When Pete Maravich played his first game in the NBA in October of 1970, ABC -- which held the NBA rights at the time -- televised it. That is how important it was. The game was not promoted as the Atlanta Hawks versus the Milwaukee Bucks but as Pistol Pete Maravich's pro basketball debut.
Maravich was that good. He was The Pistol, a nickname that had as much to do with his personality as his ability to score. He had a style all his own, with the floppy hair and the floppy socks and the passes that seemed to come out of his ears. He scored 18 points that first day as a pro and the Hawks lost. In truth, that was appropriate, because he never played with good teams until he became a Boston Celtic at the end of his career when most of the spark in him was gone.
He died yesterday at the age of 40 on a basketball court. To wax poetic and say that was somehow right would be silly.
It's enough to say he died doing the one thing that set him apart, made him unique.
And he was unique.
He never played on an NCAA tournament team during three seasons at Louisiana State. He never played on an NBA championship team during 10 seasons in the league. Maybe it mattered to him. Maybe it bothered him. But to those who saw him play, it didn't really matter. When Maravich played basketball he was the soloist and everyone else was the corps de ballet. Others had their moments; you held your breath waiting for The Pistol.
He was never about numbers, but he had some that were breathtaking. He is still the NCAA's all-time leading scorer, even though he played only three years and players have been allowed since 1972 to play four years. He averaged 43.8 points per game as a sophomore; he averaged 44.2 as a junior and 44.5 as a senior. In 83 college games, he scored 3,667 points. Only two other players -- Freeman Williams of Portland State and Harry Kelly of Texas Southern -- scored more than 3,000 points in their careers and both did it in four years. In all, he still holds 14 career, single-season and single-game NCAA records almost 18 years after he played his last college game.
And Maravich never played on good teams at LSU. His father, Press, just never got very good players to go with Pete. The best season the Tigers had was his senior year in 1970. They finished 20-10, and fourth in the NIT. That meant teams were gearing their defenses for Maravich and he still put up those extraordinary numbers.
He also could do things with a basketball, dribbling or passing, that no one could duplicate. Maybe someone could do it as part of an act, but not as part of a basketball game. One friend of mine remembers seeing Maravich during the 1970 NIT stop at three-quarter court as the defense came to meet him and, without missing a beat, throw a perfect pass to a cutting teammate at the opposite foul line. No big deal. Except he threw the pass between his legs.
Maravich worked to be able to throw those passes. Lefty Driesell was at Davidson in those days and young Pete came to his summer camp every year when he was in high school. "I never met anyone more dedicated to the sport than Pete," Driesell said yesterday. "We had this concrete wall at one end of the gym and Pete used to go off by himself and practice throwing passes off that wall. Hundreds of them. Between his legs, behind his back, off his head. You name it.
"Then he would go to the center court circle and work on dribbling. Every possible dribble you could imagine. I used to try to get my guards to do those kinds of drills, but they couldn't. They got too tired. He would be out there doing it in 100-degree heat. One time I said to him, 'Pete, all these years I have never once seen Oscar Robertson throw a pass behind his back or between his legs. All he ever throws are two-hand passes and chest passes.'
"He just looked at me and said, 'Coach, I want to be a millionaire someday and they don't pay you a million dollars for two-hand chest passes.' "
He became a millionaire, but whether the money ever bought him happiness is impossible to say. He scored more than 15,000 points in the NBA, averaging 24.2 points a game during his career. What can't be calculated is how many people bought tickets strictly to see The Pistol or how many kids let their socks droop during the 1970s so they could imitate him.
But The Pistol was inimitable. He was a transcendent player in that there was never anyone like him before and there has never been anyone like him since. He ended his career on the Celtics bench one year too soon to be part of a championship team. In recent years, Pistol stories have cropped up. There was trouble with alcohol for a while but lately he has shown up on the Billy Graham Crusade preaching about how he found God.
His words may not be remembered; his basketball will never be forgotten. He always stood out, always did what no one else would even try.
Within the confines of that 94-by-50-foot court, he rose above the masses. There he was The Pistol. And there the fatal heart attack struck him. If they make a movie of his life story, The Pistol's last shot will swish through the net.