1 record is little remembered by those who weren’t a part of it, and his jersey for that season alone – No. 24 – is a detail lost to all but a handful of photographs and sharp memories.
And basketball, well, basketball was the bastard of LSU athletics, a bridge between football and spring football that most, excluding only the hoopiest of hoop heads, opted to bypass.
Pete Maravich changed all of that. Fifty years ago, he performed a miracle. Before he transformed the game on a global level, helping to infuse mainstream basketball with the panache of the Globetrotters, bridging the NBA of Russell and Wilt’s to the NBA of Magic and Larry, Pete transformed the game on a local level.
As a freshman at LSU, he revived a dead sport in a football-obsessed culture with room for little else. He stylized a stale game, long restricted by traditionalism, as only a showman a century ahead of his time could. He packed thousands to a foul-smelling arena for afternoon tipoffs whose results mattered little or less. He transformed apathy into awe, one magical bounce of the ball at a time.
Perhaps most miraculous of all is that it nearly never happened.
THE BULLET WAS barely out of Jim Corbett’s chest when he found The Pistol. LSU’s athletic director left the hospital on April 20, 1966, less than two weeks after taking a slug to the sternum, in a bizarre shooting incident at a motel that nearly cost the life of the man responsible for bringing the Maravich family to Baton Rouge.
According to the police report, Corbett, who had a history of heart problems, left a local night club at 11:25 p.m. and was driving home when he felt chest pains. That’s when he pulled over and approached the window of the Traveler’s Motel at 6813 Jefferson Highway, reportedly seeking assistance.
He didn’t get it.
Inside the room were O.S. Coleman, a Sorrento plant worker, and a female companion. When Coleman saw Corbett in the window, he pulled out his 22-caliber derringer and fired at Corbett’s chest. Corbett fled the scene in his car, crashing it minutes later at the intersection of LaSalle and Audubon, where four teenagers found him. Doctors later said Corbett was 10 minutes from death, but after four blood transfusions and a few days of recovery, he headed home, a little worse for the wear.
There would be no rest for the weary. Two days before the shooting, Corbett had accepted the resignation of basketball coach Frank Truitt, who’d left LSU, it was later reported, because he was prohibited from recruiting black players. Corbett was a former NBC Sports television executive who believed strongly that basketball could be a revenue generator, but Truitt’s sudden departure left him without a coach and with little to entice a new one. LSU’s facilities were abysmal, and plans for a new 14,500-seat assembly center appeared to be stuck in the legislative mud. The team, meanwhile, had enjoyed little success since Bob Pettit’s departure in the mid-50s, with just one winning season in 12 years.
Candidates, Corbett knew, would not be easy to come by. His first chocie, Vanderbilt’s Roy Skinner, whom Corbett invited to his home for a few days before offering him the job, turned him down. As Skinner, the first to coach a black player in the SEC, prepared to board his flight back to Nashville, he crossed paths with the next of Corbett’s candidates, who’d just stepped off a flight from Raleigh.
Press Maravich had appeared on Corbett’s radar at the recommendation of Haskell Cohen, then the P.R. director for the NBA and the creator the All-Star game. Cohen knew a thing or two about branding basketball, and he’d known Corbett from his days at NBC. He was among Corbett’s first calls, as soon as his health permitted, in the search for Truitt’s successor.
“Corbett said he was in the market for a basketball coach, and he would appreciate some suggestions,” Bud Johnson, then the sports information director for LSU athletics, recalls. “And (Cohen) said, ‘I know where you can get a good coach and a good player.’”
Press had taken over for the legendary Everett Case ahead of the 1964-65 season and subsequently won the ACC Tournament title. In two decades of coaching, he’d built a reputation among his peers as a basketball junkie with a knack for X’s and O’s. Among his frequent callers were John Wooden, who’d often pick his brain on various strategies, including the high-low offense Wooden would make famous with Lew Alcindor at UCLA. He’d proved at Clemson a decade earlier that he could be relatively successful in a football-first setting.
And, as Cohen knew all too well, Press had a kid who could flat out ball. Pete was named Parade All-American in 1965 – Cohen was a longtime Parade contributing editor – after scoring 32 points per game at Broughton High School. His books and his build needed work, however, and at Press’ insistence, Pete spent a year at prep school working on his academics and trying to add weight, averaging 33.5 points per game at Southwood College in the process.
Pete’s scoring average increased at Southwood, but his standardized test marks did not. He couldn’t crack the requisite 800 SAT score required for admittance into ACC schools. Playing for Press in Raleigh was out, but Pete had his fair share of suitors. West Virginia, Kentucky and UCLA showed interest, and the prospect of following in the footsteps of Jerry West was particularly attractive to Pete.
It was less attractive to Press. He, understandably, wanted to coach his son in college, a dream he’d long harbored but one that was slowly slipping away because of the ACC’s rigorous standards.
Then, Corbett called. He flew Press down for a visit, ensuring that assistant coach Jay McCreary gave him a less than thorough tour of campus and the hoops facilities.
“McCreary was a good company man, and he did his best to conceal the negatives as he drove Dad around the sprawling campus,” Pete wrote in his memoir, Heir to a Dream. “At the time, Dad didn’t think much about it as his tour guide accelerated the car and cruised past the John M. Parker Coliseum. He would discover later that a walking horse show had all rights to the Coliseum until two weeks before Dad would debut his Tiger team. His practice sessions would have to take place in a high school gym with a short floor.
“Indifference such as this seemed to spark the drive in Dad to want to succeed all the more.”
Press entertained the offer. It would open the door to coach Pete, and he loved a challenge. He’d once built a gym from scratch while head coach at Davis and Elkins, clearing the ground himself in a tractor borrowed from a neighbor. But at the time of his interview with LSU, he was also being courted by the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets, who were talking serious dough. With nothing to lose, he made Corbett an outlandish offer: he’d come to LSU, but it would cost LSU a five-year contract valued at $15,000 a year – more than double his salary at N.C. State.
“Dad wasn’t looking for another rebuilding challenge when he first interviewed for the LSU position,” wrote Pete, “but he needed more pay. He was still in debt and having to borrow a hundred dollars a month from the NC State football coach just to pay monthly utilities. Dad didn’t tell Corbett this information. He didn’t have to. Jim Corbett wanted the best coach he could find, and he knew my Dad was his man.”
Press accepted the LSU job in May of 1966, and immediately began recruiting. His primary target, of course, was Pete, but the younger Maravich was less certain than his father about the move south. He’d grown intent on playing for Bucky Waters at West Virginia, “a basketball school,” in his mind. Pete’s reluctance to sign a scholarship with LSU soon became a source of friction in the family. Sternly, Press informed Pete, with a few choice words, he’d not be welcome home if he left for a destination other than Baton Rouge. Pete didn’t flinch at first, but eventually offered a counter to his dad’s deal: he’d go to LSU – if his father bought him a car.
Pete’s scholarship papers remained unsigned for weeks, but by June, Press was telling local reporters Pete would be a Tiger. By July, Pete had signed his grant in aid. And by August, he’d arrived on campus – driving his new Volkswagen.
BUD JOHNSON COULDN’T believe his eyes.
This is him? he thought. This is Pete Maravich?
Johnson was a basketball guy. He knew about Pete long before Press took the LSU job, knew he was a Parade All-American, knew he put up monster numbers in high school and prep school.
Johnson had even spent all summer hyping up Pete’s arrival with his father. As soon as Press was hired, Johnson called a press conference in New Orleans, bringing together cynical journalists with little basketball interest. Their suspicion was only enhanced when the new coach couldn’t stop jabbering about his son.
“He’s in the superstar category,” Press told the press. “Pete can dribble, shoot, make the plays, is competitive and has desire and pride. He’s great. And I’m speaking as a coach. Not a father.”
