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How the Pistol found purpose

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–With his shaggy hair, floppy socks and unparalleled flair for showmanship, “Pistol Pete” Maravich set basketball records that may never be broken and did things on the court that may never be duplicated.

Ironically, though, he spent the last few years of his life pointing people not to sports, but to Christ. The Pistol was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but in his final days, he also was probably one of the world’s greatest soul-winners.

Maravich died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 40, but interest in his life has made a resurgence lately with two new biographies and a DVD. One book, “Maravich,” was written by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill in collaboration with Maravich’s widow, Jackie, while the other one, “Pistol,” was written by Mark Kriegel. The 1990 movie “The Pistol” is now out on DVD with two versions (a “rebound” and an “inspiration” edition), with the inspirational version including a powerful, 55-minute video of Maravich giving his Christian testimony months before he died.

“Pete was a bold guy,” said Darrell Campbell, who was close to Maravich in his final years, wrote the screenplay for the movie and also helped him write his 1987 autobiography, “Heir to a Dream.”

“When I met him, he just cracked open his heart and his life to me about what the Lord meant to him. I thought, ‘This is the type of guy that kids need to emulate. This is a guy who wears his Christianity right on the outside where people can see it.'”

Most of the world, though, knows Maravich only as a great scorer who had a knack for entertaining the crowd with a between-the-legs pass, a between-the-opponent’s-legs pass or a 40-foot shot.

In three seasons at Louisiana State University (1968-70) he averaged an NCAA-record 44.2 points per game — before the 3-point shot. To put that in perspective, the leading NCAA scorer this year averaged 28. Maravich scored at least 50 points 28 times and at least 40 points 56 times — all college records. His 3,667 points for his collegiate career still stands, despite the fact players nowadays play all four seasons and he played only three. (Rules then prevented freshmen from playing.)

Maravich — who got his nickname because as a youngster he began his shooting motion from the hip — went on to play in the National Basketball Association, where he averaged 24.2 points for the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Jazz. He joined the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987 and was named as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996.

Many of today’s top players — such as Los Angeles Lakers’ star Kobe Bryant — credit Maravich for their moves and for adding excitement to the game. Still, with all his success and all his money, Maravich reached a breaking point after he retired in 1980. He wasn’t happy. In fact, he was miserable. He battled alcoholism, he said, and even considered suicide. Pistol Pete — who had found meaning in basketball since he was a child — was again searching for life’s purpose. That all changed in 1982, when during the middle of the night he knelt beside his bed and, weeping, committed his life to Christ.

No one knew it then, but Maravich had only five short years to live.

“Pete had that last bit of his life to let the world know what he thought and felt and had experienced,” said Campbell, who met Maravich after he became a Christian. “He was a bit obsessive in everything he did. Just like he went after basketball, he went after his Christianity and his faith and his growth. That really inspired me.”

Maravich — baptized at Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. — launched his own basketball camps, which were wildly popular and where, according to the book “Maravich,” he taught kids three disciplines: faith, basketball and nutrition. He would tell campers his testimony and have other people come in and give theirs. He traveled the country, telling the story about his transformation wherever he could — at churches, at prisons, at a Billy Graham Crusade, even at his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. According to “Maravich,” the front of his new home in Louisiana had a carving that read, “COMMIT THY WORKS UNTO THE LORD.”

Months before he died, he gave his testimony before a small crowd, saying, “Pete Maravich had all the material things you could want. But … none of it ever satisfied me — not the money, not the wealth, not the success…. Jesus Christ changed my life…. I don’t have much time left, and the time that I have I’m giving to the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m giving it to Him, because that’s what I’m called to do.”

In 1987, Maravich, Campbell and others with the film “The Pistol” were going around the nation, looking for a young actor to play Maravich as an eighth-grader. One stop placed them in Baton Rouge.

“He turned our audition for The Pistol into an evangelistic moment,” Campbell said. “All the parents were sitting in the gymnasium — which is now the Pete Maravich Assembly Center — and there were maybe 600 people in there. And Pete said [to the crowd], ‘I just want to talk to everyone about what is next in the process.’ Then he launched into his testimony. It was amazing. I thought, ‘Who else would take a Hollywood audition moment and do that?'”

Maravich also was a prayer warrior. Once, Campbell said, Maravich was on an airplane that had so much turbulence passengers thought it was going to crash.

“He had flown a lot in the NBA and so on, and he said this was the worst he had experienced,” Campbell said. “People were crying. It was a white knuckle moment. He was not afraid at all for his mortality at that moment. He said, ‘I began to pray for all the lost on the airplane around me.’ He prayed, ‘Lord, convict their hearts that they need to know You.’ [He wanted to] pray for the salvation of those who might die in the plane crash with him at that moment. That’s the kind of practical Christian he was.”

Maravich died in January 1988 in California during a pickup basketball game at a church gym. An autopsy showed he had had a malformed heart from birth: Instead of having two coronary arteries, Maravich’s heart had only one. Doctors said it was nothing short of a miracle he had lived as long as he had — especially as active as he was.

Basketball fans can see highlights of Maravich Saturday when CBS broadcasts “College Basketball’s 10 Greatest Shooters” at 2 p.m. Eastern, prior to the Final Four semifinal games. [Editor’s note: “College Basketball’s 10 Greatest Shooters” was not broadcast Saturday due to extended tennis coverage. It is scheduled to be broadcast May 13 at 2 p.m. EDT.] Campbell said Maravich would be intrigued with the interest in his basketball achievements but would want the spotlight elsewhere.

“He would say, ‘I’m not interested in the fame stuff.’ He would say, ‘Let’s lift up the name of Christ.'”
For more information, visit www.pistolmovie.com or www.pistolpete23.com

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust