The Greatest College Basketball Player of All Time and the Meaning of Life
In conjunction with this year’s college basketball March Madness, ESPN has selected its list of the Top 25 college players of all time. And I’m here to say they missed it badly.
In case you haven’t seen the list, or simply don’t care, the top five are: (1) Lew Alcindor (UCLA), (2) Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati), (3) Bill Walton (UCLA), (4) Bill Russell (San Francisco), and (5) Pete Maravich (LSU).
Now don’t get me wrong. All five were incredible during their college years. It’s hard for me to say anything bad about Alcindor (you may know him as Kareem Abdul Jabbar) or Walton, given the fact that I was a rabid UCLA fan while in high school and at the University of Oklahoma. What John Wooden accomplished there is the single greatest achievement in the history of the game, whether college or professional. During the same period, I was (and still am) a devoted Boston Celtic fan (which is why I utterly despise the Los Angeles Lakers, and always will), so Bill Russell would probably stand number two on my list. The “Big O” (Oscar Robertson) simply had no flaws in his game.
But the greatest college player of all time, in my humble (and correct) opinion, was Pistol Pete Maravich. Maravich played basketball at Louisiana State University when an individual was only allowed three years of eligibility, unlike today where a person can play all four years during his time in college. In spite of that, Maravich set and still holds numerous records that will probably never be broken.
He led the nation in scoring three years in a row and averaged 44 points a game. This was before there was any such thing as a three point basket. 44 points a game! In spite of only playing three years, in spite of playing without the three-point shot, he is still the all-time scoring leader in NCAA history. Had he played when the three-point shot was available, there is no doubt that he would have averaged at least 50 points a game, all three years that he played. Think about it.
He holds the record for most field goal attempts in a season. He holds the record for most field goal attempts in a career. He hit 30 free throws in one game. In one season, he scored 50 or more points ten times. He had three consecutive games in which he scored more than 50 points. During his career, he had 28 games in which he scored more than 50 points. He also had 56 games in which he scored more than 40 points.
Aside from his scoring stats, Pete was quite simply the greatest and most amazing dribbler, passer, and ball-handler that ever lived. If you haven’t seen video of him, I have no words to describe his facility with a basketball. He did things on a court that defied physics and human nature. He was a magician who ignored gravity and left you wondering how a mere man could have just done that. Neither Bob Cousy nor Magic Johnson nor even Michael Jordan could do what Pete did.
I will always have indelibly imprinted on my mind the sight of a gangly, skinny, mop-haired misfit doing things that no one else has or, in my opinion, ever will do. And who can forget his floppy, rarely washed, socks (something of Pete I imitated in high school, much to my mother’s dismay and disgust).
Maravich played ten years as a professional in the NBA and was the youngest man ever inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. He was the idol of thousands, myself included, but for the majority of his adult life he was a disgrace, a living disaster.
Maravich openly and proudly rejected the God of Scripture. He pursued every possible option in his relentless effort to find meaning and purpose and joy in life. He tried Hinduism, but that didn't work. He dabbled in Buddhism, but that left him as empty as before. He immersed himself in astrology, hoping to find in the configuration of the stars and planets some indication of the meaning of his existence, but again to no avail.
He embraced reincarnation and spent time trying to discover who he was in past lives and who he might become in future lives. He experimented with astral projection, investigated UFO's, became a vegetarian, and eventually gave himself over to drugs and alcohol.
Nothing satisfied him. Nothing filled the hole in his soul. Until one night in 1982, as he lay quietly in bed, for the first time he cried out to God for help. He fell out of bed and got on his knees and committed his life to Jesus Christ. From that point on Pistol Pete Maravich became an outspoken, devoted, passionate disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, proclaiming the gospel to everyone he met, declaring for all to hear that in the person of Jesus he had finally and fully found purpose, satisfaction, hope, and the forgiveness of sins.
Six years later, in January of 1988, at the age of 40, Maravich was playing a pick-up game of basketball in a church gymnasium in California, together with noted Christian psychologist and author James Dobson. He made a shot, turned to Dobson and said: "Boy, I feel great!" Whereupon he collapsed, dead before he hit the floor.
The autopsy report on Maravich shocked everyone, including the doctors. It revealed that Maravich suffered from a rare heart disease and that from the moment of his birth he had lacked a left coronary artery. The doctors were stunned, given the fact that few ever live beyond the age of 20 with that condition, and certainly no one to their knowledge ever played basketball in college and the NBA as Pete Maravich did.
Pete had expressed his intention to share more publicly what God had done in his life. A travel schedule was in place that would enable him to speak to the youth of our country about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and two sons. A movie about his life was actually in production when he died. And he was just beginning a book promotional tour to publicize his autobiography. In fact, he was scheduled to appear on Dobson's Focus on the Family radio program later that very afternoon on which he died. “The heart of man plans his ways,” and surely Pete had his plans. “But the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9).
I would like to think that in the new earth I’ll get to shoot some hoops with Pistol Pete. But I strongly suspect that neither of us will be drawn to anything other than the joyful celebration of the greatness and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Who was the greatest college basketball player of all time? Pete Maravich. But at present, and no doubt forever, his primary focus is on the Lamb of God, as he joins with the saints and angels around the throne, singing, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).