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Remembering the sad and too-short Celtic stint of Pete Maravich

Had he played another year, Pistol Pete would have won his long-coveted first title with Boston in 1981

Pistol Pete Maravich
Pistol Pete Maravich
Dick Raphael - Getty Images

In between All-Star guards Paul Westphal and Danny Ainge who wore number 44 for Boston, a truly original hoops maestro also wore the double digits made famous by Jerry West for 35 games in 1980 as a Celtic.

College basketball's all-time points leader and the NBA scoring champion in 1976-77, dazzling showman Pete Maravich was born and bred to be a great basketball player by his father, himself a pro player.

He was the Elvis of hoops, a flashy white superstar in a game increasingly dominated by black men. His breathtaking moves, invented drills and game were so improvisational and wondrous, the Harlem Globetrotters considered Pete "one of us."

But despite achieving greatness as a groundbreaking scorer, passer and ballhandler, championship-level team success eluded Pistol Pete. He never played on a great team until the last year of his career, when in a cruel irony he was unable to play at or near his peak.

Late in a career of many highs and some lows, Pistol Pete suffered a serious knee injury in 1978 while playing the best basketball of his career, on the brink of leading the expansion New Orleans Jazz to their first playoff berth.

Ever the showman, Pete had tried to throw a behind the back pass through his legs on a fast break, and when he landed after completing the pass, something snapped in his knee. It was the beginning of the end of his career on an unnecessary showboat play. Sort of the Ivan Ilyich of sports injuries...

The surgery-wary Maravich valiantly tried to play with a torn meniscus, but finally consented to an operation and missed the rest of the 1977-78 season. Playing with a cumbersome knee brace in 1978-79, he limped through 49 games and scored 22.6 ppg with five assists a night before shutting it down.

The Jazz missed the playoffs again, and moved to Utah for the 1979-80 campaign because their owner, a devout Mormon, was losing money in New Orleans. Removed to Salt Lake City from near the site of his legendary college exploits at LSU, Maravich was benched by new coach Tom Nissalke, who was scoring 17.1 ppg in 30 minutes a game through the first six weeks of the season.

Some said Nissalke was still upset with Pete for torching his Tulane team for 68 points in college. Whatever the reason, be it monetary or a personal vendetta, Nissalke and the Jazz seemed bent on ending Pete's career with the Jazz after he had carried the franchise for five years in the Crescent City.

Pete scored 21 points at Boston in a 113-97 Utah loss, their 10th defeat in a row, on November 16, 1979. Rookie Larry Bird netted a modest 12 points and Cedric Maxwell scored 27 in the Celtic blowout that lifted Boston to 12-3 while Utah tumbled to 2-15.

Little did the Pistol know that the next time he would be back on the famed parquet floor, it would be as a member of the Celtics. Five days after the loss at Boston, Maravich played his final game for the Jazz. In a loss at Detroit he scored just eight points, 36 below his ridiculous 44-point college career average and less than a third of his NBA career 25 ppg norm.

Perhaps the biggest embarrassment for the star gunner came when the Jazz printed special posters promoting the meeting of Pistol Pete and Laker rookie Earvin "Magic" Johnson at Utah on November 27.

But Pete never got off the bench in a 122-118 loss to LA. Unhappy Utah fans sported homemade signs, amid the backdrop of the Irah hostage crisis, saying "Free the Hostage." Yet Nissalke kept Maravich languishing on the bench for 58 days before the hapless 13-35 Jazz finally freed Pete by waiving him on January 17, 1980.

By then Pete had gotten further out of shape, lost some confidence for the first time, and looked gaunt. His bony Serbian features and sad, big eyes usually gave off a slightly malnourished look, but now he looked positively ghostly.

Immediately the flashy Philadelphia 76ers became the leader for obtaining his services. The Sixers were locked in an extremely close race with the rejuvenated Celtics for the best record in the league and the Atlantic Division title.

After mercurial 76er All-Star off guard Doug Collins went down with stress fractures in his foot, Maravich appeared to be the perfect replacement pickup for a team badly in need of perimeter backcourt offense.

