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Pistol Pete Maravich: A tortured genius, perhaps the most remarkable superstar the NBA has ever seen

This is part 3 of a four part series that I made about the Pistol, discussing his difficult but historic stint with the expansion Jazz

While it was the death of Pete's mother that likely triggered what was to come, there were signs that things weren't going well for Pete off the court beforehand. Although it would not be disclosed for years to come, the reasons for Maravich's trade from the Atlanta Hawks had nothing to do with basketball. Pete, similarly to his mother, had gradually grown to abuse alcohol more and more.

On February third, 1974, the Pistol took this habit and applied it to the game. At halftime in a close game against the Houston Rockets, the Pistol downed several bottles, claimed he was alright, and stumbled onto the court to start the second half. He was completely ineffective. Following the game, Pete was suspended indefinitely by Cotton Fitzsimmons, the coach of the Hawks at the time.

Pete did not react well to the suspension, and it created a situation where either he or Fitzsimmons had to go. The Hawks made their decision, and the Pistol's next stop would be for an expansion team with the smoothest name in sports.

New Orleans Jazz:

1974-1975: The lowest point

Going to the Jazz also gave Pete the opportunity to return to Louisiana, the site of his legendary college career. Given that the rest of the roster was made up of players that were considered expendable from other squads, Pete was going to be given the chance to be their entire offense like he had at LSU. The Jazz wouldn't be good initially, but Pete was a good bet to win the scoring title after coming in second the year before.

Following his mother Helen's suicide just a week before the season, all of that came crashing down. Not only was Pete devastated, he had internalized his sorrow. His drinking problem became worse, and he became a recluse from society. Those who were around him worried that his misery had brought on insanity.

Pete's transformation from unhappy but functional NBA superstar to perceived nutjob happened quickly. Along with his alcoholism, Pete had developed an obsession with extraterrestrials and UFOs; he reportedly painted the words "TAKE ME" on the roof of his house so that aliens would capture him and carry him away from the world. He went days without sleeping, and he began to devour survivalist magazines. Pete's behaviorally engineered childhood had made him always liable to lose it, but it was personal tragedy that pushed him over the edge.

While Pete was in no state to be playing for the Jazz, he took to the court for their season opener just a week after his mother's death. Predictably, he couldn't perform. In Utah's first nine games, Maravich surpassed 15 points just twice. Things didn't get better quickly; the Jazz lost 31 of their first 33 games with Pete playing some of the worst basketball in his career. While Maravich eventually turned it around to a degree, his team ultimately still finished as the worst team in basketball by a wide margin. The Jazz were ridiculed for trading away so many assets, which included the first overall pick in the upcoming draft in exchange for Pete. As for Pete, he had become more ridiculed than revered.

Luckily for the basketball world, this isn't how the Pistol's story would end. While he had lost all of his joy from basketball, he was as driven as ever by the same compulsive urge that had been built into him as a child. In his prime, the Pistol was a depressed alcoholic insomniac who many considered to be completely insane. He was suffering from a heart condition that took most of its victims by twenty and was meant to make being an athlete completely impossible. He was also arguably the best player in the NBA.

Pistol Pete in his prime:

Pete was never given a fair shot at winning with the Jazz; the team never provided Pete with much talent around him, and were underfunded and at times undercut. Here is some evidence:

Over the next three seasons, the Jazz would win just 19 of 61 games with Pete off of the floor

In 1975, the Jazz got the rights to a young ABA big man by the name of Moses Malone. You might have heard of him; only Kareem, Jordan, Russell, Chamberlain, and LeBron have won more MVPs. While the Jazz and everyone else were well aware of Malone's talent, they decided they couldn't afford his salary which was only about half of what Kareem was getting from the Lakers. This led Malone to eventually end up in Houston.

In 1976, the Jazz picked up guard Gail Goodrich in free agency. While Goodrich had been a perennial All-Star, he was among the oldest players in the league (players used to last a much shorter time due to a worse understanding of rest and recovery/medical treatment), was defensively challenged, and was no longer the same player that he had been offensively. While the Jazz did not expect to give up meaningful assets in exchange for signing him, they ended up parting with three top ten picks, one of which was used to select Magic Johnson. Goodrich later alleged that the NBA stepped in at the last minute and demanded very significant compensation to the Lakers in exchange for his signing (https://www.deseret.com/1992/7/16/18994586/goodrich-tells-his-side-in-jazz-magic-deal) That being said, Pete was sure as hell going to try

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRKuo_U5blM (hype passing interlude)

In 1975-1976, the Jazz had an almost identical roster to the previous year, but things were far different. Throughout the year, Pete carried the previously bottom feeding Jazz, and they managed a very surprising 32-30 record while he was on the court. While statistically Pete did not separate himself from his years in Atlanta; he averaged 26 points and 5 assists, he had become a much more well-rounded player, and the game had begun to catch up to him.

