On Jan. 5, 1988, basketball legend Pete Maravich died playing the game he loved at the First Church of the Nazarene’s Parker Gymnasium in Pasadena, Calif. He was only 40 years old.
Maravich had been retired from his playing days for eight years. It was during his time away from the court that he turned his life around. Five years before his death he became a born-again Christian. He traveled the country sharing his story of transformation with groups and individuals.
Dr. James Dobson — the same James Dobson who relocated his Focus on the Family ministry to Colorado Springs about 30 years ago — was playing in a 4-on-4 basketball game in Parker Gym with Maravich when he died of heart failure.
Dobson told reporters that day that Maravich’s last words, less than a minute before he died, were, “I feel great. I just feel great.”
In July Dobson ran a two-part segment on his “Family Talk” radio program reflecting on that tragic day.
“How ironic that he was wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘Looking unto Jesus,’ because he was at that moment looking unto Jesus,” Dobson told his listeners. “He saw Him face-to-face.”
Maravich flew to southern California at Dobson’s request to do a segment with Dobson’s Focus on the Family Talk radio show. It was supposed to air the day after the pickup game. A break to play basketball with “Pistol Pete” was a treat everyone involved with the production was looking forward to with great anticipation.
Dobson invited former UCLA star center Ralph Drollinger along to play ball and he was more than happy to join in the fun.
After about 45 minutes, the players took a break. That was when Dobson asked Maravich how he felt. A moment later, he crashed to the floor.
Dobson and Drollinger administered CPR. An ambulance was called and those in the gym knelt in prayer.
“It was one of the most shocking experiences of my life,” Dobson told the Los Angeles Times in a 2007 interview. “To have a 40-year-old man, one of the great athletes of all-time, tell me that he was feeling great and then to just fall on his face without even breaking his fall ... and never taking another breath. I’ll never completely get over that.”
Pistol Pete is gone, but he will never be forgotten. To a generation of fans, Maravich — with his floppy socks and long black hair — was the most exciting player in the game. Nobody, before or since, dribbled with as much controlled chaos, shot the ball with more flair, or played as hard as the Pistol over his 13-year college and NBA career.
Growing up in Southern California I was a Los Angeles Lakers fan. I was fortunate to begin following the team when they had players like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich and other stars. But like everyone else my age, I loved Maravich and emulated his style of play.
In those days, kids played basketball on the playground on asphalt courts as often as they could. A chain net hung from the basket that was attached to a metal backboard. When the ball clanked off the rim you could hear the sound for five square blocks.
If you were a hot dog player you dreamed of being Maravich. When I had the ball I would call out, “Maravich has the ball at the top of the key and he’s driving for the basket.” I would then pull up and shoot an off-balance 20-foot jumper that sometimes hit its mark. The real Maravich, it seemed, never missed.
The Pistol averaged a whopping 44.2 points per game at Louisiana State University in his three varsity seasons.
He was selected by the Atlanta Hawks with the third pick in the first round of the 1970 NBA Draft. In 10 seasons as a pro, he averaged 24.2 points per game and was a four-time all-star.
Injuries cut his career short and he retired in 1980. In 1987, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as one of its youngest members in history.
I will always remember Maravich as one of the most exciting players in history. It is hard to believe he has been gone for 32 years.
Dobson, by the way, lives a couple of miles from me in Kissing Camels. His son, Ryan, lives in my neighborhood. Over the years, it’s been a common sight to see father, son and grandchildren walking outside my window.
I encourage you to read more about the life of Maravich. For many of us who admired him as a player, and more as a person, he was taken too soon. But what a lasting impact he has had for generations of fans.
Danny Summers has been covering sports at all levels in the Pikes Peak region since 2001. Send your story ideas and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.