The magic face is new, fresh, glowing and so wide open that it has sophomore written all over it, shining out like a beacon. Alternately unassuming then self-assured, naive then cocky, diffident then arrogant, wondering then knowing, thoughtful then putting on the world—the face keeps popping up in all the proper scenes during this college year.
This is an article from the Nov. 28, 1994 issue
Here it is at a levee party down the river from the Louisiana State campus, or straightening up in front of speech class, or bent parallel to the desk over an econ problem. Here, on the beach at Lauderdale for spring vacation, or at Pat O'Brien's in New Orleans on a weekend. And here, back in Baton Rouge, at the Piccadilly Cafeteria out at Bon Marchè, or over at the SAE fraternity house to listen to John Fred and His Playboy Band, who, after all, are the hottest thing around and, my gosh, John Fred is from Baton Rouge, a local boy. The magic face, like all the other SAEs, knows John Fred personally.
Now at another time, the basketball game over, the face comes up slowly from a circle of children who have searched it out, seeking an autograph and thrusting pencils forward, and it surveys the area, looking for the girls. There are two of them nearby, sweet little LSU coeds with long brown hair and pussycat eyes, and they are quietly singing:
Pete Maravich, Pete Maravich. Pistol Pete. Pistol Pete. Everybody in the world knows Pistol Pete. Sure is lucky success doesn't go to some heads. Sure is, sure is. But Pistol Pete is so cute. Sure is, sure is.
The girls' banter is sarcasm, envy and fascination all in two dishes, and if the song is not entirely accurate, it does reflect a certain measure of the boy. For though it has not happened yet, as soon as Pete Maravich can get his magic face, his long, lean, macaroni body, his moves of velvet and his shots of satin into all of the basketball arenas of this country that are waiting for him, he will surely become America's Sweetheart, Every Mother's Son, the Teeny Boppers' Top Cat. And the girls will be right. Everybody in the world, the world that really counts, will know Pistol Pete Maravich. He will make a million dollars playing the game of basketball.
Here he comes now, Maravich bringing the ball up against Kentucky. The first defensive man slows him at the top of the zone, but Maravich goes right and is immediately swarmed over and double-teamed. He jumps, gliding forward through the air, and either hits the open man in the corner or puts the ball up to the basket himself. The next minute he dribbles by the first man, but he is hit by three defenders at the foul line and throws a hook pass to his blind side or slams the ball behind his back, a bounce pass to the corner again. He comes up once more and takes the shot himself, sliding through the zone and hooking from the corner on the run, or driving under and, with his back to the basket, flipping the ball in with a lefthanded, underhand double-pump shot.
After a timeout Maravich looks his man in the eye and fires a push shot from 40 feet or gives him the head fake for the push shot and then is quickly on the move with a crossover dribble between his legs, around the man, to the left and up for his jump shot. If it misses, he is following, leaping, crashing over bigger and stronger players to tap the ball into the basket.
The LSU offense is Pete Maravich with the ball. Marvelous Pete Maravich. Dribbling, shooting, passing, rebounding. He can go left or right with equal facility, he has every shot known to man, with both hands, but, amazingly, the strongest part of his game is his deft passing.
The opponent changes from Kentucky to Vanderbilt, from Florida to Tennessee, from Wisconsin to Tulane. But the zone defense is still there. Always a zone. And Pete Maravich is still there, firing away against it. In a basketball season loaded with the usual vicissitude and inconstancy, one unassailable certainty is that Pete Maravich of LSU will be down there in Baton Rouge firing away against the zone every time out. This is, in fact, what seems to disturb his faithful supporters the most. For even when opponents disdain the zone as a form of resistance against him, their next line of defense is some variation of a gang-attack man-to-man that concentrates only on Maravich.
"Just one time I would love to see somebody play him honest," says Joe Dean, an LSU star of the early '50s who watches the Pistol in cumulative awe with every passing game. "They've all got to do what's best to win, but just once it would be beautiful to see a team play this guy honest with just one man on him. Pistol Pete would be so great that night, he'd scare people."
Pistol Pete Maravich is that good. He is only a sophomore, and he makes the mistakes of the young—forcing shots, committing useless fouls and hotdogging it all over the place. Moreover, his basic shot, released by hands that cradle the sides of the ball, is a strange and unattractive specimen that spins sideways rather than up and over, as basketball teaching dictates. But Maravich is the most exciting basketball player in college today, and many long, lost and unexplainable 50-point nights hence, when he finally gets to the pros and is able to play with men who can complement him and against men who can't afford to collapse on him, he will be so good he will indeed scare people.
