USA TODAY Sports' AJ Neuharth-Keusch discusses the overabundance of top-notch guards in the NBA and how many of them were left out of this year's All-Star game.
The floppy hair and floppy socks are of another time and place, but Pete Maravich’s fabled game — no-look passes and look-at-me moves — is as current as last night’s box scores.
He launched bombs from the bayou before the three-point line. He was a living, breathing, loose-limbed highlight film before ESPN. Even today YouTube offers a selection of blind bounce passes out of his incandescent imagination. Some are in blurry black-and-white, as if to illustrate a central truth: Pistol Pete was a man ahead of his time.
History isn’t always kind to Maravich’s memory because he didn’t play for championship teams in college or the pros. But his NBA contemporaries say he could have played, and starred, in today’s era — and that he would’ve been a darling of SportsCenter Top 10s and an ever-trending presence on social media.
The NBA All-Star game will be played Sunday in New Orleans, where Maravich spent much of his pro career down the road from Baton Rouge, where he was an LSU wunderkind who scored more points than any other college player who ever lived.
This season marks 40 years since Maravich won his only NBA scoring title — and this month marks 40 years since he torched the New York Knicks for 68 points. (The number 40 is always tinged in melancholy when Maravich is mentioned; it was his age when he died of a congenital heart defect while playing pickup basketball in a church gym in 1988.)
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Maravich was a five-time All Star during his 10-season NBA career. If he were playing today, he’d still be an all-star — and that’s understating it, according to former Washington Bullets swingman Kevin Grevey, who grew up idolizing him.
“Pistol would be today better than he was then,” Grevey tells USA TODAY Sports. “He’s about the only player I could say would be better in this era than he was in his own. And we know how great he was in his own era. Oh my God, he’d be phenomenal now.”
That’s partly because the NBA didn’t adopt the three-point line until the last season of Maravich’s NBA career (when bad knees limited his playing time) and partly because he played when hand-checking could handcuff his brand of creative drive-and-dish.
“It’s not a bully game like it was 30, 40 years ago,” Grevey says. “You always had a hand on your hip. The defender was guiding you, telling you where to go. Now the offensive man tells the defensive player: ‘You can’t touch me.’ They can get to the rim, get into the paint so much more easily now. And that’s what Pistol was so great at. He did it with ball-handling and trickery. He would fool you. And if you didn’t get up on him, he’d shoot a 30-foot set shot. And it was only for two.”
Bill Bertka was the New Orleans Jazz general manager who swung the deal to get Maravich from the Atlanta Hawks for the expansion Jazz in 1974. (The so-called Louisiana Purchase included two first-round and two second-round draft picks plus a pair of expansion-draft vets. “Is that all?” Maravich asked at the time.) Bertka, a scout and consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers, is nearing 90 now.
“In the 1970s everybody ran set offenses that dictated the action of all five players on the floor,” Bertka says. “But in today’s game, with the pick-and-roll and the three-point shot and the ability to utilize his individual skills and go one-on-one, he would have been unbelievable. Of course, he was always great, when healthy.”
Teammate Rich Kelley thought Maravich was the NBA’s best player by early 1978 — stronger and savvier than his earlier iterations. At the end of that January, the Jazz were leading the Buffalo Braves in the late stages of a ninth consecutive win when Maravich uncorked his 15th assist of the night — behind his back, between his legs and laser-beamed up court to Aaron James, who cashed in the dime. Only then did anyone notice Maravich crumpled at midcourt, grabbing his right knee.
“He got up in the air and clipped himself somehow,” Bertka says. “Pete was never the same after that.”
A legend in real time
Grevey was in junior high in southwestern Ohio in the late 1960s when he learned of the skinny kid with the mop-top who was making music on the hardwood in far-off Louisiana. College basketball was hard to find on TV in those days. Grevey’s father, who’d played at Xavier, took his son regularly to college games in Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.
“One day he told me, ‘Kevin, we have a chance, if you do all your homework and all your chores, to go down to Kentucky and watch Pistol Pete play,’ ” Grevey recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, Dad, are you kidding? I’ll do anything.’ ”
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That was the first time Grevey set foot in the arena where he’d play college ball for Kentucky. That night, though, he rooted for one of the other guys.