However, after a physical with the 76ers on Jan. 21, Maravich shocked most people by signing with the Celtics instead of the flashy Sixers. Supposedly a rectal exam ordered by the 76er team physician put off Pete, who also had a checkered past with Sixer GM Pat Williams, who had traded Maravich to the Jazz when both were in Atlanta six years earlier.

A long-time fan of Pete, Red Auerbach swooped in and signed the Pistol after proclaiming that his repaired kneee was "19 percent stronger. Some guys break the laws of gravity, (Pete) breaks the laws of physics," said Red.

The Jan. 22 signing appeared the perfect move to solve the lone Celtic weak point, a lack of consistent outside shooting and the ability to create offense from the backcourt.

"I want to contribite to a championship as it would culminate my whole basketball life," said Maravich when he joined Boston. Some would say that there was little or no difference to Pete between basketball and life, at least for his first 30 years.

The transcendent Bird had taken the league by storm and was already arguably the best all-around player in the NBA as a mere rookie, but the Celtic halfcourt offense could at times bog down and become too dependent on Larry's wondrous shooting and passing to create offense. Pete was brought aboard to aid the offense in those areas.

So for a brief time, the Celtics had 1973 league MVP Dave Cowens, future three-time MVP Larry Bird, and perennial All-Star Maravich on their roster at the same time, representing different generations and styles of basketball greatness from the heartlands.

The ferocious red-haired Cowens represented all-out effort, skill and athleticism from northern Kentucky. The blonde Bird from southern Indiana was the hard-nosed, no-nonsense skilled fundamental throwback with futuristic creativity, a 6-9 savant with smal guard skills.

And the brown haired Pete, he of the working class western Pennsylvania roots, represented creativity, unbridled talent and an imaginative showmanship style that was a harbinger of the NBA to come. He was truly ahead of his time by a generaiton.

Unfortunately, two of the three superstars were past their prime and injury-prone when they teamed up for the last third of the 1979-80 NBA season.

New Boston coach Bill Fitch had been a big fan of the Pistol during his years as coach of Cleveland. He once even claimed he would trade his entire Cavalier team for Pete. When he got the chance to coach Pete, he became far less enamored of his emaciated physique and game.

The Maravich who first reported to practice with the 35-12 Celtics was a shadow of his old free-wheeling self who could score, create and pass better than anyone the league had seen before Bird. Fitch, noted for pushing players hard in pre-season conditioning, said Maravich was in the poorest shape of any player he had ever coached.

Sporting a funny-looking perm in place of the floppy, straight long hair of his youth, the gaunt Maravich set about rehabbing, but suffered a groin pull when trying to get back in game shape after two months of riding the bench.

Fitch, an old school college coach who drove his players to the limit and loved watching game tape so much the Celtics called him "Captain Video", had a new whipping boy in Maravich. When Ainge arrived in 1982, he became the new whipping boy.

Calling Pete undisciplined, lazy and a poor practice player, Fitch rode Pistol hard. The Celtics back then were a running team, and Pete's legendary ballhandling, passing and improvisational skills were expected to put Boston over the top for their first title since 1976. After seeing a hobbled Maravich, Fitch now had his doubts that could happen.

When Pistol Pete fired an unnecessary behind the back pass on the break that sailed out of bounds into the empty Boston Garden seats during practice one day, Fitch blew his whistle and stopped practice.

"Pete, we don't need that BS here," he screamed. Pistol Pete, probably for one of the few times in his career, bowed his head and nodded to his berating coach. He desperately wanted to win a ring to chase away all the whispers that he was a loser, someone who never played on a championship team in college or the pros.

Even in high school, his team lost the state title on a disputed shot at the buzzer. At LSU, the best he could do was carry the football school to a then-prestigious NIT Final Four showing in 1970. In the NBA, he never had gotten past the first round of the playoffs with the Hawks. His high-dollar signing and publicity build-up had made him the subject of team and league-wide derision and jealousy.

An infamous sign by a fan at a game in Philadelphia asked why did hot dogs cost 50 cents in Philly but 1.4 million in Atlanta? When he joined the Hawks, Atlanta featured a skilled and talented all-black starting five that resented the insertion of the higher-paid white rookie into their established lineup.

Despite high personal achievements by Pete, the Hawks never could get by the great Celtics or Knicks in the playoffs. He was traded to the expansion New Orleans Jazz in 1974 and was forced to carry that team as a gate attraction and superstar player for years. Then came the knee injury, the benching, and the banishment, only to end up in Beantown.

It took 17 days after his signing for Pete to finally make his much-anticipated Celtic debut. Against Indiana in that inauspicious debut, he sank a mere one basket in two attempts. Boston improved to 42-13 and increased their lead to three games over the 76ers with a 130-108 blowout of the Pacers as eight C's hit double figures.

At LSU and with the Jazz, Pete often hit for 45 points or more while one other teammate maybe scored 10 or 15. The talented and deep Celtics were a totally different team and style.

Two days later, Boston beat Detroit 128-111 as Pistol Pete tossed in 14 points off the pines. Seven Celtics hit double figures, led by Bird with 24.

On Feb. 13 in Phoenix, Boston lost a 135-134 thriller to the Suns despite 45 points by Bird. Former Celtic Westphal tallied 34 and Pete scored just six. Back in the day, Pistol Pete often had six points just minutes into the game.

Two days later in Portland the Celtics whipped the Blazers 106-91 as Bird hit for 28 and Maravich netted six. Before nearly 29,000 in the Kingdome on Feb. 17, the Celtics blew a 10-point second half lead and lost a barnburner to the defending champion Seattle SuperSonics.

Future Celtic Dennis Johnson nailed a baseline jumper to put the Sonics ahead 109-108 with 11 seconds to go. M.L. Carr, who had idolized Maravich as a teen at Pistol's Campbell College summer camps, missed a shot from the top of the key at the buzzer that would have won it for Boston.

Maravich did not play as Boston's Atlantic Division lead shrunk to a half game over the 76ers with the loss. Returning to Utah for the next game, Pistol again sat out as he had for the Jazz. Bird tossed in 33 points to lead Boston to a 105-98 win.

At Denver Feb. 23, Pete returned to action and netted 14 points as the Celtics whipped the Nuggets 124-105. The club returned home from its 3-2 western road trip with a 108-97 win over Atlanta as Rick Robey, starting for Cowens, hit for 27 points. Bird added 25 points and Maravich had but two.

On a CBS show counting down the top 10 shooters in history, Bird had been ranked number one, a few spots ahead of Rick Mount and Maravich. Larry recalled seeing Maravich play in college on the "old rabbit ears of our TV at home one night...I was amazed at the things he could do with the basketball.

"After the game my dad told me, maybe I will coach you too son, and then you can shoot the ball every time," Larry recalled, laughing. Of course, Pete had played at LSU for his father Press, himself a pro player in the days just before the NBA and a consummate basketball man who was determined to make his son the greatest player ever.

Now on a deep and unselfish Boston club that was already Bird's team, few minutes and shots were being allotted for Pistol Pete, who regularly took 40-50 shots a game in college.

Other than some classic after-practice HORSE battles between two great white hopes from different eras, a shadow-of-himself Pete and the reclusive, driven Larry did not have the time or personalities to mesh in just two months.

The Spurs came to town Feb. 27 and the Celtics pulled out a 130-125 shootout win to improve to 48-15. Bird led the victors with 30 points while Pete added nine. Yet the 76ers were staying on their heels at 47-17 after an overtime win against Seattle.

On Leap Day, Boston beat Golden State 110-99 as Bird tallied 28 and Pistol scored six. Two days later, the Celtics edged visiting Detroit 118-115 for their sixth win in a row. Bird fired in 41 points and took advantage of the new three-point line with four triples. Pete scored two points.

Boston then went to San Antonio and crushed the Spurs, 137-108. Bird scored 28 while Pistol netted 15, his highest total as a Celtic to date.

The Celts then edged Houston 103-99 in overtime to improve to 52-15 as Maravich scored 10 and Maxwell hit for 22.

In a showdown vs. the Sixers on March 7, Boston won convincingly 111-92. Julius Erving scored 36 but Bird led better-balanced Boston with 27 while Pistol added 13. The Celtics' ninth win in a row gave them a three-game lead over Philly with 14 left to play.