In the early part of the season Maravich and Calvin Murphy of Niagara were engaged in a long-distance duel that promised to produce, in the same season, the two best scorers major-college basketball has ever known. Maravich scored 48 points against Tampa in his varsity debut, had the national scoring lead taken away from him by Murphy twice in the next four games, but then regained the lead for good with a 46-point night against Mississippi. He has never been behind Frank Selvy's record average of 41.7, set 14 years ago at Furman, and after LSU split with Tulane and Mississippi last week, in which he scored 55 and 40 points, he was averaging 44.9, had a total of 1,079 points and was 219 points up on Murphy, whose average has fallen to 39.1. Barring any mishaps in his final two games, Maravich will become, in his sophomore year, the most prolific college scorer (per game) of all time.
If such accomplishment was predestined by background, it never could have been foretold by appearance. Pistol Pete was born 20 years ago in a Sewickley, Pa., hospital on a day that fell, luckily, between road trips of the Pittsburgh Iron-men professional team. At the time, Press and Helen Maravich were living in Aliquippa, Pa., while Press played pro ball, but shortly thereafter Press started moving around to coaching jobs, enabling Pete to grow up sitting beside his father, watching him chew his towel and sporadically blow up, on the benches of a hundred college field houses. The story of how Press first got little Pete interested in the game has become shopworn, but it is worth retelling. One day Press was shooting at a basket in the yard of his home in Clemson, S.C., when Pete came out and took a shot. He missed. Press says he knew then he had the boy hooked, and Pete says he hasn't stopped shooting since.
Throughout his high school years in Clemson and, later, in Raleigh, N.C., Pete developed trick skills with a ball that his father never believed possible. "I was a good guard," says Press. "I could shoot, drive, move well. And I gave him the fundamentals. But this between-the-legs, behind-the-back, blind stuff Pete does, I never even thought of that. I couldn't carry his shoes the way he is today."
All of Pete's tricks and his vast repertoire of shots have been made into a movie, Homework Basketball, which never fails to amaze its viewers, including Carl Stewart, the coach of all-black McKinley High in Baton Rouge, who, after one showing, exclaimed, "My god, he's one of us!" Pete's exceptional talents became so conspicuous two years ago that Press, who had long held to the theory that his son would be better off playing for someone other than his father, decided he would like Pete for himself. The decision came after Pete had averaged 33 points a game for Edwards Military Academy in Salemburg, N.C., and while Press was choosing whether to stay on in the head-coaching job at North Carolina State or take a similar post with either LSU or the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA.
"I told Dad he had always said his life was with kids, and that there weren't many kids in the pros," says Pete. "We discussed the problems of being together, but we both liked the idea of reviving basketball someplace. And LSU looked awfully good to me."
Father and son both deny any realization of the inevitability of their joining forces, and Press insists the decision was always Pete's. But one senses it was the only way either of them could have gone. "I think now that they both knew it all along," says Helen Maravich. "I am sure Pete would have regretted it if he hadn't come with Press."
At LSU the Maraviches are the sole support of a very weak Southeastern Conference team that started off well but has since come down to earth with a 14-10 record. The team is obliged to play in a decaying old agricultural center whose seating capacity of 8,800 is adequate, though its timetable of events leaves something to be desired. A walking-horse show annually keeps the Tigers from preseason practices in the building, and a rodeo has always made it necessary for LSU to finish its season on the road. However bizarre the surroundings, they nevertheless seem to go nicely with that of the resident celebrity, who scarcely resembles the savior his acclaim might suggest.
The socks Pistol Pete wears in games, for instance, are the subject of close observation and continual comment in Baton Rouge. In contrast with the bright white socks worn by his fellow players, Maravich's are old and gray. Heisted property of the North Carolina State athletic department, they droop around his ankles throughout a game and then are washed and dried in Pete's dorm room afterward.
His body quite necessarily also droops. He is 6'5" but weighs only 170 pounds, and it is obvious that he is a late bloomer. Probably he will not fill out all the way until after his college years.
But it is, above all, his enchanting face that makes Pete Maravich something special. Extra large and long, it is split by a narrow ski-trail nose that winds into a natural ramp and sprawls into a circular bulb at the end. The nose is his father's, but the rest of the face is clearly from Mom. It seems to explode into the sky out of a long, angular neck, and the top half is covered by a great bush of thick hair swept left to right. The eyes, though, are what distinguish him from others. The sockets are deep, dark wells. The brown pupils are tiny and, like those of small furry animals, they say (ask any mother or daughter who has seen Pete), "Take me home."
