The Forgotten Pioneer of Modern Basketball
With March Madness in full swing, it's only right that we take a look back at the most iconic player college basketball has ever seen:
Off the court, Maravich was best remembered for his thin moppy hair, floppy socks that hung way too loose around his ankles, and his iconic nickname—“The Pistol.” On the court, Pistol Pete was known for his theatrics with the ball in his hands. The 6-foot-5 guard performed passes and shots that left fans and opposing teams in awe.
Despite it rarely being talked about today, Maravich dominated opposing teams and had one of the most historic college basketball careers ever. At LSU, he would go on to average 44.2 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, and 5.1 assists per game. He set the record for most points in a collegiate career with 3,667, as well as the record for the top three highest-scoring seasons with averages of 44.5, 44.2, and 43.8 points per game—all marks that still stand today. This was also done without three-pointers; some say he would have averaged as high as 58 points per game with the modern three-point line.
“He is the best passer and ball-handler I have ever seen,” said former college rival Dan Issel. “He made some phenomenal passes; behind his back, around his head, between his legs, blind passes.”
Maravich glided up and down the court with speed and strength despite his frail frame. He was unpredictable and inventive. He owned a plethora of never-before-seen jump shots and passes that he would break out every time he took the court. His circus style of play was well before his time and iconic. Whether it was a fadeaway, hook shot, or no-look pass, Maravich was always putting on a show for the fans.
While Maravich seemed to dominate every team he faced, there was one performance that just wasn’t quite like the others.
The year was 1970, and it was Pete Maravich’s senior season. Heading into the game, the LSU Tigers were 12-5 and visiting an Alabama Crimson Tide team that was the inverse at 5-12. By this time, everyone who was a basketball fan knew of Pistol Pete. No matter where he played, crowds gathered and stadiums sold out. This time in Tuscaloosa was no exception, and the fans certainly got their money's worth.
With only 22 points, the first half of the game was a bit underwhelming for Maravich. Although he was making plays left and right, his team was losing and he was just barely on pace to hit his per game average.
In one instance in the first half, Maravich was sprinting down the court before coming to a complete stop and flipping a no-look pass behind his head to an open teammate; oddly enough, this was pretty normal. Maravich was raised doing absurd drills all throughout his childhood that would prepare him to make plays identical to that.
From a young age, Maravich always had a basketball in his hands; he became enamored with the sport. He would wake up and be at the YMCA at eight in the morning and stay the entire day just dribbling and shooting. There would even be times when Maravich would be practicing all throughout the night.
Maravich would dribble everywhere; however, it wasn’t just his obsession that led him to be one of the most talented basketball players ever—it was the obscure ways he practiced his craft.
“Press would drive the car and Pete would get in the back seat,” said family friend Dag Wilson. “One time around the block he would be hanging out the right-hand side with the glass down dribbling the ball. The next time around, he would move to the left-hand side of the car and dribble with his left hand.”
I can’t speak in terms of certainty, but I'm not sure I know of anyone else that practiced their ball-handling skills while hanging out of a moving vehicle. This wasn’t a one-time thing, either; they would do this regularly. As if he were simulating sprinting with the ball, Maravich got used to dribbling at fast speeds.
Another odd way Maravich practiced basketball was at the movie theater.
“He would bounce it off of chairs; he would bounce it off the arm,” said childhood friend Tom Hendricks. “He would be bouncing it off of people's heads until he irritated somebody, then they would go get the management, and out he’d go.”
Maravich loved the game of basketball and couldn’t get enough. The list doesn’t just end with practicing from a car and a movie theater, either. Maravich would dribble around his house blindfolded, dribble while watching TV, and dribble while riding his bike.
After halftime of the Alabama game, Pete Maravich decided he had enough and would tear apart the Alabama defense. Maravich put on a performance full of all the moves he had been practicing since he was a child. Behind the back, between the legs, off-balance jumpers, no-look passes—he pulled out every trick in the book to score 47 points in the last 20 minutes of gameplay. Unfortunately, even with this stellar display by Maravich, his LSU Tigers would go on to lose the game 106-104.
Maravich took pride in putting on a show for the fans; even if his team ended up losing the game, he wanted to give the fans their money's worth.
“Without spectators, you don’t have any athletics,” said Maravich. “And what I try to do is just give the spectators their $3.00 or $3.50 a ticket worth of enjoyment.”
And on February 7, 1970, he did exactly that—put on a show. It was one of the most thrilling performances in college basketball history. His 69 total points in the game were a mark that would stand for 21 years. As previously mentioned, Maravich also holds the record for the top three scoring seasons as well as the most career points in a collegiate career—both marks that will likely stand for a very long time.
Pistol Pete’s brilliance on the court was unseen, paving the way for basketball to be the free-formed art that it is today. His circus antics were flowing and allowed basketball to break away from the conventional and often stagnant style of play that was seen during this time period.
“Ever since I was perhaps 12 years old, I threw a behind-the-back bounce pass during a junior varsity game between a defender's legs. And I looked around and I saw the fans and how excited they really got,” said Maravich. “I just saw the excitement of entertainment that you could bring to people and that they would really enjoy that, so I wanted that. It was like a drug inducement to me.”
This 69-point performance is the best representation of who Pistol Pete was as a player. Win or lose, he was going to put on a show.