Monday, January 22, 2007

Jackie Maravich breaks silence with "Maravich"

Pistol Pete’s widow writes about legend’s life

Advocate sportswriter
Published: Jan 3, 2007

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON

Jackie Maravich, widow of basketball great Pete Maravich, has collaborated on a biography of ‘Pistol Pete.’

When Pete Maravich played basketball — and nobody ever played like him — it brought thrills to everyone except, it seemed, Maravich himself.

During a career that led him to the Basketball Hall of Fame, his wife, Jackie, said she waited long after games ended because he stayed in the locker room until the arena was as empty as he felt.

“Obviously, he knew what he could do with a basketball, but I think in a way he was uncomfortable,” she said. “He loved the game of basketball, but I think everything that went with it didn’t bring him happiness, the material things and whatever.”

That dramatically changed before his unexpected death in 1988 at age 40, which sparked renewed interest in his life. Books and movies were produced. None had Jackie’s input, though not for a lack of requests.

That changed six years ago when Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill approached her. This time, she said yes.

“I could see where they were coming from, their sincerity and their love for Pete and the type of book they were going to write,” she said. “I thought it was time.”

The result is “Maravich,” a biography that received input from Jackie and her sons, Jaeson and Joshua, and gave her editing rights. The book covers Pistol Pete’s life, including his early years, his spectacular playing days and his off-court attempts to find meaning in life, a quest that led to his accepting Christ in 1982.

Jackie had a front-row seat to most of this after Maravich noticed her in 1968. By this time he’d already played one season for LSU and was the city’s biggest sports celebrity. Maravich didn’t approach Jackie Elliser right away.

“The friend I was with, he called me up and said, ‘Pete Maravich wants your phone number,’ and I said, ‘Who’s Pete Maravich?’ I was born and raised in Baton Rouge, but I didn’t follow sports. I said, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t really go out on blind dates.’”

Her friend persuaded Jackie to give him a chance, and he took her to the season’s first football game.

“He came to the door, and my dad said, ‘What are you doing with that tall, skinny guy?’” she said.

“The thing that really attracted me to Pete after that first date was his sense of humor. He was a real, real, real funny guy. That was it after that. We kept dating on and off, and the rest is history.”

That sense of humor remained. On Jan. 5, 1988, Maravich was playing basketball at a church in Pasadena, Calif. During a break in the game, Maravich told the church’s pastor, the Rev. James Dobson that he felt really good — then collapsed to the floor. Those present thought he was joking, but Maravich had suffered a massive heart attack resulting from an undiscovered congenital defect.

Doctors said it was miraculous that he lived through his teens, much less that he became major college basketball’s most prolific scorer, averaging 44.2 points per game — a fraction of what he might have scored had there been a three-point line to reward his long-range shots.

But points only began to describe Maravich’s skills. His ball-handling and passing skills were so extraordinary that many of his passes hit unprepared teammates in the face rather than the hands. Those skills had been honed over years of almost obsessive practice and through the instruction of his father, Press, his coach at LSU.

The National Basketball Association seemed perfect for Maravich, and the Atlanta Hawks rewarded him with the richest contract ever given to a college player of that time. But his teammates clearly resented him, Jackie said.

“I think it was a star thing — the salary and the attention,” she said.

Maravich scored 15,948 points (24.2 per game) in the NBA. His 68 points for the New Orleans Jazz against the New York Knicks in 1977 is the 12th-highest point game in NBA history. He scored more than 50 points in 28 games, a record.

Yet, he was unfulfilled, especially after retiring in 1980.

“He was searching and trying to learn what life really means,” Jackie said.

That search has been chronicled and often exaggerated. Though he was interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Pete did not paint anything on the roof of his house inviting UFOs to come there, Jackie said. He did not dabble in Hinduism. He did not build a bomb shelter at their home. He did become extremely focused on nutrition.

“He also got into fasting,” she said. “He would cook us dinner. He would fast for, like, a week, and I never would get over the discipline he had cooking food for us and just drinking carrot juice and different type things.

“When he told me that he had accepted Christ into his life, I said, ‘Oh, well, maybe it’s another phase he’s going through.’ But I could see the happiness in him and just the zest for life and changes in him. I wanted what he had, so I was baptized in 1984. And when I was baptized, they said all he did was cry the whole time when I went up. I guess he wanted me to have what he had.”

Maravich approached Christianity with the same dedication he’d given to basketball. At Thanksgiving, Jackie said, he would fill his car with turkeys and drive around giving them to people he didn’t know. He spoke about Christ to any group or individual that would listen, she said.

Now, through this biography, he still speaks, Jackie said.

“I remember him always saying this to me: ‘When you die, people forget you.’ He will never be forgotten,” she said. “Here he is, more alive today than ever.”

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