From a distance, Maravich on the court often gives an impression of complete nonchalance. But close up, his face reveals him for the player that he is. His expressions are forever contorted and wrenched into horrible forms of pain, cruelty and even torture. He bares his teeth a lot, and his tongue hangs out of the corner of his mouth when he is acting really tough. Sometimes he takes on the look of a man being pumped full of bullets. "I don't know what the big thing is about my face," says Maravich. "But my hair is a lot different from what it was in high school. I had a burr head then. I was so uncool in high school, I can't believe it. But I'm O.K. now. I like my hair real long. But Dad makes me cut it during the season now."
Maravich's conversation is almost always ingenuous. His direct, open style and his easygoing, unaffected nature are perhaps the major factors responsible for the close camaraderie existing between the star and his supporting players. It is almost inconceivable that frustration and jealousy would not exist on the team when one man takes 40 shots a game and scores more than half the points, but this appears to be the case at LSU. "We each have a job to do on this team," says Jeff Tribbett, another sophomore, who used to feed Rick Mount in high school and is now feeding, and rooming with, Maravich. "It's very simple. Pete has to shoot 40 times a game in order for us to win. He just has to."
Maravich himself seems surprised that the subject would come up. "There might be some dissension if we were losing," he says, "but we've been doing some winning. I'm conscious of what people say about my shooting so much, but there's a lot of difference between shooting 40 times a game and being able to shoot 40 times. I can get open that many times, I don't care who's playing. Some other people would have to start throwing over their heads to get it up there 40 times."
Maravich and Tribbett live in the LSU athletic dormitory in a sparsely decorated room that is dominated by a large poster of Lyndon Johnson dressed as a Hell's Angel on the seat of a "Harley Bird" motorcycle. Maravich dates frequently and avidly, getting around Baton Rouge in a tan Volkswagen that showed its stamina on his cross-country trip to California last summer. He also has a passion for brutal, bloodbath movies. But even he cringed openly at a recent Italian western in which Eli Wallach, after being interrupted in his bath by an outlaw, drills the man with a gun hidden in the soap suds. "When you have to shoot," Eli tells the dead man, "you don't talk, you just shoot."
Pete did a creditable job on his exams last month, though there is nothing he really enjoys about his studies. His one bad grade, a D in economics, was awarded by a Professor Casey who couldn't pronounce Maravich. "He kept calling me 'Maverick,' " says Pete. "I said, 'Sir, it's not Maverick. That's a cow. My name is Maravich.' He never did get it right."
Academically more inspired during the first semester was a research paper discussing Huckleberry Finn's deprecatory attitude toward Jim. "He was always sarcastic to Jim, putting him down and telling him he was dreaming all the time when things were happening. I really got to dislike Huck," Maravich says. "He was so unfair, taking advantage of an illiterate like that. Finally he realized the guy was a human being. I don't know—I thought Huck Finn was pretty much of a JD in his time."
Unlike Huckleberry Finn, who may have indeed been a juvenile delinquent, Pete Maravich keeps in close touch with the affairs of his family. He seems truly devoted to his 23-year-old brother, Ronnie, who is a marine in Vietnam, and to his three-year-old sister, Diana Marie, whom the elder Maraviches adopted. Her crib at home overflows with stuffed toys her brother has won for her by shooting basketballs at state fairs all over the South. Helen Maravich has been ill recently and does not get to see her son play often, but she is unsparing in her attempts to soften the pressures building up on her family. "We're just plain Mommy and plain Daddy," she says. "When Daddy is on the court, he isn't Daddy anymore, he's Coach. But Pete better still be Pete, and Mommy better stay Mommy. She is proud of them both."
Despite a high regard for the coaching abilities of his father, Pete cannot always control the sophomore in him. He readily confesses to this, admitting that there are times when he will give Press some son-to-father trouble, forgetting that his old man is also his coach. Pete is constantly flippant with his father in practice, sometimes to the point of being unconsciously discourteous by back talk or foolish gestures, by debating strategy and suggesting that some move would be better done Pete's way. Press usually allows his son this latitude, but in a recent practice the two came to a point of no return, and Press let Pete have it. "Dammit!" he shouted. "I'm the coach here. I'll say who shoots, who passes and who rebounds. I don't need you to tell me what to do."
It was one occasion when Pete's flip manner had worn thin. Though the tension was short-lived, it will probably return from time to time. The feeling in the air would be different if the coach was not the father and the star was not the son. But when you're going for 45 a game and a place in the rainbow, who really worries about a little family bickering?
This is one of 40 classic stories presented as a bonus to our readers in celebration of Si's 40th anniversary.