Press also guaranteed a more entertaining brand of basketball, promising points would be in ample supply.
“On offense, we like to explode,” Press said. “You might say our offense is a series of explosions.”
The media remained unconvinced, both of the style and the star. And they weren’t the only ones holding reservations. When Press invited Johnson to watch Pete put on a basketball clinic during his Basketball Theory summer course for physical education master’s students at LSU, Johnson was similarly skeptical.
“He was not physically imposing,” Johnson recalls. “Rail thin. I thought, Jeez, this guy’s gonna get killed in the SEC.”
Pete was listed in the team roster as 6-foot-4, 165 pounds, and that weight figure was probably generous. The great sportswriter Peter Finney said he was so skinny, he could “tread water in a test tube.” His gangly limbs only added to the effect. Pete wasn’t impressive at first sight.
Until he picked up the ball.
“Once he started handling the ball,” Johnson says, “you knew he was something special. He was so fluid. Nothing was mechanical about him. It was all one, smooth motion. The ball was a part of him.”
Johnson immediately thought back to Boston Celtics’ legend Bob Cousy. Four years prior, at the invitation of the Louisiana High School Basketball Coaches Association, Cousy had come to Baton Rouge to put on a clinic, in the very same Gym Armory Johnson was now standing in.
“I thought, This guy is so much better than Cousy, it’s not even close!” Johnson says. “Cousy was mechanical. Pete was smooth, fluid. I thought, Good grief. This guy is going to be a sensation. And he hadn’t even taken a shot at that point. But his ball handling and his passing was so elevated, so beyond anything. It was unlike anybody else I’d seen.”
Still, Pete arrived in Baton Rouge to little fanfare at a time when Louisiana was, at best, indifferent to basketball. Johnson recalls how years earlier, hall of fame coach Pete Newell, who was just coming off an NCAA title as head coach of Cal, came to Baton Rouge for a coaching clinic. Despite Newell’s success, organizers realized on the day of the event no one was going to show up to The Capitol House Ballroom to hear him speak. Frantically, they phoned Johnson and other LSU staffers to come and pose as coaches, a last-ditch effort to fill the seats and minimize their embarrassment.
“Basketball was a stepchild,” Johnson says. “It didn’t have a big following. We sold about 50 season tickets a year. And I owned three of them.”
If interest in basketball was low, interest in bad basketball was lower. Since Pettit’s departure after the 1953-54 season, LSU had won only 36 percent of its games, with an average record of 9-16 over 12 seasons. The scents of horse and cow manure clung to the Parker Coliseum year round. Victories were few. Fans were fewer.
“When I came to town, there were no brass bands and no ticker tape,” Pete said. “Football was in the air; and as far as Louisiana was concerned, that was all that mattered…Maybe if I had been a halfback they would have noticed, but no one cared about basketball. It was considered a noncontact sport for softies who were a little light in their loafers.”
[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]“Basketball was a stepchild,” Johnson says. “It didn’t have a big following. We sold about 50 season tickets a year. And I owned three of them.” [/su_pullquote]
“Basketball wasn’t an afterthought,” adds Rich Hickman, who arrived as a freshman with Maravich that fall from Aliquippa, Penn., the Maravich’s hometown, “because no one even thought about basketball. When football season was over, it was football offseason.”
On the gridiron, Charles McClendon’s Tigers were coming off an 8-3 season in 1965, capped off by a Cotton Bowl victory over No. 3 Arkansas that snapped the Razorbacks’ 22-game winning streak. The win earned LSU a top-10 finish in the polls and plenty of hype for the ’66 season.
“LSU was having terrific success in football,” says Greg Bernbrock, LSU’s freshman basketball coach in 1966 and an assistant retained from the previous regime. “We had a big mountain to climb in basketball, and everybody knew that. When Pete first came, he wasn’t ballyhooed that much.
“But it didn’t take long.”
