Remembering Pistol Pete
The game of basketball is in a terrific place today. The players collectively enjoy a level of skill that we have never seen before. What once seemed impossible only a few years ago, is now routine. Indeed, in the past few years we have seen Allen Iverson cross over Michael Jordan, Steve Nash fire away passes in tight spots off the dribble to Amare Stoudemire for thunderous finishes, Chris Paul cross over defenders and make them look silly as he finished with a tear drop and Jason Williams pass the ball behind his back off his elbow to a teammate. Long story short, the game has changed since the days Bob Cousy sprinted up the court dribbling with his right hand on the ball during fast breaks while casually allowing his left hand to touch the ball.
One of the players responsible for the evolution of the sport as we know it today is none other than Pete Maravich. Some may have heard of him because of his breathtaking ball handling skills, while others heard of the man nicknamed the Pistol because of his prolific scoring and others only know about him because no one was more creative in completing passes than Pistol Pete.
But to label him as anything other than a complete basketball player and a showman would be unwise.
Understanding who and what Maravich was requires looking back a little. He was the son of legendary player and coach Press Maravich who was a pioneer amongst his peers as a head coach.
In the book Pistol The Life of Pete Maravich, Mark Kriegel tells the story of John Wooden successfully recruiting Lew Alcindor (who later changed his to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to play at UCLA. However, the legendary coach needed input at the time on how to best utilize the center’s skills. This in turn resulted in Wooden contacting Maravich and asking for advice, which he gladly provided. Needless to say, the elder Maravich was a very well respected basketball mind.
Given Press Maravich’s love for basketball as well as his unconditional love towards his son Pete, he decided to merge both interests together with the hope of creating a prodigy. And boy did he ever. Press often left his son alone as a young child in a basketball gym while he went on road trips to coach against teams outside the city. His only instruction to his son: “play”. And by the time the games concluded and he came back, to pick up Pete, he was still in the gym practicing.
The brilliant coach also took it upon himself to put the younger Maravich through some tough basketball drills to help him perfect his dribbling as well as his shooting. Once that was done, Pete Maravich had to play against older players in order to gain the confidence needed to play against all types of competition.
By the time the future NBA star was 16 years old, he would play against some college players and embarrass them. He would literally put on dribbling exhibitions at the expense of these more accomplished players and make them look completely ridiculous as he also found a variety of ways to score on them.
Press Maravich did his best to instill the discipline necessary to become a great basketball player, but he also believed in playing the right away, the mantra made famous in recent years by Larry Brown.
But if Press had a weakness, it was his son. He saw him for the prodigy that he was, and thus when he became his high school basketball coach, he completely ignored his very own philosophy in favor of a Pete-centric offense. Consequently, the new basketball star dominated the box score because his coach gave him the green light to shoot the ball while all his other teammates had the equivalent of the yellow light.
Pete Maravich’s exploits as a high school basketball talent made him attractive to several universities. However, LSU was able to hire his father as the team’s head coach and Pete consequently followed him to Louisiana State University.
Naturally, the elder Maravich brought with him to LSU the exact same playbook he had used when coaching Pete in high school.
If you thought, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson were given some leeway to shoot when they reached the NBA, well Maravich’s college career would probably make them envious. Sounds like an exaggeration right? Well consider that Pete Maravich averaged 38.1 field goal attempts during his four-year college career. Have a look at his college statistics:
His consistent scoring throughout his time at LSU was quite impressive and made him the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer; however the team’s philosophy made for a one-man show instead of a cohesive basketball team. And yet, no one player captivated the country quite like Maravich did. He played with confidence and did things on the court that no one had ever seen before.
As a result, home and road games were sold out; and a few LSU games aired nationally. And it’s easy to why.
Put it this way: regardless of how you felt about X-Men: First Class, you enjoyed watching the movie because of Magneto’s (character portrayed by Michael Fassbender) impressive display of power on mere mortals. The other characters as well as the plot might not have interested you all that much, but Magneto sure kept you on the edge of your seat. In a nutshell, that was Pistol Pete during his college years.
At the conclusion of his collegiate career, Maravich joined the NBA as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. No longer was his father protecting him and running everything through him; now Maravich had to earn his place amongst men. He eventually figured things out and earned his spot on the team despite the players’ apprehension towards him.
Indeed, lost in all the glamour of Maravich’s flashy passes and suspect shot selection was the fact that the team resented him because he was the team’s highest paid player as a rookie and was seen as the savior of the franchise before having played in one NBA game.
Despite the grumblings and bad atmosphere, the Pistol went on to average 23.2 points, 4.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game on 45.8 percent field goal shooting in his rookie season.
For all of his brilliance as a player though, Maravich faced the same wrap that Allen Iverson would face when he joined the NBA: point guards are supposed to set the table and prepare the food and drinks for everyone to eat. Instead, Maravich was more of the type to bring food to the table and eat it; leaving a few pieces here and there for others.
Right or wrong, Maravich did what he had been taught to do his whole life by his father and it made him successful. And in essence, that’s what made him so fascinating as a player. He saw how others played the position, but the idea was completely foreign to him. As a result, Maravich had trouble finding the balance between setting up teammates and figuring out when to assert himself.
He could go through games and seem completely disinterested because of his lack of aggressiveness, but then could turn it on and start raining shots from every spot on the court but ignore some of his teammates in the process.
And the irony of it all is that a man that had trouble fully grasping the point guard position actually revolutionized it.
We look at the NBA game today and see crossover dribbles, behind the back passes, impossible fade away shots, passes through the legs and faking behind the back passes for lay ups; and those plays today seem routine, but there used to be a time during which no one saw anything of the sort; until the Pistol showed up that is.
Peter Press Maravich was voted the 1969-70 NCAA AP Player of the Year, made the All-NBA 1st team twice and was selected to five NBA All-Star Games.
He never won a championship during his collegiate and professional careers and also was never voted as the NBA League’s MVP. Maravich never received any of the accolades reserved for stars that are part of winning teams, because his teams rarely did much winning. And yet, those who saw him play will never forget him because he is one of the best talents to ever come across in the game of basketball.
His 1987 induction into the Hall of Fame confirms just how amazing of a player he was, and thus he is one of the Legends of our Game.