A veteran Washington team, which had played in the previous two NBA Finals, came to Boston and snapped the streak with a 133-128 OT win. Elvin Hayes led the Bullets with 35 points to offset 33 by Bird. Pistol Pete continued to round into shape with 20 points off the bench.

Two days later, host Indiana upset Boston 114-108 to hand them a second straight defeat. Bird scored 28 points in a return to his Hoosier home state, but Pistol was held to five. Their lead over the 76ers had been trimmed to a single game with 12 left.

The next game Boston bounced back to beat Houston, 121-105. Bird scored 29 to lead seven Celtics in double figures, with Pete adding 10. Philly kept pace with a win over the Bullets.

Two days later Boston lost 88-87 at Atlanta, but the Sixers also fell to stay a game behind. Maravich scored just four points in his return to the Omni, which had been nicknamed the "House That Pete Built" during his first five years as a highly-scrutinized Hawk.

The man who was supposed to make pro ball popular in the deep south had too many demons and burdens, and not enough teammate help to deliver unrealistic expectations.

Boston went to New York and edged the rival Knicks 123-120 to improve to 55-18. Bird scored 27, Cowens 25 and Maravich eight. Then at New Jersey on March 17, Pete got his first start in place of the injured Chris Ford.

Boston cruised to a 117-92 win over the Nets as Bird scored 29 and Maravich hit for a dozen and made five shots in a row. Flashes of the old magical brilliance were starting to shine through his rusty game.

Pete wowed the Nets crowd with a flashy basket off an in-bounds lob pass. Inspired, he also dished some pretty give-and-go passes to Larry Legend as the pair of basketball savants began to click. The Celtics led the 76ers by two games with eight left.

The next night in Boston, the Celtics rallied with a 35-19 fourth period to beat the upset-minded Pacers behind a vintage Pistol Pete showing, 114-102. Maravich poured in a Celtic-high 31 points, canning 12 baskets and all seven of his foul shots. He still had it.

Two days later in the Silverdome on a nationally-televised USA cable game at hapless Detroit, Pete started again and scored 20 points to lead Boston to a 124-106 victory.

Renowned Piston cheap shot artist Ron Lee raked Maravich across the face on a left-handed reverse off a backcut, then later tripped Pete on a drive to the hoop. But Pete had been through too much already to be deterred by such tactics.

Lee, one of the Oregon "Kamikaze Kids" who upset the Walton Gang and UCLA in 1974, also clotheslined Bird on a driving layup, and Cowens suffered a knee in the privates while setting a screen. But the determined Celtics prevailed.

Combined with a Philly loss to Washington, Boston now led by four games with just six left to play. On March 22, sub-.500 Cleveland upset Boston before a big crowd in the Richfield Coliseum 109-105 despite 26 points from Bird and 19 by Maravich.

Pistol scored 14 during another start in the next game, but Boston again lost to a losing team in New Jersey 101-96 as Bird was held to just eight. Bearded sharpshooting guard Mike Newlin fired in 38 points to pace the lowly Nets to the upset.

At 58-20 after two unexpected defeats, Boston's seemingly comfortable lead over the 76ers had dwindled to two games with four left. Then in one of the biggest games of the season, Pistol Pete turned back the clock and saved the Celtics at Washington.

With the Celtics trailing the Bullets 75-70 heading into the fourth period, Pete had just two points. But he caught fire in the final stanza and tossed in 17 huge points to rally Boston. His fadeaway three-point shot in the final minute gave the Celtics a 96-95 victory before a sellout crowd of 19,035 in the Capital Centre.

"That is what we got Pete for," said a satisfied (albeit briefly) coach Fitch.

The next night vs. rival New York, Boston outscored the Knicks 129-121 as Bird hit for 23 points and Pete, back to his reserve role, added 16 off the pines. Maravich nailed six of eight from the field in the fourth period to help Boston pull out another clutch comeback win with a 38-26 final quarter.

With only two games left, the come from behind win clinched at least a tie for the division title at 60-22 over the 57-22 76ers. One more win or Sixer loss would give Boston the division crown.

On March 26, Boston clinched the outright title - and the league's best record over the Lakers - with a 130-122 win against the visiting Cavs. Bird scored the same number as his jersey (33) and Pete added 12.

