By Karl Terry: CNJ columnist
He was basketball’s original “Showtime” in a time when taking center stage and showcasing a talented player wasn’t done.
When the legendary “Pistol” Pete Maravich began playing basketball someone with his talent and need to have the ball in his hands as much as possible was seen as a ball hog, a showoff or a one-man team.
But over and over again during his career Pete proved his teams always had the best chance of winning when his hands were on the ball.
I recently read the book “Pete Maravich The Authorized Biography of Pistol Pete” by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill and it blew me away to realize how much Pete revolutionized the way the game of basketball would be played. Without “Pistol” greats like Larry Byrd, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and today’s superstar Lebron James would have never been given the green light to do the things that made them great.
The Louisiana State University player who rewrote the college record book, averaging 44 points per game, was among the first professional basketball players to sign a million dollar-plus contract in 1970 when he signed with the Atlanta Hawks. Basketball’s Lew Alcindor and football’s Joe Namath beat Pete to that level of compensation as pro athletes but only by a few years.
The face of professional sports was about to change and “Pistol” had the talent to help that change occur.
Back then you got a “Game of the Week” on television when it came to pro basketball. The NBA was being challenged by the upstart ABA (American Basketball Association) with its red, white and blue ball and 3-point line and basketball was exciting to an 11-year-old eastern New Mexico kid. One of my favorite players was “Pistol Pete” because of his amazing ability at ball handling, behind-the-back and between-the-legs dribbling, his cool clutch shooting from anywhere on the court and his floppy shag haircut.
My coaches didn’t approve of that style of basketball, never mind that I wasn’t that good. A basketball was supposed to be passed to a teammate until a layup was available. Pete passed the ball with the best of them, but it was often behind the back, through his opponent’s legs or without ever looking at his target on a fast break.
Anybody dribbling between their legs during a game when I played was labeled a showboat and usually got in big trouble with the coaches and the opposing players and fans. Pete took that label and the harassment and showed everyone what basketball could be like.
His flashy style of play was probably good for the game of basketball but the money it spawned and the attitudes the players assume these days is one of the reasons I don’t really follow the NBA.
Whenever Pete was scheduled to play at a basketball arena, the attendance numbers responded to his star power and he was aware of that and wanted to be appreciated for it. His struggles in breaking down the barriers to that stardom for all basketball players to come created some personal demons that he struggled with throughout his 10-year NBA career, however.
Among those demons was that he never achieved his No. 1 goal, that of winning a championship against the best players in the world. Pete was just never happy in his own skin and at times wanted to give up basketball.
It wasn’t until after he was out of the NBA and dejected by not winning a championship that he found Christ in a suicidal fit of despair. The book reveals that for a short time Pete was happier than he had been all his life as he taught basketball and witnessed his faith to others. Finally he’d found a use for that stardom and basketball talent that made him feel good.
Tragically, he died on the basketball court in a pickup game just before delivering a speech at a Christian retreat put together by James Dobson who created the Christian organization Focus on the Family.
Before he died the legend came to grips with his money and fame and not winning a championship. It would be nice if some of those following in his footsteps would take a page from the last chapter of Pete’s life while they’re still shooting stars.
Karl Terry writes for Freedom New Mexico. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org