BATON ROUGE, La. — Jan. 5, 1988, is a day Frank Layden will never forget.
Aside from celebrating his 56th birthday, the former Utah Jazz coach recalls landing in Philadelphia, as the team prepared to face the Charles Barkley-led 76ers the next day.
“Coach, I’ve got some bad news,” said team trainer Don Sparks.
“What’s that?” Layden asked.
“Pistol just died,” Sparks confirmed.
At 40 years old, Jazz legend “Pistol Pete” Maravich took his last breath. He died suddenly of heart failure in Pasadena, California, while playing pickup hoops at the First Church of the Nazarene with a group of friends.
It’s hard for those who knew him to believe that the basketball magician has been gone that long.
These days, his college scoring record remains untouched, his No. 7 uniform hangs in the rafters of Vivint Arena and No. 44 also dangles atop Atlanta’s Philips Arena.
The Pete Maravich Assembly Center | Eric Woodyard, Deseret News
His college alma mater, Louisiana State University, named its home arena the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and a statue is in the works, while his body rests peacefully in Baton Rouge’s Resthaven Gardens of Memory & Funeral Home.
Resthaven family service counselor Judy Melancon estimates that at least 200-300 people come visit his 44-by-14-inch grave marker on a yearly basis, located in the Garden of Prayer section.
“We have people that have bought their property because he was buried here because they wanted to be as close as possible,” Melancon said.
His widow, Jackie, often strolls through quietly with flowers for his plot, but likes to keep a low-key profile.
“I came in 1996 and I wouldn’t dare to guess how many times I’ve shown this grave in 21 years,” Melancon said, glancing at Maravich’s plot. “Somebody like me, I find that fascinating because I’m not a basketball person, and for people still today to still think he’s the greatest thing that ever walked, and it’s been 30 years, that just amazes me.
“He might be long gone, but honey, he has never been forgotten.”
Ahead of his time
In his prime, Maravich dazzled fans with showmanship. His floppy hair and socks were also stuff of legends as the look matched his collection of tricks.
As crafty as he was, Maravich could still put the ball in the hoop, though. The five-time NBA All-Star averaged 24.2 points throughout his 10-year career for the Hawks, Jazz and Boston Celtics.
“If I had to equate a player playing today with Maravich, I would say (Golden State’s Steph) Curry,” said Tom Nissalke, Maravich’s coach during his lone season in Utah.
“When Pete played in college, they didn’t have the 3-pointer and he averaged almost 45 a game, and if they would’ve had the 3-point line, then he probably would’ve averaged 55 or 60.”
New York Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier still remembers being on the receiving end of Maravich’s career-night, where he went off for 68 points on Feb. 25, 1977, at the Superdome.
“A very difficult player to guard, we had some battles,” Frazier said, smiling. “If there was a 3-point shot he would’ve had 100 for sure that night.”
The New Orleans Jazz topped the Knicks, 124-107, and the former rivals entered the Naismith Hall of Fame together in 1987.
“He was ahead of his time,” Frazier said. “He was an improviser with the fancy passes and dribbling.”
Former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden keeps a rare Pistol Pete Maravich promotional toy among his personal items. | Eric Woodyard, Deseret News
Maravich’s creativity on the hardwood made it possible for the game to evolve for ball-handlers such as Curry, Houston’s Chris Paul and Boston’s Kyrie Irving. Although his nifty highlights are popular today, they weren’t always well-received among his peers, where he earned the reputation as a showboat talent.
Curry now thanks him for his hip style and welcomes the comparisons.
“I think he was one of the first ones that showed creativity with ball-handling and being able to balance that part of the game with just pure scoring,” Curry said. “I know his college records and all that stuff.
“That was actually the first time I was put in the same category with him, with his scoring average,” he added. “The game has obviously changed dramatically, and a lot of people have adopted Pistol Pete’s flair for the game, but him being an innovator, that’s what I call him, an innovator, because he pushed the envelope.”
End of an era
Sadly, fans in Utah never got to witness the best of Maravich. When he arrived in Salt Lake City for the 1979-80 season, his mythical aura exceeded his actual game.
Maravich was part of the move from New Orleans to Utah but was only a shell of himself after coming off a serious knee injury in 1978-79. Rehabilitation wasn’t as advanced back then as it is today, or he might’ve enjoyed a lengthier career from the better care.
David Williams, from the Utah Office of Tourism, attended the first-ever Utah Jazz home game on Oct. 15, 1979, against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Salt Palace. He remembers his parents being pumped about showing him Maravich, but the Jazz lost 131-107. Everyone in the stands received a certificate for being in attendance for history.
“Everybody wanted to see Pistol Pete Maravich,” Williams said. “I know my parents, that was who they knew on the team, so they were like ‘he’s awesome and you’ve got to look for him,’ and so every game after that I was always looking to see if he was out playing.”
Maravich’s name helped sell tickets, but it didn’t take long for folks to see he wasn’t the same guy, as his battle with alcoholism, depression and injury caused behind-the-scenes issues.
“I got a call, we were playing in Seattle when Frank Layden was the general manager, then from this guy who said ‘a player of yours is passed out in front of my door,’” Nissalke recalled. “As it turned out, the guy was a bishop, so we got Pete, took him to the hospital and had his stomach pumped. It was an ugly deal.”
He would only last 17 games in Utah before being waived on Jan. 17, 1980, and picked up five days later by the Boston Celtics as a free agent in what would be his last season. Even after his departure, Layden later offered him a role as an assistant coach but Maravich declined as he continued to soul search.
“We never forgot who he was, and the first number we retired was Pete’s,” Layden said. “Pete Maravich was a superstar.”
In his final years, Maravich’s life had taken a positive turn as he became a born-again Christian. In fact, his sole reason for being in Pasadena was to discus his faith on James Dobson’s national "Focus on the Family" radio program.
Then tragedy struck, as Maravich collapsed and died playing the game he loved in that California gym.
Three decades may have passed, but he remains relevant.
Just watch Curry.
“He bred life into the game of basketball for that next generation to kind of build on that style of play, which is pretty cool,” Curry said.