His defense, which had forever been his greatest weakness, had become downright passable. He had become stronger, an even better shooter, and his handles were perhaps even more otherworldly. Perhaps most importantly, his teammates had learned when to expect his passes; he was no longer playing a more complicated game that nobody else knew the rules of. Unfortunately, the Jazz only managed a 6-14 record with Pete off the court, preventing the team from being able to make a playoff push. Despite this failure, Pete was still recognized for his efforts in turning the team around, earning his first All-NBA First Team nod.

1976-1977:

The next year was likely Pete's most famous as a pro.

43 points vs the defending champion Celtics, 50 against a great Washington Bullets team, 51 against the Suns, who had just been in the finals, another 51 against the Kansas City Kings. 68 against the New York Knicks. Those 68 were the most by any guard in the league's history at that point, surpassing Jerry West's career high of 63 fifteen years earlier. Thankfully, footage from the game is still available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zfHRk2rKHc

68 is a big number, but there are a couple of factors that make the game even more incredible than it would at first seem. Firstly, a good deal of his points were against reigning 7x All-Defensive First Team member Walt Frazier. Secondly, he inadvertently hit about five shots from current three-point range, and made another seven or eight shots from close to twenty feet.

Knicks players had no idea how to guard him; at 8:30 in the video one resorts to the "double butt pat", but it doesn't work. Finally, Pete's fifth foul was completely indefensible, and his sixth that quickly followed was a block called a charge. Pete fouled out with 1:30 left in the game. If the right calls had been made, he would have had a great shot at 74+ points, making it the most that anyone not named Wilt or Kobe has ever scored in a game to this day.

For the season, Pete averaged 31.1 points, winning the scoring title by a 4.5 point margin. He became only the third guard in the league's 30 year history to win a scoring title after Oscar Robertson and Jerry West (1968 and 1970 respectively). While the Jazz finished only 35-47 (1-8 without Pete) his peers voted him in third place for MVP behind only Kareem and Bill Walton, a tremendous sign that after a life devoted to achieving greatness, he had finally arrived. While Pete's life in truth was still in a state of disarray, basketball had given him peace and a sense of validation for the first time in forever.

1977-1978:

Going into the 1977 free agency, Pete was coming off of the best season that a guard had managed since Tiny Archibald in 1973. All that was left from his childhood dream was to win a championship, which he cultivated obsessively. With the current state of New Orleans' roster, Pete wasn't going to be able to do that. In exchange for his re-signing, he demanded front-line help. The Jazz's from office granted his wish, signing promising fourth year power forward Leonard "Truck" Robinson, who was coming off of a breakout season averaging 19-11 for the Hawks.

Unfortunately, new Jazz GM Lewis Schaffel had no plans of allowing the pairing to gel. Early in the season, Schaffel let it slip to the media that he believed Maravich to be a player that no team could win with, and actively began trying to trade him. In a press conference, Pete had some choice words to say about his new GM,

"He's a lying, backstabbing son of a bitch who's been out to get me from the start." Then he said, "Schaffel doesn't know a basketball from a turkey bladder. We could make the playoffs if he'd take a vacation. Like, to Iraq."

While Maravich and Robinson were getting their numbers, the Jazz experienced the same old struggles to start the season, sitting at 17-21 through 38 games. This, of course, preceded the Pistol Pete fuck you tour of 1978.

Over the next nine games, Pete averaged 30 points and nine assists, for the first time looking truly in sync with his teammates. He connected on more of his passes than ever before, and played the best defense of his career. Pete was on another level, and he started to look like the best player in the world.

In 1978, injuries to Bill Walton and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar would bust the 1978 NBA MVP race wide open. Maravich was best position to take their place at the top. His averages on the surging Jazz (28.2-6.9) would have given him his second straight scoring title and put him fourth in assists per game behind players with half the scoring rate.

While a deep playoff run was unlikely, injuries ensured that there were no great teams in the league by the time the playoffs rolled around, and it was far from impossible; in the end, a 44 win team would be crowned champions. On January 31st, in the fourth quarter of a blowout win against the Buffalo Braves, all of this would change. As Pete completed his 15th assist of the night on a half-court, between-the-legs pass, the crowd got to their feet and Pete fell to the ground, crying in agony.

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