Monday, April 25, 2011
There are probably many young basketball fans who wonder why Utah has a team called the Jazz. If they went to the New Orleans Arena and looked up in the rafters, they might see a jersey with the number 7 on it. It was retired in 2002, in honor of someone who never played for the New Orleans Hornets, who actually died 14 years before the team was created.
The 2010-11 NBA Playoffs are underway and once again the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are there again, trying to better their record of 33 championships to 31 for the rest of the league. There are many outstanding players, most of whom try their best to play for a "winning team".
Pete Maravich, who became known in high school as "Pistol" for his shooting style that looked like he was drawing a gun from a holster, made it to the NBA playoffs four times, but his teams (the Atlanta Hawks and - guess who - the Boston Celtics) didn't win. He never won the NBA Most Valuable Player award. He was never a league-leading scorer. He appeared in five All-Star Games (although he was benched in the 1977-'78 game).
Maravich's father was a college basketball coach at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In 1966, he offered his son a spot on the LSU team, and Pete accepted. He remains the highest-scoring player in NCAA history, with 3,667 points in three years (he wasn't a varsity player his first year), averaging 44.2 points per game. Statisticians point out that a great number of his low-percentage, long-range shots were beyond the 3-point line, even when the line didn't exist in the NBA until the 1979-80 season (Maravich's last), and in the NCAA until 1986. If it had been around for Maravich's LSU career, his points per game average would've been 57.
Maravich spent his first four professional seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, before being traded, for eight other players, to the New Orleans Jazz. His scoring was high (31.1 ppg in his best year at New Orleans), but not as spectacular as in his college career. Maravich made his mark as a play-maker and ball-handler. John Havlicek called Maravich, "the best ball-handler of all time".
After following the Jazz from New Orleans to Salt Lake City in 1980, team execs waived his contract that season and Maravich played his last games for the Boston Celtics. One of his teammates was Larry Bird. He retired because of an incapacitating knee injury at the age of 32.
Still a young man, Maravich was lost without basketball, which had absorbed his energies for nineteen years. He was a recluse for the first two years, studied yoga, Hinduism, "ufology" and vegetarianism before becoming a born-again Christian. In 1988, in the middle of a pickup basketball game at a church gym in Pasadena, California, he collapsed and died at the age of forty. According to James Dobson, for whose group, Focus on the Family, Maravich was making an appearance, his last words were "I feel great".
An autopsy revealed something that is astonishing: Maravich had a deformed heart - he was missing a left coronary artery, which supplies blood to the heart muscle. In all the years of his basketball career, in which his health had to be closely monitored year after year, this heart defect had gone undiscovered.
I don't expect it will ever happen, but I'd like to state that if anyone were to ask me to name the greatest basketball player in the history of the game I would answer, without hesitation, Pete Maravich. He was outscored and outplayed, statistically, by many other great players of the game. But they all possessed whole hearts. Trying to guess what Maravich would've done as a player with that extra coronary artery, even with a bum knee, would baffle the sagest of statisticians.