Pistol Pete … All-Time Greatest in a Scoring Era

Lyn Scarbrough

January 31, 2023 at 8:45 pm.

“I don’t want to play 10 years in the NBA and die of a heart attack at age 40.”

                    – Basketball guard Pete Maravich in an interview with the Beaver County Times

of Aliquippa, Pa., in 1974 at age 26

Countless basketball fans, especially college fans above age 70, remember their own first Pete Maravich experience.

Mine happened 55 years ago this month … the first week of February 1968 … in Auburn, Alabama. The LSU varsity played its first and only game ever in the Auburn Sports Arena (“The Barn”) with “Pistol Pete,” as he was already known, bringing the ball down the court.

In my mind, not much stood out about the game itself. Auburn won the game and Maravich led all scorers. That happened a lot during Pete’s career in Baton Rouge.

What did stand out was the spectacle.

As had been the case at every other SEC venue where Pete and the visiting Tigers had played, throngs of people, mostly students, packed the area around the arena entrance hours before the scheduled tipoff. When somebody arrived who needed to enter early (sports journalism folks for example), those people were literally picked up and passed across the crowd until they reached the door.

Pretty sure that the packed, standing room only crowd in Auburn that day, or in any other of those venues for that matter, did not meet the fire code … as if anybody was counting heads. (Ironically, “The Barn” burned 28 years later while the Auburn and LSU football teams played across the street in Jordan-Hare.)

Fans that got to watch Pete Maravich do his magic on the court in 1968, his college sophomore season, couldn’t have known then that they were seeing in-person the greatest scorer in the history of basketball, a young man considered by many to be the greatest overall basketball player to ever play the game at any level.

The best scorer in basketball history? The greatest overall player ever?

That’s a big statement, especially since Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and so many basketball greats were still playing after Pete’s career was over. And, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy and others were playing before Pete got started.

But, consider the stats.

With his shaggy hair and saggy socks, playing for his dad, LSU head coach Press Maravich, Pete averaged 44.2 points per game for his 83-game college career. That’s 10 points more per game than the second most prolific scorer, Austin Carr of Notre Dame. He scored 3,667 points, scoring 50 or more points 28 times, including 10 times during his 1969-1970 senior year. He made 1,387 field goals during his LSU career, many from deep, and hit 30 of 31 free throws against Oregon State in 1969.

All of those are all-time collegiate records. There are a lot more, too many to list here, and they have stood unchallenged for more than five decades.

As amazing as these numbers are, consider these things:

** There was no three-point shot. That was introduced by the NCAA for the 1986-87 season.

** Freshmen couldn’t play with the varsity. That wasn’t allowed until the 1972-73 season.

** There was no shot clock, so opponents could slow down games. That didn’t change until 1985.

** College teams didn’t play as many games. LSU only played 26 during each of Pete’s first two years.

** Not as many teams played in the postseason. Only 25 were invited to the 1970 NCAA Tournament.

Imagine what the Maravich records would be with today’s rules and schedules.

He was SEC Player of the Year three times and National Player of the Year twice. But his mastery didn’t end in Baton Rouge. How about his National Basketball Association career?

Maravich was a five-time All-Star, the 1977 NBA scoring leader (31.1 ppg.) and was named to the 50th and 75th Anniversary all-time NBA teams. His jersey has been retired by the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Pelicans … and he didn’t ever play for the Pelicans!

Pistol Pete was so much more than a scorer. He was an aggressive rebounder, often leading his team in that category. He was one of the most astounding passers ever, behind his back, between his legs, back over his head, on the dead run, hitting his teammates in stride.

He was a showman. He was an entertainer. He was a magician. He was P.T. Barnum, Elvis Presley and Harry Houdini rolled into one. He was Pete Maravich … never been another like him, and almost certainly never will be.

Who better to testify about Pete than guys who had to play against him and who were privileged to play with him?

“Pistol did it with ball-handling and trickery,” former Kentucky Wildcat and NBA swingman Kevin Grevey told USA Today. “He would fool you. If you didn’t get up on him, he would shoot a 30-foot shot. And it was only for two!”

“He was probably the greatest guard who ever lived, and a great scorer,” Jeff Tribbett, a three-year backcourt starter with Pete at LSU, said to Marty Mule of the Baton Rouge Advocate back in 2013. “But, Pete was more than that. In my mind, he was the greatest ball-handler that ever lived. He changed the game in that, from the NBA down to junior high, they were doing what he (Pete) was criticized for doing.”

Maravich’s style of play was intentional, the product of countless hours of practice, and an intense love for the game. His quotes often acknowledged his approach.

“If I have a choice whether to do the show or throw a straight pass, and we’re going to get the basket either way, I’m going to do the show,” he said.

“Shooting is nothing. Anybody can shoot. The big charge is putting on a show for the crowd.”

And … “They don’t pay you a million dollars for two-hand chest passes.”

Before Pete Maravich, Southeastern Conference basketball, pretty much college basketball in the Deep South, was Kentucky. In the two years prior Pistol Pete’s arrival in Baton Rouge, the Tigers record was 9-43. During his three varsity seasons, LSU was always finished above .500, including a 22-10 mark as a senior.

He played at a time when the SEC had prolific scorers, different rules and different styles of play.

The league had more individual offensive stars than at any other time in league history. Only four conference players have ever scored 60 or more points in a game. LSU’s Bob Pettit did it against Louisiana College in 1953. The only others – Auburn’s John Mengelt, Ole Miss’ Johnny Neumann and Maravich – reached that mark during the 1970 season. Maravich did it four times and no SEC player has done it in the past 52 seasons.

Mengelt gave several reasons why the era of high scorers ended, one of those sort of unexpected.

Auburn’s John Mengelt (left) guards LSU’s Pete Maravich (right) at a game in Baton Rouge in 1970. (Photo: Malcolm Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)

“One reason was adding the three-point shot,” he explained. “We used to hit more shots going to the basket or not shooting from as deep and getting fouled. They take so many more three-point attempts now and of course, the percentage is not as good.”

As a senior, Mengelt averaged 26.8 points per game, including scoring 60 against Alabama, 48 against Vanderbilt, 47 against Ole Miss and 45 against North Carolina State. He played against Maravich and LSU four times while at Auburn, then played in the NBA against Pete for several seasons.

“He was as great a showman as the game has ever seen,” Mengelt told sportswriter Jeff Eisenberg. “He was going behind the back or through the legs during games before everybody else did that stuff. He was so entertaining that sometimes as an opposing player you’d literally get caught watching him.”

Guarding Maravich was a challenge calling for specific strategy.

“You had to push him out a little and make the shot more difficult,” Mengelt said. “You had to try to make him take more shots so everyone else wouldn’t get shots and wouldn’t play as hard. I tried not to let him get to the foul line. I personally thought Pete was the greatest scorer of all time, but he could be a streaky shooter. But, if you put him on the foul line, he would kill you.”

Several of Pete’s games validate those insights.

Maravich scored 42 against Georgia, was the game’s leading rebounder with 11, and made 14 of 17 free throw attempts. Against Kentucky, he scored 64, while the Wildcats’ Dan Issel put in 51, setting the record for the most points scored in a game (115) by two individual opponents. Against Mississippi State, he had a triple double with 11 rebounds and 10 assist, while the Bulldogs held him to “just” 33 points. And in his most prolific game, he scored 69 in Tuscaloosa, including 47 in one half, in another game that LSU lost.

In addition to averaging more than 40 points per game for his college career, he also averaged over five assists, over six rebounds and about 14 free throws per game.

In a long overdue decision, a statue honoring Pistol Pete was approved to be installed near the Assembly Center on campus next to statues of Pettit and Shaquille O’Neal. It was unveiled on July 25, 2022 by his widow Jackie and sons, Jaeson and Josh.

“Pete Maravich didn’t just change the trajectory of basketball at LSU, he changed the trajectory of basketball across the entire world,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said just before the likeness was unveiled.

Woodward was right. Unfortunately, Pistol Pete wasn’t there to receive the recognition.

During the first week of January, 1988, Maravich was playing a pick-up game in Pasadena, California. In recent years, he had become a passionate born-again evangelical Christian. His friend Dr. James Dobson was, and still is, a well-known influential pastor. Maravich had worked with him in Focus on the Family, a global non-profit ministry which Dobson had founded. It was less known that Dobson was an avid basketball fan who organized weekly pickup games. That week he had invited Pistol Pete to join the group of ardent basketball amateurs.

Reportedly during a break after playing for about 45 minutes, Dobson asked Maravich, “How do ya feel?”

“I feel great,” Pete replied, then suddenly crashed face-first to the floor, the victim of a massive attack brought on by a congenital heart defect. He had been born without a left coronary artery and with a right coronary artery that had overcompensated his entire life. It was a miracle that he had survived and played for four decades.

With his death, Pete Maravich left millions of fans with fantastic memories and millions more without the privilege of ever having seen him play. Prophetically, his death was 14 years after that interview with the Beaver County Times in Alaquippa.

He had played in the NBA for 10 seasons and had died of a heart attack. He was 40 years old.