The Coliseum was off limits to the basketball team until Thanksgiving, so Pete and the other Tiger hoopsters spent much of the fall in the Gym Armory, which was open to the general student population. There, his teammates adjusted to his no-look passes and uncanny range, while his classmates caught glimpses of his genius for the first time.
“It probably only took 24 hours for some of the students in there working out to watch this guy,” says Bernbrock, “and man, the word spread like wildfire.”
As onlookers marveled, participants did their best to avoid injury. Pete’s fellow freshmen learned the hard way to always be on alert. His passes came from nowhere, fast as bullets. Broken fingers and bloody noses were common for several weeks.
“You could tell right away – this dude was good,” Hickman says. “You didn’t have to second guess. You saw right away the things he could do with the basketball. He was one of a kind. You had to be on your toes and expect anything at any time. You never knew when you were going to get a pass. When he wasn’t looking, he had a sense of where you were and who was the open guy. You had to be prepared at all times. It made us better and smarter.”
[su_box title=”Maravich By the Numbers” box_color=”#461d7c”]Pete Maravich’s Division 1 scoring records, achieved in just three seasons and without the benefit of a three-point line, will likely last forever. Now just imagine if his freshman year had counted.
Stat|Career (1967-1970)|Freshman Season (1966-67)|Total
Field Goals Made|1,387|273|1,660
Free Throws Made|893|195|1,088
50+ Point Games|28|6|34
60+ Point Games|4|1|5[/table][/su_box]
Press anticipated such a learning curve. He’d watched his players at Clemson and N.C. State suffer the same injuries when playing pickup games with his son. Upon taking the LSU job, he’d made it a point to target smart, athletic recruits who could both keep up with and fit alongside his son. He planned to play up-tempo, and he needed players around Pete who could pass, rebound and finish when he drew his inevitable double teams.
“We specifically recruited role players,” says Bernbrock. “We made it very clear when we recruited them that we had an immense talent on hand. We were honest in all of our recruiting, and it worked well. We found and signed players and sold them on the concept that we were going to have a tremendous scorer here.”
Press wisely targeted overlooked prospects used to playing with stars – and used to winning. Finding talented players willing to sacrifice shots would be a challenge, he knew, so he went after guys accustomed to it already. Hickman had prepped alongside Chad Calabria, an all-state performer who went on to star at Iowa. Jeff Tribbett hailed from basketball-mad Indiana and starred next to future Purdue All-American Rick Mount at Lebanon High School.
“I just wanted to play,” Tribbett says. “To put together a really good team, you have to have some role players. In most cases, if you’re going to a Division 1 school and playing, then you were probably the best player on your high school team. But if you get five, six, seven guys in a recruiting class, you can’t play all those guys. Somebody’s going to have to figure out if they want to play, where they want to play and how they’re going to play.”
The class assembled, Press and Bernbrock quickly devised a three-guard offense, essentially unheard of at the time, when two guards, two forwards and a center were the standard. Tribbett, Hickman and Maravich lined up in the backcourt, with Lamont and Drew Corley inside. A revolutionary offense befitting a revolutionary player.
And yet still, not everyone paying attention was convinced.
“There was a lot of skepticism: he’s a coaches’ son, he’s skinny, he’s a hot dog, does all these things with the ball, he shoots a lot,” Johnson says. “There was a lot of skepticism early. He had made Parade All-America, but because nobody had seen him play, there was a little skepticism and disbelief that he was the real deal. I think even some of the varsity had that attitude, until they scrimmaged against him and saw what he could do with the ball.”
When the freshmen blitzed the upperclassmen in the final preseason tuneup, behind 49 points from Maravich, it was clear they had a winning formula. Press soon turned his attention to the upperclassmen, and handed the reins to Bernbrock.
“Press was obviously anxious for Pete to develop,” Bernbrock says. “That was a big year. He was going to be playing varsity next year. But he was 100 percent behind our relationship. We started to run an offense centered around him, one that he would use as he moved into the varsity. We were so abundantly confident that we were going to win every night out, it just became like clockwork.”
