I remember walking into my sister’s high school (we went to rival high schools) when I was in college and being flabbergasted by a scene in front of the basketball gym. Broughton High School had erected a veritable shrine to Shavlik Randolph, the latest big name to graduate from the high school. You may never have heard of Randolph—he went undrafted by the NBA in 2005 and has had a very modest pro career—but he went that private school in Durham (name not to be uttered by this Tar Heel fan). In high school, he was a very highly-rated, blue chip recruit.
No, while that display of a rival’s player may have displeased me, what shocked me was a little photo next to it of one of the greatest basketball players of all time. The photo just had a caption of the player’s name, and it showed none of the fanfare afforded to Randolph, who garnered a full wall of praise. That was when I found out that Pete Maravich also went to Broughton High School, in Raleigh, NC. I had no idea. Neither do most people, if the size of display was any indication.
It can be tough to fathom how good Maravich was. In college, the 6’5” guard averaged 44.2 points per game for LSU, easily leading the nation in scoring those years. In fact, even though there was no three point line (he was a phenomenal shooter, and nicknamed “Pistol”) and he was not allowed to play his first year (no freshmen were), even decades later he still leads all NCAA basketball (both men and women) in career scoring with 3,667 points. Oscar Robertson’s career scoring average is the closest to Maravich’s among other career scoring leaders, but the Big O could only manage 33.8 points per contest. Maravich was the national player of the year in 1970.
In the NBA, Maravich averaged almost 25 points per game over roughly 10 seasons with four clubs, adding in more than 4 rebounds and 5 assists a game. While he did once score 68 points against the NY Knicks, Maravich never found much team success in the NBA. Knee injuries forced him to retire, and the Hall of Famer eventually died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 40.
Why have we forgotten about Maravich? When you watch clips of him, it is clear that he was one of the most exciting players to ever dribble a basketball (and, my goodness could he dribble). He was arguably the most offensively gifted player ever to play the game. In fact… when you watch him play… he reminds you a little bit of Stephen Curry. But Maravich was doing all of this fifty years ago.
My personal hypothesis is this: the sport and its fans were not ready for someone like Maravich when he played. He shot too much. His dribbling was too showy. He made passes that were designed to delight as much as win games. These days, after Michael Jordan’s tongue wagging, after the Fab Five’s cockiness, after Vince Carter’s dunks, after And-1 mix tapes… we are used to basketball players displaying the attitude toward the game that Maravich did.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article recently that cited Oklahoma’s Trae Young, currently leading men’s NCAA basketball in both points and assists per game, as being the first of the “Stephen Curry” generation. If the Wall Street Journal is noticing sports, the players must be pretty special.
And they are. Both Curry and Young are absolutely electric. Watching them is like glimpsing lightning in a bottle.
But are they really doing things we have never seen before? I think not. Maravich had all that firepower decades ago. More, really. My favorite story about Maravich is that he honed his legendary dribbling skills by dribbling out the window of a moving car as his father, the well-known coach Press Maravich, drove around town (that fact and more here). He shot from his hip and was an excellent long-range shooter. It was like he had the ball on a string when he dribbled. And his passing! Check out the pass here around 0:46 in the video.
If you have a few free minutes, go watch some videos on Maravich doing his thing. One of the saddest parts of his career is knowing that the NBA instituted the three point line at the very end of his career. For his career, Maravich made 10-15 shots from behind the arc. How many more points would he have scored had he had the benefit of that shot and been able to tailor his game to it as modern stars do?
Stephen Curry may be inspiring a whole generation of kids to grow up to become slick-dribbling, crafty-passing, cocky sharpshooters. But he is not doing anything new. Not really.
Pete Maravich was Steph Curry before Curry was even born.