The season is fast approaching. FIBA basketball is finished, the schedule is out, players are starting to flock to their team’s cities. Media day and training camp are just couple weeks away.
The funny thing about sports is how fixated we are on the present and future. Other past times and industries look more to the past but championships, playoffs, the draft, assets, etc., tend to put our sights more on the future than the past.
This offseason I looked to learn more about the history of the Jazz franchise, starting with a book long been on my shelf that I’d never finished: Pete Maravich - The Authorized Biography of Pistol Pete.
Pete Maravich was the franchise’s first star and one of the more well known names from an era where professional basketball was still quite young. Despite his legendary nickname and his jersey hanging in the rafters of The Delta Center, most know very little about the role he played for New Orleans and for Utah.
Here’s what I learned this the offseason.
Pete was a Louisiana hero
Growing up, Pete Maravich was intent on fulfilling a shared dream between himself and his father: get a college basketball scholarship, make one million dollars, play in the NBA, and win a championship.
That first objective was realized when Press and Pete were recruited by LSU to revive Louisiana basketball. Attendance for the team was dismal and the entire program had been an afterthought save the few precious seasons Bob Pettit donned the purple and gold.
Pete’s LSU career changed everything. His three varsity years produced a record standing to this day: 3,667 total points, an NCAA record. But it was his innovative and entertaining style of play that won over fans and his peers.
Pete was a skilled shooter, adept at long jump shots most would forego so as to feed the big man in the paint. He was a creative passer, many agree the first to bring showmanship to that component of the game.
5 years after college he would return to Louisiana, this time to New Orleans, in trade that put him on a fresh expansion team in the Bayou. Maravich was acquired to get fans through the turnstiles and captain a hodge-podge basketball team.
It was with New Orleans where Pete worked to coalesce his reputation for showmanship and entertainment with winning basketball. The former won out, largely. There he won the NBA scoring title with 31.1 points per game in 1975-76. He also scored 68 points against the New York Knicks and logged seven triple doubles.
Pete was inducted into LSU’s hall of fame and subsequently had his NBA jersey retired for his efforts for the New Orleans Jazz. He was, by all accounts, a legend and hero for the state. The Maravich family would remain in Louisiana, north of Baton Rouge, for the remainder of his life.
Pete had the utmost respect of his peers
Maravich played in interesting times. Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt Chamberlain were the stars of the day. Lue Alcindor was burgeoning onto the scene and Walt Frazier was Pete’s most intriguing matchup.
Pete was nearly united with Julius Erving ahead of the 1972-73 season. Because of the ABA, a player’s “rights” were often disputed. Despite signing a contract with Atlanta and playing multiple preseason games, the league intervened citing Erving’s rights belonged to Milwaukee.
Julius would later say, “It really was one of the joys of my life to play with Pete and to be in training camp with him.”
Many NBA legends praised Maravich during and after his playing days:
“He brought thrills and entertainment to the league when the league needed it.” - Jerry West
“He was the greatest ball handler I’ve ever seen in my life. He could do things with the basketball that were unbelievable. There was nobody close to him.” - Rick Barry
“He was one of the truly great players that could fill an arena. He was an excellent player...I enjoyed playing with Pete. His biggest influence to my mind was his ability to pass.” - Larry Bird
“Through following basketball and enjoying his flair for the game, I feel as though I knew him...He was so ahead of his time.” - Magic Johnson
“He was the original. When you talk about ‘Showtime’, you talk about creativity and bringing a whole different concept to the game of basketball...He opened the minds of a lot of players as to how the game should be played.” - Coach Pat Riley
During the 1996-97 season, the league would celebrate their 50th year anniversary. The committee charged with selecting the league’s 50 greatest players to date had named Pete Maravich. Many journalists released their own lists, of which Pete was a member of each.
Pete’s chapter in Utah was bizarre
The 1977-78 season had all the making of New Orleans’ first playoff appearance. Pete was at his best, Truck Robinson was what the team hopped for, and Gail Goodrich was finally playing like the player they acquired.
Then, a non-contact knee injury in late January of 1978. Pete was resistant to arthroscopic probes and surgeries as we he was intent on returning for the season. He did so and inevitably was operated on that offseason; the ordeal complicated and compounded the rehab process. His next season, and final in New Orleans, was hampered by the lingering effects.
It was on the heels of this disappointing stretch that Jazz ownership, Sam Battistone and co, moved the franchise to Utah. Betting on the success of the ABA Stars in Salt Lake City, they hoped to put the team on more stable, long-term footing.
Maravich was intent on making the best of the situation but found himself butting heads with coach Tom Nissalke. Pete’s abilities were short of his former play and his non-participation in two-a-day workouts landed him on the bench. Maravich would play just 17 games with the Utah Jazz.
He was waived and his contract stretched, allowing him to sign with the Boston Celtics. He was a valued, contributing member for them in the 1979-80 season. He would retire the very next year when his prospective role with Boston didn’t suit him.
Years later, Pete was interviewed by TBS at his jersey retirement ceremony in Utah as saying, “I’m kind of thrown back by it. I don’t know if I can speak. It’s a great honor and one I didn't expect.”
For timeline sake, Larry Miller became partner in the team seven months before the ceremony and five years following Pete’s retirement. Six months following the ceremony, Larry would assume full ownership.
Before Pete’s final season at LSU, he received a physical amid discussions of a draft for World War II. At the VA hospital in New Orleans, Pete earned a staggeringly low rating for an elite national athlete.
Colonel James May, fiend of Press Maravich who helped Pete through the process, learned that the source of the poor rating was a heart murmur. Press elected not to run further tests.
Five years later, as an Atlanta Hawk, Pete would make a staggering remark.
In a 1974 interview with the Beaver County Times, NBA Hall-of-Famer "Pistol" Pete Maravich expressed, "I have no desire to spend a decade in the NBA only to face a heart attack at the age of 40." Remarkably, he did indeed play professional basketball for a decade, spanning from… pic.twitter.com/DDGEBywmMb— Morbid Knowledge (@Morbidful) September 9, 2023
In 1988, Pete was a sought after lecturer for organizations around the nation. He was invited to California to join a radio show. That morning he played a pickup game with his hosts. During a break in play and following a statement of, “I feel great”, Pete collapsed and was not revived.
An autopsy revealed Pete’s condition was an undiagnosed “congenital anomaly”. More specifically, he was born with a malformed heart consisting of just one (instead of two) coronary arteries.
Dr. Paul Thompson of Brown University, a sudden death specialist, remarked, “In general when someone dies from congenital heart disease, they don’t die at 40. They drop dead at 16. To me, the most surprising thing is that this guy played basketball all that time with a single coronary artery. How could a guy like that run up and down the court for 20 years?”
He left two young boys and his wife suddenly, without warning.
Pete’s story is far more rich and intricate that indicated just here. There’s fabulous life lessons and gripping stories. These, however, were Jazz history impact lessons I learned.
Pete wasn’t a Utah hero; he was a Louisiana hero. His jersey immortalization is often bemoaned in Jazz land but lest we forget it was on the heels of the move and much of the personnel were New Orleans figures. That was a chapter in our franchise story.
Pete is looked back at as a gunner who didn’t win or a pioneering figure in the sport. His NBA stats are impressive but more so for their volume than efficiency. His relatively short career and its abrupt ending make give many the wrong impression. He was beloved by peers and fans of the day. Many cite his influence as an inflection point for the sport.
Pete’s tragic heart failure is a reminder that things are often far more complex than we think. Behind the fame and the jersey is a human. What could have been for his career and the Jazz pales in comparison to what could have been for a husband and father.