by Jack Maidment
Forget about the black and white film: Pete Maravich’s game was built for nothing but high definition.
Perhaps more than any other player in the history of basketball Maravich has not received the praise and acclaim that a man of such other worldly talents deserves.
Simply put he was a revolutionary, a player with a gift to entertain. It is one of the greatest and saddest ironies that such a man played in an era when the NBA was at its lowest point in attendance and number of televised games.
His opportunity to stun a national audience was rare, especially given the teams he played for during his career, but he left an indelible mark on those who did see him dance in his raggedy Chuck Taylors and famous floppy socks.
Pete Maravich only ever had one destiny; his father, Press, ensured that when he placed the ball in his infant son’s hands.
The young Maravich practised the drills of his father incessantly until his command of the ball was total.
Living with his father’s obsession for the game almost guaranteed that his understanding of the game would be light years ahead of any of his team mates in high school.
Passes hit faces and fingers were stubbed as The Pistol, so named because he hoisted his shot from the hip like a gun slinger when he was playing as a skinny 13 year old, unleashed his brand of whirling, no-look, high-octane transition basketball.
His mastery in high school soon generated the kind of buzz that is all too familiar today but had not been seen since the fabled exploits of a teenage Lew Alcindor; Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.
You would think that the pressure he had going into his freshman year at Louisiana State University, mainly from his father who was the team’s coach, should have caused some sort of slip up or let down, some hint that the boy-wonder was human.
No chance. The 6-5 Maravich took his game, by now labelled as ‘Showtime’ to college and flourished.
In his first year he averaged 42.6 points a game, single handedly thrusting LSU basketball into the public conscience, making them the team to watch in the late 1960s; a feat that cannot be underestimated given the strength of LSU’s affinity with football at the time.
Making basketball relevant would be a theme for the rest of his career.
Not only did he score like no guard before him, but in his first year he averaged 10.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists, the complete player.
In his first season at the top of college ball he was imperious and unplayable.
There was no second season slump either, just continual, almost machine-like brilliance: 43.8, 44.2, 44.5 points a game in his sophomore, junior and senior years.
He was a unanimous first team All American for 1968, 1969 and 1970.
He won the Naismith award in 1970.
He was The Great White Hope.
His storied college career, his box office draw and his skin colour made him a heavily fought over prospect for the pros.
ABA and NBA teams offered and counter offered with Pete eventually becoming the property of the Atlanta Hawks.
Joining a team with little in the way of surrounding talent the onus was on Maravich to single handedly drag a woeful franchise to respectability in a city with little appetite for basketball.
He was at once one of the League’s best scorers and undoubtedly its most entertaining player.
He was the fourth leading scoring player in the League for the 1970s and his career year in 1977, having been traded to the New Orleans Jazz in 1974, should be remembered as one of the finest individual seasons by any athlete.
Averaging 31.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists the only comparable stat line is Michael Jordan’s 1987 season: 37.1 points, 5.2 boards and 4.6 assists.
Figure into that the fact that Pistol played before the introduction of the three point line and it is perfectly plausible to add another four points a game to his ’77 season average.
No player has been more suited to playing with a three point line: his range would have forced opposing defenders to play him tighter or risk getting burned from deep, opening up the rest of the floor for his on-a-string handle and his master-of-geomotry passes.
It is a great testament to his ability that the Jazz would set NBA attendance records with a mix of good pricing ($1.50 for an upper bowl seat) and Maravich’s astounding skill set drawing crowds not to see a good team win but rather a great individual put on a show in another city which was not naturally drawn to the game of basketball.
Starring on poor teams was to be Pete’s gift and curse for all of his prime. He had the ball whenever he wanted it, could shoot when he felt the need, but ultimately he would never get close to even mild playoff success.
It was as if a bargain had been made. You can have one, but not the other.
A knee injury towards the end of his career may have slowed him slightly but ‘Showtime’ remained, a precursor to the brand of basketball that Magic Johnson and the Lakers would make famous just a few years later.
Like every human being he had his personal problems and quirks, including a fascination with UFOs, but whenever he was on the floor he was in his element. Born to do it.
The court was his canvas and he was only limited by the confines of his imagination.
He died in 1988, aged 41, while playing a game of pick-up, eight years prior to being named one of the NBA’s best 50 players during the League’s 50 at 50 celebrations: recognition of the foundations for the modern game that he laid down so early and in such majestic style.
The complex mix of startling vision and magical passing will never be rivalled.
There will only ever be one Pistol.