In the now relatively meaningless season finale at Philly, the Sixers knocked off Boston 116-110 to finish two games behind the Celtics. Reserve forward Steve Mix replaced a resting Erving and led Philadelphia with 22 points. Carr topped Boston with 25 and Pete scored 10 before fouling out.

In Bird's remarkable rookie season, the Celtics had improved by a league record 32 games, from 29 wins to 61. But it is questionable whether they would have been able to win the division and finish with the best record without the late-season heroics of the veteran Maravich.

In just 17 minutes per game over 26 contests as a Celtic, Pete averaged an impressive 11.5 ppg. In a small sample size for a rule seemingly made for his long-range shooting ability, Pistol hit on an uncanny 10 of his mere 15 three-point attempts.

Far less-accomplished shooters today take 15 treys in two games. Despite being physically subpar and under-used, Pete still hit on an impressive 49 percent from the field and 91 percent at the foul line.

Now for the playoffs. As division champion, Boston received a first round bye and then faced Houston (the team Bird made his NBA debut against six months earlier), in the Rockets' final season as a member of the Eastern Conference.

Ford led seven Celtics in double figures with 19 points as the Celtics won their first playoff game in three years, 119-101. Bird netted 15 markers and Maravich four in his first post-season action since 1973 with Atlanta, when his Hawks lost 4-2 to Boston.

In that series Pete had scored 26.2 ppg, while John Havlicek averaged 29.7, JoJo White 25.7 and Cowens 19 ppg. Hondo poured in a Celtic playoff record 54 points in a game one win, but by 1980 Havlicek was two years into retirement and Cowens, the lone holdover from that '73 Celtic club, was on his last legs.

In game two, the Celtic defense held the Rockets to just 75 points in a 20-point win. Bird's modest total of 14 points led Boston as Pete added eight.

In Houston for game three, the Celtics won easily again by a 100-81 count. Nate Archibald scored 20, Bird tallied 18 and Pete four. Two days later on April 14, Boston completed the 4-0 sweep with a 138-121 victory as Cowens valiantly negated a young Moses Malone.

Bird netted 34 points and Pistol Pete added seven while veteran great Rick Barry scored 15 points in his final game for the Rockets before retiring.

Now it was on to the Eastern Finals vs. the rival 76ers, who had ousted a tough Hawk team 4-1. And maybe after that, a dream matchup with the Lakers in the first Boston vs. Los Angeles NBA Finals since Russell's swansong in 1969...

Yet Philadelphia came into the Boston Garden in game one and took away the homecourt advantage with a 32-20 third period that lifted them to a hard-fought 96-93 win.

Dr. J scored 29 and Bird hit for 27, but inconsistent Sixer center Darryl Dawkins scored 23 to make the difference. His three consecutive late baskets gave Philly a 94-90 lead, and they held on. In limited playing time, Maravich scored five points while Cowens scored 14.

In game two, Bird showed why he was the clear-cut Rookie of the Year and a first team all-league pick. He canned nine consecutive shots in the first half to shoot Boston into a 16-point lead.

The 76ers rallied, but Maravich hit four of his five shots while Bird ended up with 31 points and 12 rebounds to hold them off and even the series, 96-90.

Game three in the old Philadelphia Spectrum turned out to be the pivotal game of the series. Erving scored 22 of his 28 points in the second half as the 76ers forged a 90-76 lead midway through the fourth period.

Yet Bird, who finished with 22 points and 21 rebounds, led a late rally. His third triple brought Boston within 99-97 with 39 seconds left. After a 76er miss, the Celtics had a chance to tie or win it on the final possession.

But instead of going to Bird or Maravich, who had 12 points and a trey of his own, they passed to Cowens amid heavy traffic in the lane. Dave lost the ball, 76er Maurice Cheeks grabbed the loose leather and dribbled out the clock to preserve the win.

In game four, the 76ers led the entire game and posted a 102-90 win to take a commanding 3-1 lead. Erving netted 30 and Dawkins outscored the tired, decade-older and shorter Cowens again, 17-10. Bird led Boston with 19 but Maravich scored only two as Fitch shortened his rotation. Ford also scored just two points.

