The best anniversaries get celebrated. Others get commemorated, observed or simply remembered. This is one of those.
Twenty-five years ago on this date, “Pistol” Pete Maravich died suddenly after a pick-up basketball game in Pasadena, Calif. He was 40 years old.
Lots of great things in NBA history happened on Jan. 5. Wilt Chamberlain scored 50 or more points on that day for four consecutive seasons (1960-1963). Magic Johnson dished 22 assists against Philadelphia on Jan. 5, 1983, then Nick Van Exel (1997) and Rajon Rondo (2011) pushed that to 23. Hall of Famer Alex English was born on Jan. 5, 1954 and four-time All-Star Spencer Haywood made his NBA debut on that day in 1971.
Maravich’s plans for Jan. 5, 1988, though, were hardly memorable, his expectations low, as Bill Dwyre writes in the Los Angeles Times:
Everything seemed normal that morning in the gymnasium at the First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena. Maravich had flown in from his Louisiana home to do some radio work with James Dobson. Maravich had become a born-again Christian. Dobson was the nationally known head of Focus on the Family …
Dobson, 6 feet 5, was then 51, loved sports, was once captain of the tennis team at Pasadena City College and put together morning pickup basketball games at Nazarene on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This was a Tuesday, but it was a special day.
The guy with the scraggly hair and floppy socks was joining the game.
Maravich had been out of the NBA for eight years, his dazzling professional career curtailed after 10 seasons by knee injuries. But when he played, and particularly when he felt healthy, there was no better show and few more effective scorers: Across seven seasons – from his third with Atlanta through his fifth with the New Orleans Jazz – the scrawny, 6-foot-5 gunner averaged 26.1 points with 4.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.4 steals in 38.7 minutes.
He also averaged 23.1 field-goal attempts – a significant drop from the 38.1 he launched in three seasons at LSU, when he set the NCAA career scoring mark of 44.2 points. Maravich was a five-time NBA All-Star who became the youngest person elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1987, and he still ranks among the NBA’s top 100 in several career categories (field goals, shots, free throws, assists per game), including 20th at 24.2 ppg.
None of that, however, even scratches the surface of the showmanship Maravich brought to the court as a ball handler and passer. “A white Globetrotter,” Dwyre called him. And there was this:
He could spin the ball on his fingertip and dribble between his legs and behind his back as routinely as he could walk. His shooting range was anywhere inside the gymnasium.
A recent article by Yahoo.com’s Jeff Eisenberg quoted former Georgia guard Herb White on the challenge of guarding Maravich, especially with the myriad screens set by LSU teammates.
“It was like trying to catch a housefly in a really dark room full of refrigerators,” White said.
No one harbored ambitions like that when Maravich, Dobson, former UCLA center Ralph Drollinger and three others picked sides for some 3-on-3 action in Pasadena.
“Pete was the same,” says Drollinger, who was 34 at the time. “Droopy socks, floppy hair. I always said you couldn’t guard him by watching his hair. It always went the opposite way of his body.”
They played three-on-three for about 20 minutes and took a break. Drollinger walked to a drinking fountain and then Maravich — standing near Dobson, and just after proclaiming “I feel great” — collapsed. There were a few seconds, Drollinger says, “when we all thought he was faking, just joking.”
You can’t fake foaming at the mouth, and soon, Dobson and Drollinger were doing CPR.
Maravich was gone. The trip to St. Luke’s Hospital and two-hour wait was a formality. An autopsy, Dwyre wrote, revealed that Maravich, that whippet-thin court magician, had racked up all those minutes and highlights without a left coronary artery in his heart. His right coronary enlarged and ultimately gave out.
When the NBA named its Top 50 players in 1996, all of the league’s legends were alive – George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Chamberlain and on and on – and most of them showed up at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland. Except for Maravich, who was represented by his sons.
The Top 50 team was linked to the NBA’s debut a half-century earlier (1946-47), part of an anniversary that truly was celebrated. The one on this day in 2013 is better off commemorated or simply observed: “Pistol” Pete Maravich, R.I.P. (June 22, 1947 – Jan. 5, 1988).