A SINGULAR SHOWMAN
The news of Pete Maravich's death came on the afternoon of my younger daughter's sixth birthday. A time of joy, a celebration of youth, an annual ritual of family life. Youth. Joy. Celebration. All these were what the essential Pistol Pete was about. And, above all, family.
When Maravich first came whirling down the lane and into the national consciousness, it was from under the protective wing of an LSU coach who also happened to be his adoring father. When in the bitter closing days of his NBA career, he retreated from public life and friendships, he said, "My family is enough." And when he died of heart seizure last week at the age of 40, having only recently succeeded in his agonized search for peace and happiness, he was in California to appear on a Christian radio program entitled Focus on the Family.
Pistol Pete was special to me. He was the subject of the first cover story I wrote for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—when he was a sophomore at LSU in 1968. More than that, he personified why I love basketball; why I enjoy watching it, writing about it; why sport itself is such an important part of human existence. Simply put, Maravich was terrific fun.
In the history of college basketball there have been other marvelously talented players—Wilt, Russ, Elgin, Big O, West, the Bird—but at the top of his game, when he was smoking out another outrageous 50-point night, absolutely nobody, no time, nowhere approached Maravich.
He was probably the most unusual team athlete of his time; certainly he was one of the most misunderstood. He was Cousy long after Cousy, and Magic even before Magic. An entertainer. The one-and-only. The star. As a Louisiana State senior he wrote an ST cover story headlined I Want to Put On a Show. But it was Pete's terrible misfortune always to be misplaced: He was an individualist in a team game, the white boy in the black man's game, the people's choice who in his increasing paranoia felt the people were against him.
Because he lost. Maravich always lost. "Raw-talentwise, he's the greatest who ever played the game," an Atlanta Hawks teammate—a black teammate—Lou Hudson, once said. "But always, no matter what he does, he will be a loser. That's his legacy. It never looked easy being Pete Maravich."
No man in sports engendered more diverse opinion. Coach Jack Ramsay: "A great player. Pete could adapt to whatever was necessary to win." Coach Pat Riley: "The most overrated superstar." When Marv Roberts, a refugee from the ABA, got his first look at Maravich's spectacular act, he leaped off the Laker bench pointing and shouting, "I sees ya, Pete, I sees ya."
Franchise player? There has been only one franchise unto himself in all of sport and his name was Maravich. His LSU teammates once wore AND COMPANY on their warmups. In the NBA there were 21 teams and one Pistol. He knew it, and he bore the burden. "We get beat at Phoenix by 43 and I get blamed," he once told me.
I wish Maravich could have stayed in college. Forever. "LSU was Tiger-town and lots of laughs," his brother Ronnie once said. "Then suddenly there was no Tigertown. Pete wasn't a hero anymore. When people got on him.... He's been shell-shocked ever since."