By Ron F. Hale, Minister of Pastoral Care & Senior Adults, West Jackson Baptist Church
Looking back, his remark is eerie – part premonition, a pinch of predestination, and a pint of paradox.
In 1973, Andy Nuzzo, a reporter for the Beaver County (PA) Times, asked 25 year-old Pete Maravich a question. Pete said, “I don’t want to play 10 years in the NBA and die of a heart attack at 40.”
On January 5, 1998, the reported last words of Pete Maravich were, “I feel great!” Maravich, the greatest scorer in NCAA college basketball history, and ten-year veteran of the NBA, was 40 years old when he collapsed to the gym floor. The man with a thousand moves, the Houdini of the hardwood, was dead within seconds. His haunting self-defeating prophecy feeds the mystery.
James Dobson of Focus on the Family had flown Maravich to Pasadena, California, to speak on his national radio show. Dobson arranged for a friendly pickup basketball game at Pasadena’s First Church of the Nazarene before the work began. Ralph Drollinger, the 7-foot-2 former UCLA center was also invited to play.
Taking a quick break after 40 minutes of play, Dobson and Maravich were talking and walking off the court. Out of the blue Pete fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Dobson’s immediate CPR and a rushed trip to St. Luke’s Hospital could not undo the detonated time bomb of his undiagnosed rare congenital heart defect. Like a basketball hitting nothing but net –“swish” — Pistol Pete, the basketball legend, was pronounced dead.
Football was the big ticket sports item for Louisiana State University fans until Maravich started doing things with a basketball that would dazzle a “sleight-of-hand” magician at a carnival sideshow. LSU’s machine gun offense afforded Pete an average of 38 shots a game and resulted in a record average of 44.2 points per game.
Most experts presume Pistol Pete’s NCAA record game average of 44.2 points per game will never be broken. That’s on par with greats like Nolan Ryan’s 5,714 strikeouts or DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Maravich racked up those points before freshmen could play varsity and the introduction of the 3-point shot. With a 3,667 point total, speculating on the woulda-coulda-shouldas only distracts from what Maravich actually did.
Maravich went on to get an unprecedented $1.9-million dollar contract to play for the Atlanta Hawks and later for New Orleans Jazz and finished up with the Boston Celtics.
Why did Focus on the Family fly Maravich to Pasadena? Five years prior to his death, Jesus Christ radically changed Pete’s life. The convicting power of the Holy Spirit showed Pete the darkness of his depravity on a restless November night in the fall of 1982. With sons Jameson and Joshua, tucked into bed, Pete quietly slipped into bed with wife, Jackie, around midnight. He struggled to fall asleep.
Anguished memories from Pete’s past gyrated through his mind: drunkenness, suicidal thoughts, close-call car wrecks, and the impact of alcohol on his mother, his brother, and himself.
Years before, Pete remembered consciously turning a deaf ear to the Gospel while enduring a long weekend at a Campus Crusade for Christ basketball clinic in Lake Arrowhead, California. Living for God might mess up his dream of stardom, the big ring, the millions, and the fame.
The clock was ticking!
The Holy Spirit brought to his memory letters from his fans; their genuine prayers for his salvation were expressed, but he trashed them.
The clock was ticking!
Nearing dawn, Pete was soaked in sweat. Like a fever breaking, he saw his horrible sinfulness and dropped to his knees making the foot of the bed his altar. Now he was ready to shoot straight with the Lord!
Pete’s soul sorrow gushed out, “God, I’ve punched you. I’ve kicked you. I’ve cursed you. I’ve used your name in vain. I’ve mocked you. I’ve embarrassed you. I’ve done all those things. Will you really forgive the things I’ve done?”
Four years of testimony reveal that Pete firmly believed that God spoke to him, “Be strong. Lift thine own heart,” was the message Pete heard. He immediately prayed, “I’ve got nowhere to go. If you don’t save me, I won’t last two more days.”
The weight of the world lifted from Pete’s heavy heart. He later said, “When I took God into my heart, it was the first true happiness I ever had.”
Sometime later, Nelson Price, the pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, invited Pete to do a basketball clinic and shared, “The Lord gave us instant rapport. At this stage in his spiritual experience he knew nothing about the Bible … I began right then to disciple him … we talked every week by phone … we had intensive sessions during the basketball clinic.” Price not only had the joy of baptizing Pete, but he won Coach Press Maravich (Pete’s father) to the Lord and baptized him.
Known for making “buzzer beating” game-winning shots, Pete came to Christ just in time!