This was the most penetrating insight of Pete Maravich and his basketball skills: “If he were born today, he’d still be 50 years ahead of his time,’’ Sport magazine wrote of him in the 1990s in a story on basketball’s transcendent players.
Pistol Pete turned a generation onto the game, changed it in the South from a mid-winter bridge from football to spring football into a seasonal passion all its own. He dazzled throngs, made plays that nearly defied description, brought the word “showtime’’ into the lexicon of basketball and became the youngest male elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It has been 25 years since Maravich died at age 40 on Jan. 5, 1988, of a congenital heart defect that should have killed him as a youngster. Today, to a succeeding generation, Pete Maravich is sort of a mythic figure, a name known mainly because it is attached to LSU’s assembly center. Not all can connect the man and his deeds.
They missed out.
Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game, a major-college record of 3,667 points in a three-year varsity career before the advent of the 3-point shot and the college shot clock. He went on to five All-Star Game appearances and an NBA scoring title.
That will always be the legacy of Pistol Pete, along with the widow he left behind, Jackie, and their two sons, Jaeson and Joshua — who now run a national basketball fitness business in Covington, where the family settled during Maravich’s time as the face of the New Orleans Jazz.
But shooting wasn’t even his strongest suit. His greatest skill was his mesmerizing ballhandling. In “The Big Show,” ESPN’s Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick wrote that the ball seemed to be “an extension of his hands, going back and forth like a yo-yo.’’ Former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, later a commentator, put it in stronger terms: “Maravich could do more with a ball than anyone who ever played the game.”
Full-court behind-the-back assists, sleight-of-hand dribble maneuvers, bounce passes — some off his head — separated Maravich from his peers. In college, he once scored 52 points and had the crowd buzzing afterward over an assist. The right-handed wizard, on a two-on-one break, hit the outside man for a layup with a left-handed, behind-the-back pass. Famously, Carl Stewart, coach of Baton Rouge’s predominately black McKinley High, said the first time he witnessed Maravich magic, “My God, he’s one of us!’’
John Havlicek, a fellow Hall of Famer, put it in perspective: “The best ballhandler of all time was Maravich.’’
A place in history
Maravich was a seminal figure in the history of Southeastern Conference basketball. He almost single-handedly focused attention on a sport that was a decided stepchild to football in the South. The excitement he generated yielded full houses across the league for the first time. In his aftermath, practically every school in the SEC, including LSU, constructed bigger arenas for basketball.
His signature achievement was breaking Oscar Robertson’s scoring record of 2,973 career points, set a decade before at Cincinnati; Pistol Pete finished with 694 more. It ranks with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in standing for so long — 43 years for Maravich, 72 for the Yankee Clipper. No one has seriously challenged either and, in Maravich’s case, that is despite enormous change in college basketball since his final LSU season of 1969-70.
‘An extraordinary player’
Detractors point out that Maravich never played on a championship team. They miss the point. The season before he donned an LSU varsity uniform, the Tigers were 3-23. But he never played on a losing team and, at the end of his senior season, LSU was 22-10, finishing second to Kentucky in the SEC.
Jeff Tribbett held an unusual distinction. He started in the backcourt with Maravich after a high school career in Lebanon, Ind., where he played with Rick Mount, the nation’s most sought-after prospect as a high school senior.
“(Maravich) was probably the greatest guard who ever lived, and a great scorer,’’ Tribbett said 25 years after Maravich passed the Big O. “But Pete was more than that. In my mind, he was the greatest ballhandler that ever lived. He changed the game in that, from the NBA down to junior high, now you see people trying to do what he was criticized for doing: behind-the-back passes, between-the-legs assists. Pete showed those could be effective offensive weapons. But his scoring is what caught everybody’s attention.’’
The late Scotty Robertson, the former Louisiana Tech coach who became an assistant with the Jazz when Maravich played there and then spent 25 years as an assistant with several NBA teams, agreed.
“Pete was an extraordinary player,’’ he said. “And he would have been a star — a star, I’m saying — with every pro team I coached, including Michael Jordan’s (Chicago) Bulls.’’
After a relatively short pro career — 10 seasons, including one when he was sidelined with Bell’s palsy, and later when a severe leg injury curtailed his play for the final few years — Maravich was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
In Maravich’s four years at LSU, the Tigers played in the John M. Parker Agricultural Center, a place for livestock shows and rodeos with a dirt floor on which a wooden surface had to be placed to host basketball games. Practices often were held in a high school gym.
The structure that bears his name, which the Tigers now call their basketball home, didn’t open until Maravich had left for pro ball.
“The assembly center was not high on the state’s spending priorities,’’ said Bud Johnson, then the school’s sports information director. “It was an artist’s rendering for five years on the press guide.’’
Then John J. McKeithen, the sports-loving governor of Louisiana, wanted to see what all the fuss was all about and started attending games — right at floor level. “He saw the suddenly filled arena and the excitement Pete caused, and he started thinking basketball at LSU could really be something,’’ Johnson said.
It can be argued that Maravich is still assisting the game at LSU.
“Do you think Dale Brown would have come to LSU without that assembly center?’’ Johnson asked.
The Tigers are trying to get back to respectability now but, since Maravich left, LSU has been to three Final Fours, won six SEC championships (giving the Tigers 10, a far cry from Kentucky but more than any other school) and had 18 NCAA tournament appearances.
"Think of all the players that followed him,’’ Johnson said. “Shaq, Chris Jackson, ‘Big Baby’ Davis — all those guys would have been playing somewhere else without the arena made necessary by Pete coming through here.
“Ole Miss, Georgia, Auburn and Alabama all already had up-to-date arenas before LSU. Ole Miss of all places had a modern place to play before LSU. That’s how far behind LSU was. People at that age couldn’t connect with basketball. Some of the thinking was that a sport women could play couldn’t be all that tough.
“But Pistol Pete, still dishing out assists, turned on the governor of Louisiana — and set the table for what came later.’’