Loren Jorgensen: Pistol Pete's legacy lives on in NBA

Published: Sunday, Nov. 19 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Pete Maravich, on Nov. 21, 1979 — 27 years ago this Tuesday — played in his final game as a member of the Utah Jazz. He scored eight points in a road loss to the Detroit Pistons, as the Jazz, in their first year in Utah, fell to 2-18 on the season.

It was Maravich's last game played for the Jazz but hardly his last day in a Jazz uniform. For the next 24 games, Maravich was dressed and available to play but not given the opportunity by then Jazz coach Tom Nissalke.

That frustrating time in Pistol Pete's life is reported in a chapter entitled "The Mormon Trail" in a new biography simply entitled "Maravich" about the basketball innovator's life. The book is by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill with the full support and aid of Maravich's widow, Jackie Maravich.

Federman is an actor and standup comedian who has had his own special on Comedy Central. But there is nothing funny about Maravich's short, sometimes tortured life. The son of a college basketball coach, Maravich was obsessed with the game as a youth and became the best scorer in NCAA history — while playing for his father — at Louisiana State. He earned big money and additional fame in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Jazz but struggled with depression and even thoughts of suicide. Then he died at 40 due to an undiagnosed congenital heart defect that should have claimed him decades earlier. It was called a medical miracle that he survived his teens.

Only 10 pages in the nearly 400 page book looks at Maravich's brief time in Utah — which is the way it should be. He was still a relatively young man when the Jazz moved to Salt Lake City — Maravich was 32 at the time — but thanks primarily to injury, his best playing days were over.

While it was a major culture shock moving from New Orleans to Utah, the book says that the Maraviches were welcomed into their new Bountiful condo. "You couldn't find nicer people," said Jackie Maravich. "They did everything for us. Neighbors offered us their 4X4. They had lots of kids, so I never had to worry about a baby-sitter. Super nice families."

Nissalke had a policy that if you didn't practice, you didn't play and Maravich's sore knee had made it so he couldn't practice. The Jazz coach — following the loss in Detroit — made the decision to go with younger players who didn't have a bad knee instead of Pistol Pete, one of the best-known basketball players on the planet.

It was hardly a popular decision in Salt Lake City and elsewhere when the Jazz played on the road. Fans wanted to see Maravich's flashy passing, scoring and ball-handling ability like they'd seen in highlight clips during his glory days.

Instead, fans watched him quietly seethe on the end of the Jazz bench in warm-up clothes.

The Jazz had a promotion for November 27, 1979, when the Lakers came to town for what was to be the first-ever game pitting two "Magic Men" — rookie Earvin Johnson and Maravich. Thousands of "Pistol and Magic" posters were given out at the door to what was then the largest home crowd in Utah team history — 11,649 in the old Salt Palace.

But Maravich didn't get in the game.

"I really wanted to be on the same court with him," Magic Johnson said later. "I got to play against Dr. J and George Gervin, but Pete was on the bench that night. Yeah, that was really disappointing."

On January 17, 1980, the Jazz placed Maravich on waivers. He played in a grand total of 17 games for the Utah Jazz, averaging 17.1 points with a career-worst 41.2 percent shooting.

Maravich caught on with the Boston Celtics to finish the season, but he realized he just couldn't handle the wear and tear of the NBA anymore and retired. Five years later the Jazz retired his No. 7 jersey, and he was selected to basketball's Hall of Fame in 1987. Less than a year after joining the Hall of fame and seven years after his retirement he was dead.

His legacy in the NBA lives on, however.

The authors of the new book interviewed more than 300 people about Maravich — including several current stars who weren't even born when Pistol Pete was averaging 44.2 points per game for LSU or leading the NBA in scoring for the New Orleans Jazz during the 1976-77 season.

"I learned all my tricks from Pete Maravich," said Kobe Bryant.

"I've got a lot of Pistol Pete in my game," said Steve Nash.

Isiah Thomas put it this way: "He did things with the basketball that players — still today — can't do. If Maravich was playing today, he'd be a god."

Unfortunately for them, Utah fans didn't get to see him in his prime.


E-mail: lojo@desnews.com

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