January 5th of this year marked the 30th anniversary of the untimely death of one of the greatest basketball players of all time, "Pistol" Pete Maravich (1947-1988). He was often called "the best ball-handler of all time." Maravich was only 40 at the time of his passing.
Pete Maravich was born in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, an industrial town on the Ohio river just outside of Pittsburgh. His father, Petar "Press" Maravich was the son of Serbian immigrants, who populated Pittsburgh in large numbers at the turn of the century looking for manual labor in steel mills. He was nicknamed Press because of his daily gossip-style updates about local and world events. He coached NC State, Louisiana State and Clemson men's basketball teams.
Pistol impressed his family and friends with ball-handling skills from a very early age. His father apparently had his son make 100 shots from the free throw line in their driveway every night after dinner before going to bed. Pete claimed he often made 99 straight before deliberately missing the next several shots just so he could continue playing ball outside. Press said that at the age of 11 his son once succeeded in making 500 consecutive free throws after school, stopping only when it became too dark to see the rim. From his habit of shooting the ball from his side, as if he were holding a revolver, Maravich became known as "Pistol" Pete.
He played for three years for the LSU Tigers, where his father was the head coach, because freshmen could not play varsity sports at the time. Nevertheless, during those three years he became the NCAA leading scorer with 3,667 points, averaging an incredible 44.2 points a game. He still holds that record. When one watches videos from Pete's days at LSU, it looks like he could do anything he wanted on the court and score at will. The LSU indoor stadium was renamed Pete Maravich Assembly Center soon after his death in 1988.
During his professional career in the NBA, he played for three teams: Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Jazz, which moved to Salt Lake City in 1979, and Boston Celtics. He averaged 24 points per game during the eleven years he spent in the league. In the 1976/77 season, he led the league in scoring with 31.1 points/game. He played in four All-Star Games. A year before his repose he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and his jerseys were retired by the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans and the Atlanta Hawks.
He was well known for his acrobatic moves: underhand passes across the entire court, passes through his legs, behind the back, no-look passes, switching the shooting hands in the air, pump-fakes, superb ball-handling skills and fast break finesse. "Flashy and electric, he turned basketball into theatre" said a commentator once. During his last professional season, the three-point line was added, and everyone was eager to see how Pete would fare with it, since he had been known for long-range shooting. He hit 10 of the 15 three-point attempts, and finished his career with a 67 three-point shot percentage.
After knee injuries forced his retirement from the game in autumn 1980, Maravich became a recluse for two years, not leaving his house, looking for answers. He said he was searching for life. He tried to practice yoga and Hinduism, read Thomas Merton's The Seven Story Moiuntain, and took interest in ufology. He also experimented with macrobiotics. Eventually, he embraced evangelical Christianity, and started actively preaching his new-found faith.
On January 5, 1988, Maravich collapsed and died of heart failure. An autopsy revealed that he did only had one coronary arthery, which supplies blood to the muscle fibers of the heart. He left a wife and two sons behind.
Maravich's mystique only increased after his early death. A number of books and films about this basketball legend have been released in the past 30 years. The 2001 documentary Pistol Pete: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich begins with the words: "Pete ate, drank and slept basketball.” Once entirely dedicated to basketball, he devoted the last few years of his life to Christ, in whom, according to numerous testimonies, he finally found peace.