Today we feature one of my favorite players of all time, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Many have heard of the legendary Pistol, and for good reason; he was one of the innovators of the game of basketball.
He wasn’t the first to ever dribble between his legs or behind his back; he wasn’t the first to throw a no-look pass or a behind-the-back pass; he was the first to incorporate those into his repertoire and use them on a game-by-game basis. In the ’70s, the era that Pistol played in the NBA, it was jarring to see any player use flashy plays in basketball, and many fans of the game were made uncomfortable by Pistol Pete’s style of play.
It was hard to argue with results, and Pete Maravich found the best way to shut up critics was with numbers and performance.
Let’s begin with Pistol’s college career, possibly the best college career of all time. Recruited to Louisiana State from high school, Maravich was touted as the player who’d put LSU on the national map, and he had the talent and drive to make an immediate impact at the next level. However, back in the 1960s, freshmen were prohibited from playing at the varsity level their freshman year, so Pistol was relegated to the freshman team, where he put up 43.6 points per game.
If you thought that year was just a case of a more talented player beating up on other freshman, well, Pistol played varsity his next three years and notched 43.8, 44.2 and 44.5 points per game, with career highs of 69 (against Alabama), 66 (against Tulane) and 64 (against Kentucky). Keep in mind this was in an era with no three-point shot.
Maravich holds the record for most 50-point games in a season (10 games), is the all-time NCAA career scoring leader (3,667 points over 83 games, an average of 44.2 points), a Naismith Award winner and the Sporting News Player of the Year (1970) along with a multitude of other accolades.
After his storied collegiate career, Maravich was drafted into the NBA and received the highest (at the time) contract offered to a rookie at $1.9 million, despite being drafted third overall behind Bob Lanier and Rudy Tomjanovich.
Showing once again his ability to score the basketball, Maravich made an impact in the league his rookie year, averaging 23.2 points (second-leading scorer on the Atlanta Hawks and ninth in the entire league) en route to making the NBA All-Rookie Team. Interestingly, the Rookie of the Year that year was shared between the fourth pick (Dave Cowens) and the eighth pick (Geoff Petrie).
While Maravich had an outstanding individual season, his Hawks did worse than the season before, dropping 12 games from the previous year. While that was good enough for second place in the Central Division, Maravich’s rookie year was an indicator for seasons to come: individual greatness at the cost of team success.
While Maravich’s style of play was highly entertaining, all the points he scored and plays he made never came to a materialization of a championship. Maravich scored with decent efficiency, putting up 44 percent from the field for his career, but his penchant for trying to make a highlight play for every basket hurt the team more than it helped.
Fittingly, in his final season with the Hawks, Maravich shouldered more of the scoring load and scored 27.7 points per game, his highest scoring average yet. In spite of that, the Hawks had their worst season during the Maravich years, going 35-47 and missing the playoffs for the first time.
At the same time, the NBA landscape was changing. New Orleans had just gotten an NBA team, and bringing in the hometown hero in Pistol Pete was at the top of the agenda. The New Orleans Jazz (at the time) made a blockbuster trade, trading two players, two future first-round picks and two future second-round picks just to secure Maravich as their franchise player.
With all the expectations out of Pistol Pete, he crumbled a bit and endured the worst season of his career, averaging 21.5 points on an inefficient 41.9 shooting percentage, leading the Jazz to the worst record in the league.
While the Jazz (and Maravich) improved over the next four seasons, it always seemed that it was Maravich first and the team second. He’d have impressive scoring outbursts, but the team would never jell together and make a deep push, and the lack of team success despite his individual success was the biggest criticism against him. Maravich taught the world the important distinction and correlation between individual success and individual greatness.
To achieve greatness, one must make the team better around them. Maravich was a noted gym rat, putting in countless hours by himself in the gym. One noted that when in a game, Maravich still played like he was the only one in the gym; his teammates, opponents and fans all watched him dribble around and try to make spectacular plays.
Despite his inability to lead and make his team better, he was one of the greatest and certainly one of the most creative scorers in NBA history. Even though he never won a championship or an MVP, he’s still regarded as one of the 50 best players of all time and is a Hall of Famer. Pistol Pete helped innovate the game, to show that flashy moves could be effective, and showed that scoring isn’t the only thing that basketball is about.