And word was spreading. Newspapermen began taking their lunch breaks late in the day to come watch the freshmen practice. One of the local television stations filmed one session, further multiplying the word of mouth across the city. Coaches and general observers of the sport soon became regulars at workouts, drinking in every minute of magic. When Carl Stewart, then the coach at predominately black McKinley High, saw Pete for the first time, he was floored.
“My God,” Stewart said. “He’s one of us.”
THE UPPERCLASSMEN WARNED Rich Hickman to keep his hopes low.
Hickman, like most of the freshmen of LSU basketball’s 1966-67 squad, hailed from basketball country. Despite attending a relatively small high school, spectators numbering in the thousands were ordinary in Pennsylvania. For Tribbett, a Hoosier, five-figure drawings were the norm for the biggest schools.
They were not the norm for LSU.
“We had heard from the upperclassmen: ‘Hey, don’t be disappointed,’” Hickman says. ‘“When you come out of the locker room and there’s only a couple hundred people there, don’t be disappointed.’”
“But when we came out for warm ups, the place was packed.”
Word had spread. They packed the Cow Palace on Dec. 1, 1966 for LSU’s opener vs. Southeastern Louisiana, hoping for a firsthand glimpse of Pete Maravich, to see if he really was worth the price of admission.
Turns out, he wasn’t. He was worth far more.
Maravich scored 50 in his debut, adding 14 rebounds and 11 assists, as the Baby Bengals routed the Lions, 119-70. Hickman added 22. Tribbett, 16. Lamont tossed in 11 points and 14 boards of his own. The numbers were astounding, but it was Maravich’s showmanship that, in Benbrock’s words, “set the place on fire.”
“He kept the crowd in a constant uproar with his dribbling and passing, which kept the defense in a state of near-panic,” read the recap in the following day’s State-Times.
“I’d been waiting for this night,” Pete said. “I passed behind my back, through my legs, and over my shoulders. In one night I tried to turn all the basketball skeptics into disciples, exposing them to a basketball game elevated from the normal sluggish, controlled tempo to a wide-open, catch-us-if-you-can style that our young team quickly installed.”
It worked. The fans, all 8,000 of them, were in a veritable frenzy. The freshmen left the floor to a standing ovation, and the fans didn’t sit back down. Instead, they followed them out the door, a frequent occurrence all season for the 3-23 varsity squad.
“The fans were going crazy,” Hickman recalls. “It was a heckuva way to start your career in college. After the game, they introduced all the freshmen players. I thought I’d played in front of big crowds in high school. This was better than that. Goosebumps everywhere.
“In the dressing room, we were on a high that dope couldn’t get you that high.”
Soon, Maravich mania settled in across Baton Rouge. Fans who’d previously never attended a game were calling LSU, looking for tickets. Governor John McKeithen, already a basketball fan, became a regular, sitting next to Press while the freshmen played and leaving with the rest of the crowds before the varsity game. The athletic department had to reorganize its staffing efforts – two ticket takers were no longer sufficient. Campus security had more traffic to direct between games than after the varsity.
“People started buying so many basketball goals, sporting goods stores couldn’t keep basketballs and goals in stock,” says Johnson. “You’d drive to work one day, pass a driveway on the way to work, on the way back there was a basketball goal that wasn’t there that morning.”
To be sure, Pete had his detractors – still. They were few, but vocal. His flashy style entertained the masses, but miffed old-school fans who swore by the game’s traditional notions.
“The traditionalists didn’t really like that,” Hickman says. “Pete got called hot dog, show boat. Those of us who played with him thought it was great. It upped our game.”
The most vocal criticism of Pete’s play came from New Orleans. One Times-Picayune writer disingenuously worried that the “ballyhoo” around Pete would “do irreparable harm to the young fellow in future years” and, in the next sentence, wrote his game didn’t “rate on the same level with some of the lads who are playing on the Tulane varsity.” (Seriously. He wrote that.)
