The jersey hangs high above the Delta Center, evoking memories of a man who, on a dare, once spun a basketball on his fingertips for an hour. Pete Maravich is the only Jazz player ever to have his number retired. "There'll never be another like him," says Jazz trainer Don Sparks.
Tuesday marks the fifth anniversary since Pistol Pete died of heart failure during a pickup basketball game at a Pasadena church. Although he's been dead five years, and it's been nearly 13 since he played in the NBA, he remains one of the most mythical figures in basketball history. He could spin a ball off his fingertips, toss it in the air and strike it with his head into the basket. He made a 35-foot hook shot in a college game. He averaged an astounding 44 points a game during his college career. One night against the Knicks, he scored 68 points."If the three-point line had been around then, there's no telling what his scoring average would have been," says Sparks.
Sparks, who has seen dozens of players come through the Jazz organization, has rarely been so close to a player. They lived near one another in New Orleans when Maravich became the first Jazz player in franchise history (1974). Sparks' office features a life-size poster of Maravich.
"He could do more with a basketball than anyone I've ever been around," continues Sparks. "He could dribble, pass, shoot. He could do everything."
Sparks says he worked camps for Maravich numerous times. At the end of the camp, Maravich would put on a phenomenal demonstration - appropriately called "Showtime" - in which he showed kids a dazzling display of tricks.
"I wanted him to let me film it," says Sparks. "He'd say, `One of these days we'll make a movie.' " That Maravich would die on a basketball floor seemed to many both fitting and incongruous. He was doing what he loved, playing ball while in California to appear on a church-oriented radio program. But at the same time, it was shocking that Maravich, who appeared to be in excellent health, would die at the age of 40. Near the end of his life, Maravich had become a devoted Christian as well as a health food fanatic. He refused to eat red meat, white bread or pure sugar or salt.
"I plan to live to 100 and I plan on playing basketball until I am 50, not in the NBA, but playing in some manner," he told a reporter in June, 1978.
"It was the wildest thing that could ever happen, to have Pete Maravich die playing basketball," says Sparks. "I remember him being in great condition, working hard. The way he died, of a defective heart, I can think back on the years I saw him perform, and it's unbelievable he accomplished what he did. He was an unbelievably hard worker."
Though Maravich is a big part of the franchise history, his brief stay in Utah was a disappointment. Shortly after the team moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City in 1979, Maravich was waived after an extended feud with the Jazz over playing time. He completed the 1979-80 season in Boston and then retired due to a bad knee.
Though Maravich played just 17 games in Utah, the Jazz and Maravich made amends in the ensuing years. His number was retired in 1985 and the jersey hangs alongside one honoring the contribution of team president Frank Layden.
"What little Salt Lake fans saw, they didn't get to really see Pete Maravich," says Sparks. "They only saw flashes of his greatness."
Nevertheless, Maravich will always be remembered as the franchise's first superstar, and perhaps its most mesmerizing. Dave Fredman, a Jazz assistant coach who worked in public relations in both New Orleans and Salt Lake, says Maravich realized his role. "He'd say to me, `It's a sideshow. Bring 'em in, Pete. Pack 'em in, Pistol,' " says Fredman.
And so he did.
Experts say there won't ever be another Magic, another Bird, another Jordan. And there probably won't be another Pistol. Says Sparks, "I haven't seen one."