The untold story of the statue that now — finally — pays homage to ‘The Show’
Life was at times complicated for Utah/New Orleans Jazz legend ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich. So was getting a statue that honors him completed and unveiled at LSU
BATON ROUGE, La. — He played all of 17 games for the Utah Jazz after the franchise relocated to Salt Lake City.
Each was played during the 1979-80 season, before Pete Maravich was unceremoniously waived by the Jazz in January 1980, his ailing knees having stolen the stage from a man who made magic happen whenever the ball was in his hands.
But the Jazz retired Pistol Pete’s No. 7 jersey, homage much less to the time he spent in Utah and much more to the five seasons he played for the team from 1974-79, before it moved from New Orleans.
The New Orleans Pelicans even retired his No. 7, too, not because he ever played a game for that franchise, which originated in Charlotte, but instead in recognition of the time he spent dazzling in the Big Easy. And the Atlanta Hawks have retired his No. 44 as well, a nod to the first four seasons of his NBA career.
Now LSU, the school where his brilliance with a basketball blossomed, has holstered Pistol Pete’s No. 23 in bronze.
A statue of Maravich in his Tigers uniform was unveiled July 25, with just enough time to spare before preseason camp opened Thursday for the SEC football program — the 2019 national champions — that lives in a land where football long has been king.
Football may forever be that in Louisiana, but basketball is on the map, too, something that could not be said before Maravich first stepped on campus. He created a buzz about the game that simply did not exist before his arrival, and now — five-and-a-half decades later — there’s a statue to prove it.
The man who crafted the work, Brian Hanlon, has sculpted iconic figures from throughout American sports history.
Georgetown coach John Thompson, Temple coach John Chaney and UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. Keith Jackson at the Rose Bowl. Auburn’s Charles Barkley. Dominique Wilkins, Bobby Cox and Evander Holyfield in Atlanta. Jim Brown and Ernie Davis at Syracuse.
Hanlon’s list goes on and on, including former LSU basketball coach Skip Bertman, late LSU Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon, basketball great Bob Pettit and — captured in an iconic mid-dunk moment — Shaquille O’Neal.
But when Hanlon was commissioned to produce a statue of Maravich, the subject matter held special meaning for the classically trained and internationally renowned Toms River, New Jersey, sculptor.
“This is more personal out of the five (LSU) statues as a result of me being 61 years old, and, as a kid, wearing floppy socks on purpose, and wanting to be Pistol Pete Maravich,” said Hanlon, dubbed the “Sports Rodin” by The New York Times in 2018 for his work in the sports entertainment sector.
“Your dream would be to score (44.2) points per game,” added Hanlon, referencing Maravich’s LSU career scoring average. “But a very inspiring gentleman, I think, off the court too. … If young people took the time to read about him, they would see more than statistics.”
For the record
Maravich scored 3,667 points in three years at LSU, averaging 44.2 points per game starting with the 1967-68 season.
His totals still stand as school and NCAA records today, despite a ban at the time on freshmen playing varsity basketball and the absence of a 3-point line and shot clock during Maravich’s college career.
Hanlon originally had one look in mind for portraying the 6-foot-5 shooting guard.
“Why wouldn’t you sculpt him shooting?” said Hanlon, also the official master sculptor for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I mean, this is the greatest shooter in the history of the game.”
Maravich’s two sons, Jaeson and Josh, had a different idea, though.
“They said, ‘No. My dad was ‘The Show.’ You have to sculpt him throwing the ball behind his back.’ ”
So Hanlon did just that, capturing one of Maravich’s memorable passing moves — flicking the ball with his right hand behind his back — for a statue that wasn’t unveiled until six years after being approved unanimously by the LSU board of supervisors.
Long overdue in the eyes of some, it now stands alongside existing statues of O’Neal and Pettit near the LSU arena bearing the Maravich name.
The Louisiana Legislature renamed the venue the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in 1988, shortly after Maravich, who had previously undetected heart issues, died playing pickup basketball in Pasadena, California.
An LSU official earlier this year cited uncertainty over future arena renovation plans and the COVID-19 pandemic as reasons for the delay in the statue’s placement and unveiling.
Others suspect the fact Maravich never graduated from LSU played a part.
“Killing me. Killing me. Killing me,” Hanlon said of it taking so long.
“Pete is quite misunderstood in that as a young man he had a learning disability, and those things weren’t identified back then. So, for him to be, I think, slighted because he wasn’t able to read like you and I — I mean, he was reading backward; his dyslexia — is a little unfair.”
For several years the statue resided outdoors — weather-beaten, uncared for and unseen by public eyes — at a New Orleans-area storage facility.
Complicating matters, the back of its base was damaged upon delivery at LSU.
