The young’uns are curious.
They are in crazy hoop love with Stephen Curry. And why not? He’s the best nightly show in sport. But their elders have sometimes referenced this old guy with the catchy nickname. Pistol Pete. Is that it?
Yup. Sure is. More than a few people have advanced the theory that Stephen Curry is perhaps a latter-day Pete Maravich. Is that really possible?
The classic waffling answer: yes and no.
Now I must admit that when I first saw the clips of Curry’s celebrated pregame ballhandling routine, the first thing I thought of was Pistol Pete.
For it wasn’t just the ungodly point totals he amassed that made him famous. It was an amazing package that included hair flopping all over creation and seemingly tons of droopy socks. He had a look unlike anyone else on the basketball court. Most of all, there was his spellbinding ballhandling. Pete did things with two, three, or even four basketballs most people would have been quite content to do with one.
If anyone has come close to emulating Pete’s dexterity in handling a basketball, I’d say it would be Mr. Curry.
“Pete used to put on ballhandling clinics,” recalls Cedric Maxwell, who both played with and against Maravich. “There’s a lot of that in Curry’s game.”
Before we go any further, it is necessary to review Pete’s legendary college career at LSU. Simply put, there has never been anything like it. Averaging 20 points a game in a three-year college career (freshmen were not eligible for varsity play when Pete began) is a big deal. Averaging 30-plus is a huge deal.
Pete averaged 44.2. No, seriously. From 1967-68 through 1969-70 Pete Maravich played 83 college games and averaged 44.2 points per game. And, of course, he did this without the benefit of the 3-point shot.
He left school as the all-time NCAA leader in points, per-game average, field goal attempts, field goals made, free throw attempts, free throws made (how about 30 for 31 vs. Oregon State in 1969?), and 50-point games (28).
Pete was a volume scorer. His career shooting percentage was .438 in college and .441 in the NBA. Curry is a career 44 percent shooter on 3-pointers alone. He is shooting over 50 percent overall this season.
What does unite them is the ability to get off shots, and this is where the ballhandling comes in. Oh boy, could Pete get off shots. His three-year collegiate per-game field goal attempt totals were 39, 37, and 37. That’s in a 40-minute game. I will never, ever forget the televised game against Kentucky when Pete went 19 for 51 from the floor. How anyone can get off 51 shots in 40 minutes is incomprehensible for anyone today, I am sure. But it happened.
Curry can likewise get off shots in a manner that is unique to him in today’s game. “But Pistol Pete did it in the lane,” says Tom Heinsohn. “Curry does it behind the 3-point line.”
Indeed, what Curry is doing has no precedent. “I’ve never seen anyone who can shoot with that kind of accuracy from that distance,” marvels Larry Bird, himself a pretty decent 3-point shooter. “And he makes it look so easy.”
Both the 6-foot-5-inch Maravich and the 6-3 Curry did, or do, more than just score. Lest anyone forget, Curry is quite a legitimate point guard who can get you both the 35 points and, oh, yeah, 10 assists a night. Maravich was nothing less than the league’s most dazzling passer. “Flamboyant,” as Bird puts it.
I well remember having frequent conversations about Maravich with Heinsohn in the early ’70s. Tommy was all about the fast break, as any viewer would suspect, and though he was quite comfortable with the likes of John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, or Hambone Williams — betcha haven’t thought about him for a while, eh? — leading his fast breaks, he couldn’t help but fantasize about having Pistol Pete, with his lookaway passes leading to other lookaway passes, in the middle of a Boston attack.
“The greatest thing that ever happened was when Cotton Fitzsimmons took over coaching the Hawks from Richie Guerin,” Heinsohn says. “Richie had Pete at point guard. Cotton made him a two-guard. Thank God!”
But Tommy did get to scratch that Maravich itch, as it turned out.
“I coached him a couple of times in the All-Star Game,” Heinsohn points out. “He’d say, ‘Are we going to run?’ I’d say, ‘Pete, you’re going to be in the middle of fast breaks all night long.’ Then [Walt] Frazier would go in and he would slow it down all the time.”
Time to talk threes.
It has long been a source of debate: What would Pete have done if the three had been in existence for his entire career? He did have 3-point range. There is no question about that. Nor is there any doubt that he would have appreciated the theatrics of a Curry-like reputation. I rather think Pete would have liked being a 3-point king on top of everything else. It’s fairly safe to say he would have averaged 46 or 47 a game, minimum.
Now he did pretty well without the three. He averaged as high as 31 points a game in the NBA and he did score 68 points in Madison Square Garden, sans threes. The three did come along just in time for Pete to play one season with the rule. But Pete was no different than most everyone else. He basically ignored it. Let the record show, however, that in that 1979-80 season he took 15 threes and made 10.
One other bond for Messrs. Maravich and Curry. Each had a father who played in the league. The difference is that Press Maravich played a total of 51 games for the 1946-47 Pittsburgh Ironmen and Dell Curry played 1,083 games (making 1,245 threes) for Charlotte, Toronto, Cleveland, and Utah.
Pete was practically a fictional character. The subject of two biographies, he had a complicated existence. He played for his father at LSU and it was a hoop circus, to be sure. He had a somewhat stormy NBA experience, and by the end Pete was a totally different person than the one who entered the league. Steph seems tremendously well-adjusted to fame. His only noted subplot is having a candidate for the World’s Cutest Daughter in Riley Curry.
The one sure thing we can say is that each did, or does, special things when a basketball is placed in his hands. “I’d say that Pistol’s spirit has been passed down through Curry,” declares Cedric Maxwell.
Oh, wow. Wish I’d said that.