“The teams in New Orleans, Loyola and Tulane, were nonbelievers,” says Johnson. “They didn’t think this kid was that good. They thought it was all smoke and mirrors and hoop-la. Some of the writers would even say he was overrated.”
Then came scoring performances of 34 against Loyola, 36 against Tulane, 31 and a game-winning shot in overtime against Tulane again, and finally 50 points in a 105-59 win over Loyola, just days after scoring 66 against the Baton Rouge Hawks, a local amateur team made up mostly of former players from neighboring colleges.
“Basketball all of a sudden became a heck of a lot more recognized in Baton Rouge,” says Tribbett.
As Pete’s celebrity grew, his teammates say, his ego didn’t. Some of that was environmental. LSU still required freshmen to participate in ROTC courses in 1966. The haircuts and headgear were natural inhibitors. Some of it was simply Pete’s nature. He could goof off and relax with his closest friends, but he kept his circle small, content to let his game speak for itself.
“He was a little shy at first and reserved,” says Bernbrock. “In some ways, he was pretty humble. He had that immense self-confidence, but he wasn’t out trying to promote himself. He proved it by doing.”
“Pete was just, at that point, one of the guys,” adds Hickman. “The freshman year, we did everything together. There was a nucleus of us that were family. Where one went, we all went. There was no animosity whatsoever.”
Pete was the only freshman with a car, and the drinking age was 18, so his teammates often had to encourage him to drive them around to the local watering holes. It wasn’t that Pete lacked thirst – he would speak and write openly on his troubles with alcohol later in life.
“Pete didn’t go out much because he hated that damn beanie,” says Hickman. “He thought it was the worst thing in the world.”
On the court, Pete was the picture of confidence. Away from it, he was a typical 18-year-old male, still sorting out his worldview and figuring out how to function without a basketball in his hand.
“I can’t say he was a hell of a lot different than the rest of us,” says Tribbett. “You’re exploring your life at that point in your life. It’s the first time you’ve totally been away from home. You’re totally on your own.
“Thank God for basketball and the structure it brought,” he laughs. “Dear God, we could have all gone off the deep end.”
By season’s end, LSU’s freshman team was 17-0, following a 119-98 romping of Ole Miss in which Pete scored 45 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out nine assists – just another average day on the job. With the schedule finished, Press added one last game at Tennessee, whose freshman team was also enjoying a stellar season. It was both a final tough test for the Baby Bengals and a rare road game for a team that spent most of its time in Baton Rouge. Press had designs on prepping his first-year phenoms for the rigors of SEC travel they’d encounter the next year, and Tennessee and its massive Stokely Center was the perfect stage for such a final exam.
Against a Volunteer team happy to take the air out of the ball and slow the game’s tempo to a near halt, the Tigers trailed by two in the final minute. Pete, who’d ground his way to another 30 point night, worked his magic and drew a foul, sending him to the free throw line with mere seconds left and a chance to tie the game. An 83.3 percent free throw shooter on the year, he made the first, but the second spun out, ending LSU’s hopes of a perfect season.
“It was like one of those suspended in time shots,” says Bernbrock. “It went around a couple of times and just popped out.”
Pete, understandably, was dejected afterward. The memory of the lone loss of his freshman season stayed with him for years.
“Losing was like a knife in my heart,” he said. “Inside, I knew I wasn’t much of a sport if I couldn’t take a loss once in a while, but I had conditioned myself for so long to be only a winner so anything less was unacceptable. The Tennessee game was a particularly personal disaster since I felt I had let down my team, the fans, the school, my Dad, and of course myself. All I could think of was a blemished record: 17-1, and I considered the one loss all my fault. The fact that I was double- and triple-teamed the entire night was no excuse.”
