‘Pistol Pete’ Remains Best of College Best

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I was driving back one Saturday from Mobile, Alabama on Feb. 7, 1970, when I saw a sign that said “Tuscaloosa: 40 miles.”

Since I was that close to the University of Alabama campus, I thought, “Is there a basketball game today?” So I stopped to pick up a newspaper – no smartphones yet; newspapers were our Google. And, in fact, there was a game that day. And I was in luck. Alabama was playing Louisiana State University. 

Actually, Alabama was playing “Pistol Pete” Maravich. The son of LSU’s coach; 6-feet-5-inches tall. A shooting guard. 

On that day, more than four decades before every other highlight on TV became called a “game-changer,” Pete Maravich changed the game.

I’ve seen Super Bowls. I saw Alabama come from behind to win last season’s national championship. I saw Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run – in person. I flew to New York to watch Joe Namath and the Jets. I saw Larry Bird and “Magic” Johnson, whom I have grown to love over 35 years of living in Los Angeles. 

I watched the 1975 and ’76 UNLV basketball teams of Jerry Tarkanian score over 100 points at the Las Vegas Convention Center. I’ve watched Stephen Curry perform his magic. 

I saw Charles Barkley destroy teams and wondered how he got down the court. I knew him from his Leeds High School days in Alabama – he was special even then.

I saw Michael Jordan show me that he was unstoppable. I saw but did not celebrate with the Los Angeles Lakers as they attempted a “Three-peat” after winning NBA titles in 1987 and ’88. 

At the time I was playing poker with the Lakers’ owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, for whom playing poker was his way of celebrating. We would play at the Forum after the games.

As I said, I have been lucky to see a lot of games and events. I could write a book on the memories alone. I feel like the Forrest Gump of sports. 

Yet none of these events equal that stormy Saturday morning in 1970 when I stopped to see a basketball game in Alabama, and to witness the greatest performance ever by an athlete. I saw a college basketball player shoot with two opponents guarding him and no 3-point rule, as that line did not appear on a college basketball court until 1986. 

Pistol Pete Maravich had only 22 points at halftime against Alabama, which was leading LSU, 44-40. They gave him the game ball at a halftime ceremony, for his contribution to the game. When have you seen a game ball given to a college player at halftime?

In the second half – again, no 3-point rule, and no 30-second shot clock – Pistol Pete scored 47 points for a total of 69. You really have to visualize two people guarding him but being unable to stop him. His ball handling skills were supernatural. 

Over his three years at LSU, Pistol Pete averaged 44.2 points a game, an NCAA record. 

Maravich would average over 24 points in his 11-year NBA career. He died way too soon at age 40 from a heart attack while playing in a pickup basketball game.

To this day, when I remember Kobe Bryant scoring 81 with 3-pointers or Michael Jordan scoring over 60 many times, I think: “So what? You’re no Pistol Pete.”

Oh, Alabama won the game, 104-102. But as big a fan as I am of Alabama, the score was not important. Pete Maravich had changed basketball in the Southeastern Conference forever. The SEC had been all about football before Pistol Pete changed basketball.

That day, I was a changed sports fan. And nothing I witness today matters as much after watching that performance. Because of what Pistol Pete accomplished that day, they built new arenas. He was more important than the score. He was bigger than life. 

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