Will Pete Maravich Change the Pro Game—Or Will the Game Change Him?

[More copy on Pistol Mania as Pete Maravich prepared in the summer of 1970 for his first NBA training camp with the Atlanta Hawks. The article was pulled from the magazine Pro Basketball Almanac 1971 (cover shown above). The copy was written by Bob Rubin. Pay attention to Maravich’s quote at the end about thriving on pressure. Within a matter of weeks, Maravich would feel the pressure, big time. More about that in our next post.]

In place of the 1965 Volkswagen he used to get around in, Pete Maravich now drives a 1970 Plymouth GTX with $2,000 worth of accessories including a five-speaker stereo and telephone. A telephone? “Well,” says the LSU All-American who signed a record $1,600,000, five-year contract with the NBA Atlanta Hawks last March, “I wouldn’t need one in Baton Rouge. But Atlanta is much larger.”

There’s a world of difference between Baton Rouge and Atlanta for Pistol Pete, and it involves a good deal more than simply the size of the two cities. Maravich is moving into a new world, one alive with stern challenges and great opportunities. Seldom has an individual’s transition from college start to rookie pro been observed with as much interest, either by players and coaches or the public at large. 

The world Maravich is leaving was bittersweet for him. For three years, he set one NCAA scoring record after another, though he never was able to make LSU a big winner. He did create excitement and basketball converts all over the normally football-mad South with his flamboyant Globetrotter style of play and his equally fun-loving life off the court once the season was over, but basketball purists and discipline freaks knocked him for just those qualities. To them, The Pistol said, “Hard cheese.” 

“I can’t see anything wrong with showboating,” he insisted. “I think basketball’s the most-exiting game in the world. It’s entertainment, or it should be, for both the players and the fans. It’s something you just have to feel. The people are so close to you. You can their see faces, and they can see yours, not like some football game where you’re 50 miles up in the boondocks trying to make out some guy’s number. It all happens right there in basketball. I mean they see you sweat. Look, I don’t criticize the way other people play. If they can’t or don’t want to do any fancy stuff that I do, then they shouldn’t. But let them get off my back.”

As for his off-the-court activities, Pete told his critics to bug off, or words to that effect. “During the season, it’s strictly basketball,” he said, “but once the season’s over, I let it roll. Fun and games all the way! Believe that. I’d like Pete Maravich to have a good image, but I’m not going to sit in the corner 12 months a year playing Pete Maravich.”

Some say Pete could get away with his devil-may-care ways because his coach at LSU also happened to be his father. We’ll soon see if they were right. Fiery Atlanta Hawk coach Richie Guerin has been accused of a lot of things, but never of being a father image to anybody. 

Guerin will be just part of Maravich’s new world in Atlanta. So will a tough all-veteran, all-black Hawk starting team that finished first in the NBA’s Western Division last season. So will their discipline and emphasis on teamwork over individual brilliance. So will the mind and back-breaking strains of the pros’ 82-game season, which is approximately three college seasons rolled into one. So will the tremendously increased contact allowed in the NBA. So will the stress on defense, both individual and team. So will the pressure of showing management, teammates, and fans that he is worth the small fortune it cost to sign him. There’s no doubt that Pistol Pete will earn his money this season. 

How good a pro will you make? What the aspects of the game as he played it in college will he have to abandon as a pro—if any? What will be his most difficult adjustments? How does he view his role as a professional? How do this new coach and teammates view it? 

A good place to start is to answer the question posed in the title of this story. The answer is both. The pro game will change Pete Maravich—but he probably will change the pro game somewhat, too. 

Obviously, The Pistol won’t fire the 40-plus shots he threw up per game in college. He compiled averages of 43.8, 44.2, and 44.5 points per game, but Pete himself says, “You have to be nuts to dream of doing anything like that in the NBA.”

Another thing that will have to change is Maravich’s defense. whenever the subject was raised at LSU, people shrugged and explained that one player couldn’t be expected to do everything. It would be interesting to try that explanation on Guerin. But don’t stand too close when you do. 

“To me, the question is: can Pete play defense?” Guerin says. “That’s always the toughest adjustment a kid coming from college has to make. Pete is quick enough to be a good offensive player. All defense takes is quickness and desire.”

And strength. Everything in the NBA takes strength. To Hawk forward-guard Joe Caldwell, putting on some weight should be Maravich’s No. 1 priority. “They like to take advantage of skinny people up here,” says Joe. “When I came into the pros, I worked my weight from 185 to 210. I’m sure Pete’s planning to fatten up.”

Indeed he is. All spring and summer he went to Foxy’s Health Studio in Baton Rouge for thrice weekly sessions that included military presses, bench presses, squats, toe raises, etc. in an attempt to beef up his 6-5 frame from 185 pounds to 215 (though he plans to play at 195 to 200).   

“The more I mess with weights,” says Pete, “the more I feel the biggest advantage Is more mental  than physical. It’s as much a mind builder as a body builder.”

Perhaps. But the first time he runs into Willis Reed or Wes Unseld on a pick, he just might upgrade the purely physical benefits of having some extra meat on his bones. “If we can keep his weight around 200 pounds, he’ll be able to take the beating,” says Guerin, a little man who survived among the behemoths. 

He’ll be heavier, still have to play tough defense and he’ll be shooting a lot less. what else about Pete Maravich will change? for one thing, he’ll be playing a much more cerebral game. “I’ll have to do a lot more thinking out there,” he says. “New ways of getting the ball to the open man. You don’t fool guys like Walt Frazier more than once doing the same thing.”

In a rare display of modesty, Pete admits that there is room for improvement in his game. He cites John Havlicek of the Celtics as an example of a fine ballplayer who became even greater as a pro. “He developed  some talents that he didn’t know he had,” Maravich says. “At Ohio State, he was in the shadow of Jerry Lucas. At Boston, he blossomed as a ballhandler, dribbler and playmaker. As far as I’m concerned, I just know scrimmaging against a fellow like Joe Caldwell is going to make me a much better player. Joe has a cat’s quickness.”

Maravich will doubtless have a lot to learn about the ways of the pros. On the other hand, the pros may get a lesson or two from The Pistol. Many of basketball’s most respected and sophisticated experts have been reduced to gee-whiz raves after watching Pete’s incredible dribbling and passing skills. Some have said he can do things with a basketball that no man has ever done.

All the experts agree that it will be as a playmaker that Maravich will make his greatest contribution. And if Richie Guerin sticks to his present plans of not clamping a lid on Pete’s showmanship (“He’s fancy, sure,” says the Hawk coach, “but he does things with a purpose”), then Maravich will indeed change pro basketball. There probably has never been a player—college or pro—with The Pistol’s  bewildering variety of behind-the-back, between-the-legs, slap, kick, punch, roll, etc., etc. passes. 

Perhaps other men have dribbled as well, but certainly none outside of the Globetrotters with Pete’s zeal for providing entertainment as well as moving the ball. “He’s a master of the unexpected,” says Babe McCarthy, coach of the ABA New Orleans Buccaneers. “He won’t make a pro team an instant winner, as Lew Alcindor would, but he’ll have those crowds in the palm of his hands.” 

Obviously, there is tremendous pressure riding on the shoulders of this suddenly very wealthy young man. That suits him just fine. “I thrive on pressure,” says Maravich. “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t know what to do without it.”

The NBA awaits The Pistol. 

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