REACT: Who is the greatest college player of all time?
A junior high school boy in upstate New York thirsted for college basketball. Two years earlier, he had snuck out of his bedroom to watch, bug-eyed, as Texas Western stunned Kentucky on a Saturday night to win the national title. Now he gained permission to watch Alcindor on the rare nights when his games were televised. He bought a basketball scorebook, just like one his coach used at his junior high games. It was green with a thick cardboard cover and on each pair of facing pages he could write Xs for baskets and circled Xs for free throws. He could be a part of every game on television.
Into this world came Pistol Pete Maravich. At first, Maravich was the greatest myth of all, a first-year player on the LSU freshman team. So the boy waited, along with so many others, until the fall of '68, when Maravich made his debut with the varsity. Grainy pictures made their way to the local newspapers, of the kid with the floppy gray gym socks and the even floppier mop top hair. There were better pictures in Sports Illustrated that brought the Pistol to life, and finally there were games on television. The boy kept score in his green cardboard book, slashing Xs until there was no more room.
It's easy to argue that Maravich was just an overrated gunner. Sure, the cynics will say, Pete scored 3,667 points and averaged 44.2 points a game for his career (both NCAA records; and no four-year player has scored more points than Maravich scored in three), but he also averaged more than 38 shots a game. His father coached the team and used it to showcase his kid, to the detriment of the team as whole.
I say Maravich was an artist who bridged the gap between the Globetrotters and the globe. He didn't just play basketball; he expressed it. He scored while double- and triple-teamed. He scored when every human in the building knew he was trying to score. Yet lost in the array of scoring and shooting statistics is the truth of Maravich's remarkable skills: the no-looks, the behind-the-backs. A few years ago I interviewed Florida State athletic director Dave Hart about a football topic and at the end of the conversation, we talked about Maravich. Hart played at Alabama, and I asked if he ever got the chance to guard Maravich. "Well, nobody really guarded Pete,'' Hart said.
Of course not. Maravich was a sliver of mercury on a countertop, pounding his dribble, hunched over and floating until suddenly he was gone or the jump shot was released. Nobody stopped Maravich until Al McGuire and Marquette put a nasty box-and-one on him and held him to 20 points in the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden during his senior year. Just to satisfy those who thought he was a fluke, Maravich scored more than 15,000 points in the NBA.
By the early 1990s, the boy with the scorebook had become a sportswriter. He made a visit to LSU to write a story about Shaquille O'Neal. In search of a sidebar with historical relevance, he talked to Jay McCreary, who was an assistant coach on the Pistol Pete teams (and, coincidentally, the coach of the Muncie, Ind., Central High School team that was beaten by Milan High in 1954, in the game at the became the inspiration for the movie Hoosiers).
McCreary took the sportswriter inside the John M. Parker Agricultural Coliseum, where Maravich played his games. As an athletic arena, it had been replaced by a modern building that bears Maravich's name, and was by then used only for livestock shows. McCreary walked down a flight of dingy stairs into the basement, which once was the locker room. There were crumbling wooden cubicles where the players dressed. He stopped beside one and tapped the lumber above it with his index finger, where faded black stencil announced, "PETE 23.'' Maravich's college career had ended more than two decades earlier and his life had ended in 1988. Here a worthy legend was preserved in silence. A tear formed in McCreary's eye. And in the writer's, fed by a child's heart.