“I remember the floppy socks and the Beatles haircut and the uniform that looked like it was three sizes too big,” Grevey says. “I could not take my eyes off him. The Kentucky crowd was electric; they knew how good he was. The guy had gifts nobody had ever seen before, almost like a circus act. That was the day I knew I wanted to play the game at a high level.”
Grevey would win an NBA championship with the Bullets in 1978. He remembers being tongue-tied as a rookie when first meeting Maravich. In junior high, he’d tried some of Maravich’s tricks, but coaches quashed them.
“They would break you,” Grevey says. “Pete was lucky. He had his dad.”
Press Maravich trained his son from an early age with an array of exotic dribbling drills then coached him at LSU, where the kid could shoot at will. Maravich played three varsity seasons — freshmen weren’t eligible then — and led the country in scoring in each one. His otherworldly career scoring average of 44.2 points per game came in an era with no shot clock and no threes.
Chicago Bulls forward Doug McDermott, who played for his father at Creighton, has the fifth-most points all time. Maravich, in first, scored 3,637 points to McDermott’s 3,150; made zero three-pointers to McDermott’s 274; and played in 83 games over three seasons to McDermott’s 145 over four.
“The records will never be broken,” biographer Mark Kriegel wrote in 2007’s Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich. “Still, they are woefully inadequate in measuring the contours of the Maravich myth. … There is no integer denoting magic or memory.”
Maravich was named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players when the league celebrated its 50th anniversary at 1997’s All Star game in Cleveland. Bob Costas was NBC’s host that day.
“It was poignant that 49 of the 50 were standing there on the court,” Costas says. “And the only one who was missing would have been one of the younger ones.”
Costas recalls as a teen watching Maravich’s last LSU home game in a rare national TV appearance in 1970. “You’d have to go back and check, but in a 40-minute game both teams scored over 100 points and I believe Maravich had 64 points and Issel got like 56,” Costas says. “If I’m wrong, delete the paragraph. If I’m right, put it in boldface.”
Let the record show Kentucky won, 121-105 — and Maravich had 64. Kentucky’s Dan Issel scored 51, only five fewer than Costas remembered. A few years later Costas was fresh out of college and broadcasting games for the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis.
“The ABA was so wide open, so freewheeling and so entertainment-oriented,” Costas says, “that Pete would have fit right in.”
The ABA’s Carolina Cougars offered more money, but the deal Maravich signed with the Hawks, reported at $1.9 million, was the richest in sports history at the time. He was a potent scorer in Atlanta for four seasons and New Orleans for five, then split his last season between the newly relocated Jazz in Utah and with a rookie named Larry Bird in Boston.
It seemed as if Maravich was never in the right place at the right time. He made 10 of 15 from three in the only season he could shoot them. And the Celtics won the NBA championship the next year without him.
Louisiana sports historian Bob Remy has put out an 80-page softcover called The “Pistol Pete” Scrapbook that features clippings and box scores from his storied career, including the LSU game Costas remembers. There’s also a reproduction of the scorebook from that night — 40 years ago next week — when Maravich tallied 68 against the Knicks. Remy was the scorekeeper, and Maravich signed the page for him.
Only two players at the time had ever scored more in a single game: Wilt Chamberlain (multiple times, as high as 100) and Elgin Baylor (Maravich’s coach that night, 71). Maravich fouled out late on two charges that Kriegel’s book says were clearly bad calls.
“He made the goal on that last one, and a free throw would have given him 71 with 1:18 left,” Remy says. “I don’t think the officials back then cared for Pete. They’d love him now, like they do all the superstars.”
Maravich is a legend in a way no superstar can be anymore. The greatness of LeBron James is manifest; his highlights have been a staple of SportsCenter since he was in high school. Maravich, meanwhile, made so much of his magic away from a national audience. Those who witnessed it firsthand remember. And they hold onto talismans like holy relics.
Remy kept the scorebooks from those years. Bertka has racks of rare game footage.
“When the Jazz moved to Utah, they were going to throw out the old scouting tapes,” he says. “So I kept all the black-and-white tapes of Maravich. …. I’ve got them in my basement. Funny you should call. I was watching him just the other day.”