Maravich, Peter Press ("Pete")

views updated

MARAVICH, Peter Press ("Pete")

(b. 22 June 1947 in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania; d. 5 January 1988 in Pasadena, California), professional basketball player who revitalized the game in the 1970s with his fancy dribbling, precise passing, and improbable shots.

Maravich was the son of Peter Maravich, a college basketball coach, and Helen Maravich, a homemaker. His father, nicknamed "Press" because, like the Pittsburgh Press, he was never at a loss for words, came from a family of Aliquippa steelworkers. After the war Press played professional basketball for the Youngstown Bears, and in June 1946 he married Helen Gravor Montini, a one-time Aliquippa high school cheerleader whose husband had been killed in the D-Day invasion. The couple moved to different college towns where Press found coaching work.

Maravich gained a love of basketball from his father, who was consumed by the game. He often accompanied his father into the team's locker room, where the sights and sounds of the game became ingrained in the young boy. During the summer vacation Maravich was on the court from 8 a.m. until after dark. He practiced dribbling blindfolded; he dribbled while riding his bicycle; he went to sleep with a basketball.

Because Maravich was so talented, the small, frail seventh grader played on the junior varsity of Daniel High School in Clemson, South Carolina, where his father coached Clemson College (now Clemson University). By the ninth grade in 1962, he had earned the nickname "Pistol Pete" because of his off-the-hip style in firing up a one-hand push shot. Maravich spent six to eight hours a day in the gym practicing, and he was averaging twenty points a game.

In 1963 Press Maravich became the coach at North Carolina State, and Maravich attended Broughton High School in Raleigh, where he immediately became a varsity starter. By 1965, his senior year, the six-foot, three-inch, 160-pound star was averaging thirty-two points per game. Beginning in high school, Maravich was distinguished by the floppy gray socks he wore, which often slid to the bottom of his spindly legs, and his brown shaggy hair. Following Maravich's graduation, his father sent him to Edwards Military Academy in Salemsburg, North Carolina, for a year of prep school to increase his strength. Because of his low Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, Maravich could not get into North Carolina State, so his father took a job coaching varsity basketball at Louisiana State University so he could coach him there. At this time Maravich's mother, Helen, depressed from living the life of a basketball coach's wife with its frequent relocations, began to drink heavily.

In his first game on the freshman team of LSU in 1966, Maravich scored fifty points, grabbed fourteen rebounds, and earned eleven assists. By the end of the season, he had averaged 43.6 points. A varsity player in the following year, Maravich scored fifty-eight points against Mississippi State, leading LSU to its first winning season since 1961. He became the nation's leading scorer, averaging 43.8 points per game, and was named to the All-America team.

In his junior year Maravich became LSU's all-time leading scorer and was featured in national magazines like Sports Illustrated and Life. By his senior year in 1970, Maravich, who had always enjoyed partying, began to drink before games. He was expelled from college in April 1970 for prolonged absences from class. Nevertheless, by the end of his senior year, he led the nation in scoring for the third straight year and was named College Basketball Player of the Year. During his time at LSU, Maravich scored a total of 3,667 points, and averaged 44.2 points per game, the highest ever recorded. In 1971 LSU named its $11.5 million, 14,000-seat sports arena after Maravich.

In 1970 Maravich was drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA) by the Atlanta Hawks. His five-year contract, worth $1.5 million, made him the highest paid athlete in the history of sports; and other Hawks players resented the high-priced rookie who was the only player interviewed by the media after games. Maravich kept on drinking, partying, and scoring. In 81 games he scored 1,880 points, a 23.2 per game average. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie team.

Maravich missed part of the 1971–1972 season due to mononucleosis. The 1972–1973 season was Maravich's only winning season in the NBA. His 26.1 points-per-game average earned him a spot in his first All-Star game in 1973. In 1973–1974 Atlanta had a losing season, and Maravich was suspended indefinitely by Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons for drinking. By the end of the season he was traded to a new NBA team, the New Orleans Jazz, signing a three-year $1.2 million contract.

The 1974–1975 season was a tragic one for Maravich. His father was fired as coach of Appalachian State in North Carolina, the Jazz finished a 23–59 season, worst in the league, and in October his mother, Helen, shot herself. Somehow Maravich recovered. On 11 January 1976 he married Jackie Elliser, his college sweetheart. He began to lift weights for strength. The Jazz hired a new coach, Elgin Baylor, the legendary former basketball player, and Maravich was voted to the All-NBA team for the first time. In 1977 Maravich led the league in scoring. On 25 February 1977, against the New York Knicks, guarded by Walt Frazier, one of the all-time best defensive players, Maravich scored sixty-eight points, the most ever scored by a guard in a single game to that time.

Then disaster struck again. In a game against the Buffalo Braves on 31 January 1978, Maravich tore the cartilage in his knee after delivering a nearly impossible between-the-legs pass. The injury resulted in surgery, a cumbersome brace, and a loss of most of his playing time for the next two seasons. By 1979, when the Jazz had moved to Utah, Maravich had an infant son but was drinking more and more. He stopped working out, and his new coach, Tom Nissalke, benched him for hogging the ball. Maravich was waived by the Jazz, and in January 1980 the Boston Celtics, who were having a great year thanks to rookie Larry Bird, picked him up. Maravich played only twenty-six games with Boston and retired on 20 September 1980, even though Boston had offered to renew his contract.

Maravich disappeared from public view for the next two years. While he looked after his small construction business in Covington, Louisiana, he contemplated suicide and continued to drink heavily. Although Maravich and his wife now had another son, he began to dabble in astrology and mysticism. One night in November 1982, he thought God spoke to him. After this experience Maravich became a born-again Christian, touring schools and prisons and preaching the gospel. On 5 January 1988 Maravich died of a heart attack after playing a three-on-three pickup game in the First Church of the Nazarene gym in Pasadena, California. An autopsy revealed that he had been born without one of the two arterial systems that carry blood to the heart. He is buried at Resthaven Cemetery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Although Maravich was often accused of refusing to share the ball with his teammates, his achievements on the basketball court are undeniable. At LSU he set NCAA records that are still unbroken. He scored 43.8, 44.2, and 44.5 points per game in his 1968–1970 varsity seasons, leading the nation in scoring each year. He scored fifty-plus points in twenty-eight games. He owns NCAA records for most points in a season (1,381), most points in a career (3,667), highest career scoring average (44.2 points per game), most field goals made in a career (1,387), and most field goals attempted (3,166). As a professional basketball player, Maravich was named an All-Star five times and led the league in scoring in 1977 with a 31.1 points-per-game average; he had a career average of 24.2 points per game. Maravich was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame on 1 May 1987, and in 1997 he was honored for being among the NBA's fifty greatest players of all time.

Maravich's autobiography, Heir to a Dream (1987), written with Daniel Campbell, reveals the player's love-hate relationship with his father and his personal disappointment at the public perception that he was a loser. Phil Berger, Forever Showtime: The Checkered Life of Pistol Pete Maravich (1999), traces Maravich's life and career in an unsentimental, realistic manner. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, San Diego Union Tribune, and Washington Post (all 6 Jan. 1988). The Union Tribune obituary contains a lengthy summary of Maravich's college and professional statistics. The television drama The Pistol: Birth of a Legend (1990) explores the early life of Maravich, showing how the thirteen-year-old introverted boy not only made the high school varsity team while still in the eighth grade but also led it to the state championship.

John J. Byrne