Back in Boston for game five, the Celtics battled but could not get their offense untracked. For the fifth game in a row they failed to crack 100 points after scoring 113 ppg during the season, and were eliminated 105-94.

A low point came in the fourth period when Bird, fighting for a rebound of a 76er miss, accidentally tapped the ball into the hoop for a Philly basket.

Normally weak-shooting guard Lionel Hollins, whom the Sixers had signed after being spurned by Maravich, added insult to injury by leading the 76ers with 24 points. Dawkins, playing the best basketball of his career, scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth period.

In his final game as a Celtic and bothered by a foot injury, Cowens scored 22 but did not have a lot left to battle Dawkins after dealing with the bruising Malone in the previous series.

Bird was held to 12 points while Maravich scored just four in a bitter defeat. The more playoff-experienced 76ers moved on to the Finals and a 4-2 loss, while Boston went home and had to think about what might have been.

The dream matchup vs. the Lakers and the potential ratings bonanza Bird vs. Johnson rematch from a year before in college would have to wait for another year (four more to be exact).

"We only played one good game the whole series," lamented Bird afterward. Fitch had elected to go primarily with Ford and Carr, better defenders than Maravich, even though Ford scored just four total points in the final two losses.

But Pete went home and worked extremely hard in the off-season to prepare for the 1980-81 season. He knew Boston was on the precipice of that elusive championship, and he felt he could take the less-talented Ford's starting guard spot for the Celtics.

He worked out for two hours a day on Nautilus equipment, followed by 45 minutes with free weights and wind sprints. He was determined to come back strong and return to his pre-knee injury All-Star form.

For even though Ford was a solid, smart player and a better defender, he was also in his early 30's and not nearly as offensively skilled or creative as Pete. A smart player and a good open set shooter, he did not possess Pete's vision, ballhandling, imagination or ability to lead the break and create his own shot.

In any given game, Pistol could still score 30-plus points. Ford rarely broke 20, even in his prime. In addition, the Celtics had only voted Pete a half-share of playoff money, giving him extra motivation.

Maravich reported to the Celtic 1980 training camp a well-muscled 210 pounds, and did not look anything like the permed, skinny, out of shape recluse with a bad knee who had joined the team seven months before.

But even though playmaker Archibald was holding out, it seemed Fitch never entertained any notion of giving Pete a chance to start. Second-year guard Gerald Henderson, a quick defensive ace but a poor shooter and mediocre playmaker, and Ford were slotted into the backcourt ahead of Pistol Pete.

This, even though Maravich was playing quite well and in excellent shape. Making a move to start, Pete tossed in 38 points in an intrasquad scrimmage. The next day, Fitch reportedly came to practice in a foul mood.

He took out his venom on everyone, but saved his worst poison as usual for Pete, as Carr recalled in the classic biography "Pistol" by Mark Kriegel.

With Fitch's back turned, an angry Carr punted a basketball across the gym. When the coach wheeled around Pete was standing next to M.L., and Fitch assumed Maravich had been the kicker. Or used it as an excuse to yell at his whipping boy again.

Fitch lit into Pete. When Carr attempted to intervene and confess, a discouraged Maravich waved him off. After Fitch finally finished dressing him down, Pete muttered, "I don't need this."

He called an old friend and told him, "I think I have shot one too many baskets," and decided to retire. He did not show up to practice the next day, much to the dismay of Carr, who idolized Pete and had to feel remorse for his role in punt-gate.

Worn out, Maravich wanted time away from the game for the first time in his life to spend with his young son and to heal himself from his psychic wounds, the physical damage from a lifetime of non-stop hoops, and from his alcohol problem.

Even if it meant sacrificing his much-sought after title, the proud superstar also did not want to win a ring as a benchwarmer behind players he knew he was better than. Elvis doesn't sing backup.

So he kept his word and retired. Ironically, Cowens (who had come into the league the same year as Pete in 1970 and edged him for Rookie of the Year honors) also retired shortly thereafter due to a nagging foot injury that robbed him of the athletic explosiveness that made him a Hall of Famer.

The Celtics had pulled off a major trade for center Robert Parish and had also picked rookie Kevin McHale in the draft, so their excellent frontcourt was suddenly incredibly deep in talent.