“For many, many different reasons it just got put on hold,” Hanlon said, “and by the time we were ready to install it … we had found out it wasn’t being stored very professionally.”
Hanlon spent 12 hours on a ladder making fixes, with assistance, the night before the unveiling.
He’s thrilled, though, to finally be able to share what he created with all who pass by it on the LSU campus.
“His basketball prowess — I don’t know if you can say the word genius, but — it’s certainly brilliant, on the level of all the greats of all time,” Hanlon said. “So this is one I always wanted to do.”
Body of work
Maravich — inducted in 1987 into the Naismith Hall of Fame — was the 1970 Naismith Award winner, Sporting News’ National Player of the Year and a three-time first-team All-American.
He also was a five-time NBA All-Star, including two of his seasons with the Hawks and three of his seasons with the Jazz before they moved from New Orleans to Utah, and he’s on, as are Pettit and O’Neal, the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary All-Time teams.
Maravich finished his 658-game regular-season NBA career with a 24.2 points per game scoring average, including 25.2 ppg over 330 games with the Jazz and a career-high 31.1 ppg in 1976-77 — his third season in New Orleans, one in which he also averaged a career-high 41.7 minutes per game.
Pistol Pete simply loved to play, no matter how much the knees may have hurt.
But after two surgeries the pain caught up with him, and following the move to Salt Lake City it finally overtook him. He averaged just 17.1 points and 30.7 minutes in his 17 games with Utah, all of which were played in the Salt Palace, and all of which came off the bench.
Maravich couldn’t practice near the end, so then-coach Tom Nissalke did not play him for his last 20-plus games while still on the Jazz roster.
The body had failed Maravich, and with much around him unraveling, Pistol Pete was waived by then-Utah general manager Frank Layden.
It was the final move in the Jazz career of a man who, as former LSU coach Dale Brown suggested before the statue was unveiled, lived a complicated life.
Brown recalled talking with Maravich after asking him to speak to his then-Tigers team around the time of a 1987 game against Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
“Without a doubt — this is not embellished — it is the most sincere, it is the most honest, it was the most fulfilling thing I’d ever seen in my life,” said Brown, who coached LSU from 1972-97 and took over from the man who coached Pistol Pete, Maravich’s own father, Press Maravich.
“He (Pete Maravich) got up and said, ‘Guys, I see a lot of you guys are All-Americans. You’re going to be in the same position as me.’ He said, ‘As long as we are, we’re taught about wealth and we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that.’ He said, ‘I was a miserable human being. I was frustrated. I was disillusioned. And I was bewildered.’ He said, ‘Do not let all of this society phase … change your goal in life.’ ”
While sharing that anecdote, Brown shifts to a conversation he had with Pistol Pete.
“Sitting in the dressing room that night — he was a quiet man — he said to me, ‘Coach, I’ve got a question to ask you. I even thought of committing suicide one time.’ He said, ‘How in the world did we get so far off-track?’ ” Brown said. “I said, ‘I can’t give it the exact answer, Pete. But I can give you an answer about a dictionary.’ ”
A very Dale Brown-like response.
“‘This is what’s happened to us,’” Brown said.
“‘In 1806, the first dictionary ever printed, under the word ‘success,’ it said, ‘fortunate, happy, kind’ and ‘prosperous.’ Now, whatever that year was Pete and I were talking, now the dictionary describes success as ‘attainment of wealth, fame, rank and power.’ ”
Gone too soon
Maravich attained a lot over the years, but just how much he enjoyed it will forever remain anyone’s best guess.
His career, like his life, really was cut far too short.
The Boston Celtics picked him up for a playoff run later in 1980, near the end of Larry Bird’s rookie NBA season. But after playing 26 regular-season games wearing green and nine in the postseason Maravich retired.
The show was closed, but not forgotten.
“Over Pete’s lifetime many have described him as an entertainer, an artist, a showman, basketball assassin, wizard, genius or one-of-a-kind,” his widow Jackie said before the statue unveiling in Baton Rouge.
“Every time a family member meets someone and they find out Pete was a relative, they immediately have a smile and have a story about a memory of watching Pete play … and the thrill of seeing him perform his magic with a basketball.”
Someone, that is, much like a sculptor from Jersey named Brian Hanlon.
“My first love was basketball as a kid, and my nickname in HYAA community basketball was ‘Pistol Pete,’” said Hanlon, raised in Holmdel, New Jersey. “I scored … like, low 20s a game, so I got the title of ‘Pistol Pete.’”
Tim Buckley covered the Utah Jazz for the Deseret News from 1999-2011. He is now editor of Tiger Rag, a website — tigerrag.com — and monthly magazine covering LSU sports in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.