After the game, Pete went missing. The freshmen had taken the bus over with the rest of the team, but as the upperclassmen squared off against the varsity Volunteers, Pete was nowhere to be found. Only once the game ended and the team returned to its hotel did they discover Pete had left after the game, walking the full two miles back to the hotel. He’d averaged 43.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game, helping set 39 individual or team records for freshmen. But the number that mattered most was the lone loss.
“The year taught me more lessons,” he said, “though accepting a loss wasn’t one of them.”
OVER THE NEXT three seasons, Pete Maravich would rewrite the record books – first at LSU, then in the SEC, and finally in the NCAA. Though less has been made of his professional career, he led the NBA in scoring in the 1970s with 15,948 points from 1970 to 1980.
But perhaps Pete’s most improbable legacy is the one he left on Baton Rouge. When the Maravich family arrived in 1966, they knew bringing basketball to the forefront would be difficult, both in the city and throughout the rest of the state, too. It was a challenge Press and Pete both embraced.
“Press instilled upon us, ‘We need to rebuild basketball. Not only at LSU, but across Louisiana,’” says Hickman. “We knew the culture, and we had to change that culture. And Pete was the right one to do it.”
Pete’s impact was both immediate and long-term. Instantly, ticket sales skyrocketed for LSU basketball. Ahead of Pete’s sophomore season, the athletic department had to create a special order card for the first time in program history.
“We were able to increase the attraction of basketball in Baton Rouge,” says Tribbett. “I don’t think we ever played in a stadium that wasn’t sold out. That wasn’t because of Jeff Tribbett or Rich Hickman. That was because of Pete Maravich.”
The influx of cash into the coffers of the athletic department also paved the way for the construction of the Assembly Center – posthumously named in Pete’s honor. The project might never have moved from the drawing board to implementation if not for Pete.
He also changed the city socio-politically. It’s easy to draw the line from Pete to the integration of black basketball players at LSU. Press parlayed Pete’s play and popularity into the political capital needed to recruit black players into the program, signing Collis Temple Jr., LSU’s first African-American player, in 1970, just as Pete’s career in purple and gold wrapped up.
[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]“I don’t think we ever played in a stadium that wasn’t sold out. That wasn’t because of Jeff Tribbett or Rich Hickman. That was because of Pete Maravich.” – Jeff Tribbett, former Maravich freshman teammate [/su_pullquote]
In the long term, Pete also ushered in a new era of basketball, popularizing the fast break a decade before Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers. His fancy passing, fluid ball-handling, and fantastic shot-making were ahead of his time – and probably ahead of today’s game, too.
“What guys do today, that was all Pete Maravich,” says Tribbett. “Pete Maravich did that back when nobody else did. He brought that whole aspect to the game back in the ’60s.”
It’s why Pete, as much as any athlete who has ever lived, and certainly more than any to ever suit up for LSU, fits the Sandlot definition of a legend: “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” Pete passed in 1988, the victim of a long undetected heart defect, but his legacy is and forever will be very much alive.
It’s alive every time Steph Curry hits a 30-footer. Pete did that. It’s alive every time LeBron James throws a no-look pass. Pete did that, too. It’s alive every time basketball marvels us, captures our imagination, reminds us we all have moments of magic inside of us, ready to manifest themselves in whatever forms we desire. For Pete Maravich, that magic didn’t start in 1966. That’s just when it took center stage, for all the world to witness, starting with Baton Rouge.
For LSU, no banners hang from 1966. The season didn’t count in the record books. It meant far more than that.
“It meant everything,” Hickman says. “I think the brand of basketball we played our freshman year, the success we had with the wins, the publicity we had not only around the state, but nationally – again, because of Pete – definitely set the tone for what I consider the resurgence of basketball at LSU. There’s been ups and downs since then, obviously, but I think it brought back the fervor of the Bob Pettit era that had been missing for quite a while. What we were able to accomplish that freshman year set the benchmark for basketball being recognized as coming back to good ol’ LSU.
“Everybody talks about our varsity years, but the freshman year is the impetus.”