Had Cowens and Pete played another year, Boston would have had the best depth in the NBA - maybe the greatest bench ever - and certainly the deepest frontline in league annals.

With Bird, Maxwell, Parish, Cowens, McHale, Robey and swingman Carr, Fitch would have been hard-pressed to keep everyone happy with their minutes. A backcourt of Archibald and Ford backed up by instant offense Maravich and instant defense Henderson would not have been too shabby, either.

Even though Pete and Nate were past their primes, they were Hall of Famers and later chosen to the 50 Greatest List in 1997. Almost certainly the duo who retired would have made a great team even greater.

Without them, Boston still captured the NBA title, the 14th in franchise history. They won a league-best 62 games, stormed from 3-1 down to beat the 76ers in maybe the best playoff series ever, then took down Houston in an anticlimactic Finals, 4-2.

Pete could not even bring himself to watch the championship series. The man many had called a loser rode off into the sunset and disappeared from the game without a ring.

Two years before, former Hawk teammate Lou Hudson had called Pete "raw talent-wise, the greatest who ever played" in a Sports Illustrated article. But he also said he "will always be a loser, no matter what he does. That's his legacy."

Very harsh words, and not accurate either. Winning a championship with Boston might have changed some minds about Pete's legacy, but for almost his entire career he played with woefully non-championship caliber teammates at LSU, Atlanta and especially with the expansion Jazz.

When he finally got to a great team at Boston in 1980, a damaged knee, old school coach and the ghosts of the past had robbed him of much by age 32. After preparing fervently for a comeback, when hounded wrongly one time too often by a demanding coach, he quit in a moment of profound discouragement, and was too proud to go back on his word.

A weary superstar who had carried teams and entertained fans for 15 years, Pete finally got fed up with all his burdens and called it quits when he was on the verge of that elusive title.

Does that make him a loser? Not in my book. Pete Maravich may not have become the greatest player ever, as his dad had created and pushed him to be.

But he was probably the most talented and skilled offensive NBA and college player ever. Not one - not Robertson, West, Bird, or Jordan - can equal him when one takes scoring, shooting, creativity, driving, leading the break, ambidexterity, ballhandling, court vision and passing ability into consideration.

Remember that despite his naturally slender 6-5 frame and tender looks that co-eds all over crushed on, Pete was extremely tough, as well as a basketball genius. He came from hardscrabble roots in Aliquippa, Pa., the scion of steel workers in one of the worst work environments in America.

In retirement Pete became a devout Christian. Ironically, he had prophetically proclaimed years before that "I don't want to play 10 years of pro ball and die at 40."

At one time obsessed with extra terrestrials, he was always seeking, and found he wanted something more out of life than just hoops glory. He finally found peace and became a sought-after religious speaker. As with everything the obsessive-compulsive perfectionist did, he threw himself completely into his new religion.

Shockingly, less than eight years after his last game with the Celtics, Pete Maravich died playing pickup basketball January 5, 1988 of an apparent heart attack at just age 40. He passed away doing what he had loved most, and his last words before falling to the court were reportedly, "I feel great."

Baby boomers everywhere felt their own mortality for perhaps the first time upon hearing the sad news. Basketball fans the world over were stunned and saddened. He was the only deceased player named to the 50 Greatest list less than a decade later, even though fellow selection George Mikan had retired over 40 years earlier.

Yet his astounding career became even more impressive in death.

An autopsy showed Pistol Pete was born with an undiagnosed congenital heart defect that normally kills its victims by age 20. He was born missing a left coronary artery, and his right coronary artery had become greatly enlarged to compensate for the defect. Not coincidentally perhaps, his father had died eight months earlier at 71 from cancer.

To think that Maravich had been one of the greatest players ever in the most athletic and physically-demanding sport in the world, despite basically half heart blockage, shows what a huge heart Pete really possessed. A great competitive heart on top of incredible talent, drive, basketball intelligence, imagination and hard-won skills.

"It is too bad Pete didn't stick around another year," said Bird years later. Too bad and very sad for Pete, his fans and the game of basketball, indeed.

But maybe in death, with the discovery of his heart ailment, he became an even greater player and true champion.

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