Long before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament evolved into a “March Madness” extravaganza, and nearly two decades before the advent of the three-point shot and the shot clock that sped up college hoops, there was Pete.
Pointing the way to the future.
Half a century ago, in the 1967-68 season, floppy-haired, droopy-socked Pete Maravich burst onto the college basketball scene as a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard at Louisiana State University (freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity back then). Over three seasons, he averaged an astonishing 44.2 points per game—one of numerous NCAA records he set that haven’t come close to being broken.
He did it with a spectacularly entertaining style that seemed to defy not only what was customary but also the laws of physics—with way-out jump shots, fall-aways, bank shots and driving layups accentuated by behind-the-back passes and razzle-dazzle ball-handling the likes of which simply hadn’t been seen before.
What Maravich did—and how he did it—deeply impacted the sport, ushering in a more freely expressive style for players in years to come. Hall of Famer Magic Johnson has said the fast-breaking “Showtime” game he directed with the NBA’s L.A. Lakers in the 1980s and early ’90s came directly from what he saw Maravich do. Current star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers has admiringly called Maravich “way ahead of his time.” There are glimpses of Maravich in the games of Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and University of Oklahoma freshman Trae Young—both long-range marksmen and nifty ball-handlers.
After LSU, Maravich played 10 seasons in the NBA (five as an all-star) with the Hawks, Jazz and Celtics and later was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
As “March Madness” passes our way again this month, it’s intriguing that Maravich stands glaringly as the greatest collegiate player never to participate in the NCAA Tournament. He played in an era when only conference champions made the field. The best his LSU teams did in the Southeastern Conference was a second-place finish behind Kentucky his senior year, when the tournament consisted of 25 teams compared to today’s 68-team bracket.
Yet, Pistol Pete has a vibrant legacy that merits revisiting in March or any month—and for reasons far beyond anything he accomplished in sports. In retrospect, it’s as if his hoops heroics were merely a setup for something much bigger.
The most important event of Pistol Pete’s life happened not on a basketball court, but by the side of his bed early one morning in November 1982, two years after he’d retired from the NBA.
Despite fame and success, he’d been unable to find fulfillment in basketball or life. Knee injuries shortened his career. Years of drinking and partying, including at LSU, were self-destructive. Eventually, he pondered suicide.
On that morning in November of ’82, however, Maravich encountered God. Confronted by years of rebellion and sin, sweating and unable to sleep, he repented and surrendered his life to Jesus.
Long-time NBA executive Pat Williams, who was general manager of the Atlanta Hawks for part of the time Maravich played for the team and is himself a devout Christian, says he’s never seen a more dramatic transformation in a new Christian than he observed in Maravich.
“All the anger, bitterness and arrogance was instantly replaced by a quiet humility,” Williams wrote in the book What Are You Living For?“It became obvious to everyone that Pete was living his life for a whole different reason.”
The man who’d once told Sports Illustratedin a first-person cover story that he loved basketball “more than anything else in the world” suddenly was sharing his spiritual testimony all over the nation, including at the 1987 Billy Graham Crusade in Columbia, S.C.
“There’s nothing like the joy of Jesus Christ in your life,” he told the crowd.
Among other endeavors, he also started an annual youth basketball camp with a Bible study.
Maravich’s time was short, however. He died suddenly at age 40 on Jan. 5, 1988, while playing basketball with a group of men at a church gymnasium in Pasadena, Calif., as a guest of Christian author and radio host James Dobson.
Dobson was scheduled to tape an interview with Maravich later that day, but wound up trying to resuscitate Maravich after he collapsed of heart failure during a break from the game. An autopsy revealed that Maravich had been born without a left coronary artery, a rare defect that was previously undetected.
Dobson told Decision one of his greatest regrets in ministry is that he wasn’t able to record Maravich’s testimony, especially after the conversation they shared that morning.
“Pete’s consuming desire was to spread the Good News of what Jesus had done for him,” Dobson said. “His legacy as a basketball player is almost unprecedented, but his ultimate legacy is what he did with the remaining years of his life once he realized he had missed the most important thing.”
Still pointing the way forward, Maravich wore a t-shirt that morning for his final basketball game with these words from Hebrews 12:2 on the front: “Looking unto Jesus.”