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The SEC team that had Pistol Pete's number

  • Pete and Press Maravich (LSU Athletics)

By Joseph Dycus 

Pete Maravich was shaken up.

A perplexing scheme and a disciplined adversary had transformed LSU’s mighty Pistol Pete into Popgun Peter in front of an equally confused crowd in Baton Rouge. Maravich had spent the better part of 40 minutes firing nothing but blanks and duds at a Tennessee unit that had stymied the man who would go on to become the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer. From baseline to baseline, the boy who scored 45 a game had been hounded by Billy Hann, a long-limbed Ohioan who was flanked by Tom Hendrix and Bill Justus in the Volunteers’ vaunted 1-3-1 defense. 

And so a few minutes before Pistol fouled out, he displayed his immense disappointment in a way only the most flamboyant of characters could. Tired of being accosted by two defenders at all times and sick of shooting over double-teams, Maravich finally decided to shoot from the one place in the John Parker Agricultural Coliseum (Cow Palace) where he could get an open look. Maravich jogged up to midcourt, placed both hands on the ball, and flipped up a 50-foot clanker for all to see.

“What was going through my head was ‘We got him. We got him right where we want him. Psychologically, he’s spent,’” Hann says. “When Pistol put that shot up, that told us he had given up.”

To say coach Ray Mears had divined the perfect strategy would be a cliché. In reality, he had made one, and only one, major change to his defensive scheme, which resulted in the blueprint for how the Vols would torment Pete—who finished his career with 3,667 points—for the next three years. If coach Press Maravich wanted his son to the show, Mears would make sure LSU’s mad scientist would be the state’s most disappointed dad at least twice a year. 

“Press wanted Pete to be his glory boy, so I studied Pete,” Mears said in Mark Kriegel’s Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich. “I put a lot of time figuring out how to give him trouble.”

Part II – Revenge on the Mind

Numerous books and articles have been written about the younger Maravich’s relationship with his father, whose desire to create the first million-dollar player resulted in behavior deemed overbearing at best and abusive at worst. But the morality of the endeavor aside, you couldn’t argue with how effective Press was at training his son. 

“By age 13, the ball had become an extension of me and my personality,” Pete Maravich said in his 1987 autobiography Pistol Pete: Heir to a Dream. “I knew its dimensions as well as I knew the back of my hand. I had become a basketball android.”

The elder Maravich had become typecast as a scrappy coach who valued team basketball above all else. Clemson and NC State benefitted from his group-focused ethos in the late 19550s and early ’60s. So great a basketball mind was Press, none other than John Wooden came to him to create an offense capable of unlocking his 7-foot-2 phenom named Lew Alcindor. 

“This time, his query concerned the efficacy of the high-low post offense—Wooden had never used it before—and how the scheme might exploit Alcindor’s rather formidable talents,” Mark Kriegel wrote. “Press explained the offense in both form and function, giving his wholehearted endorsement.” 

So what did Press do when his teenage son finished his year at a prep school and enrolled at LSU, where the elder Maravich, after leaving NC State, took over in 1966? He said, “To hell with that team basketball bullshit!” and instead made gangly Pete the sun the LSU basketball program revolved around. No shot was off limits for Pete during his four years on campus. Maravich didn’t just have a green light to fire away, he a whole street of them, and two extras stored in the back just in case one of those happened to break from too much usage.

The SEC was still a year away from total integration, and the style of play was stereotypically white. Crossover dribbles and behind the back passes weren’t happening at the biggest schools in Dixie, with most teams (like Tennessee) pining for the days before the fast break existed. And so Maravich’s crazy shots and crazier handles gave Southern fans a Thanksgiving meal-sized taste of what the rest of the country had in abundance. 

Back in those days, freshmen were required to play on a freshmen team, which often resulted in comical dominance from players who would have probably skipped higher education altogether for the NBA had they come along 40 years later (i.e. Wilt Chamberlain, circa 1955). In his first game against Southeastern, Maravich put up a 50-point triple-double and took 41 shots. Against the Baton Rouge Hawks, he launched 51 attempts to get 66, and Maravich went for 57 in his first taste of SEC basketball against Auburn. Seventeen opponents came, and 17 opponents were dispatched by LSU’s freshmen team (aka Maravich and four guys). 

Then came Tennessee. 

Coach Ray Mears knew how exciting Maravich was, and how he drew huge crowds as a pre-internet America began to hear whispers of the floppy-haired coach’s son who was putting up half-a-hundred for Louisiana’s most prestigious university. And so, he struck a deal with Press. Maravich would bring his son to perform in the old Stokely Center, and then Tennessee would return the favor by playing in Baton Rouge the next year. 

“We got four sellout crowds from Maravich when most schools only got three because there was good fan interest when it came to watching him play,” says Bud Ford, who was a UT assistant sports information director at the time and is now the program’s official historian. “Not just at LSU but at any school he played at, because people heard about how well he played as a freshman.”

Instead of a coronation and an undefeated season, Tennessee’s freshmen came away with an unlikely win. They sent two or three defenders at Maravich every time he had the ball and held him to a season-low 31 points. With only a few seconds left, Maravich had a chance to tie the game with two made free throw. He made the first but bricked the second.

“The Tennessee game was a particular personal disaster since I felt like I had let down my team, the school, the fans, my dad, and of course myself,” Maravich said in his autobiography. “All I could think of was a blemished record: 17-1, and I considered the one loss all my fault.”

Watching from afar was a pair of Vol guards, who after seeing Pistol for the first time knew he would one day be their problem. And sure enough, Bill Justus and Bill Hann would be instrumental in thwarting Pistol’s attempt at vengeance. 

“Back then, it wasn’t like it is now where everyone was on TV every week,” Hann said. “There was probably only four or five times a year we could see him on TV each year. But the coaches did trade film, so we did have the opportunity to see what he was doing on film, and it was pretty spectacular.”

Part III – The Strategy

  • Ray Mears (Tennessee Athletics)

In a decade where SEC basketball was considered Adolph Rupp’s kingdom, one where the Wildcats lorded over the peasants from Tuscaloosa and the rest of the southeast, one man dared to challenge royalty. After winning a D-II championship with Wittenberg, Ray Mears took the Tennessee job in 1962 and immediately went about building the Vols’ basketball program. He never had a losing season in Knoxville, and even won the conference title in 1967 (the Vols’ first since 1943). 

While he later embraced a go-go-go philosophy when gifted with athletes like Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King, Mears’ early reputation as a slow-it-down coach was well-earned. College basketball had no shot clock, so what incentive was there to rush into sets? Mears and his players instead became proficient at strangling the life out of games with a grinding and deliberate pace. 

“Coach Mears took full advantage of the fact that there was no shot clock, and we ran what was a very deliberate offense,” former All-SEC guard Bill Justus says. “His idea was that we would make no mistakes and we will not give up the ball by playing too fast or being sloppy.”

Against any other team in the conference, Mears would run a 1-3-1 trap, where the Vols would sit back and wait until the ball got within 20 or so feet of the basket. Billy Hann would then force the ball to one side, where one of two wings would trap the ball. Center and future NBA star Tom Boerwinkle clogged up the middle, and forward Tom Hendrix would run the baseline in order to cover the corners. 

“Sometimes, if they had a guy who was a great shooter from the corner, Hendrix may not run side to side,” Ford says. “He may cheat on him a little bit. When the ball comes to the corner, Hendrix would come in and Justus would come down, and Boerwinkle would roam to the middle of the foul line. You were looking at three men facing you, and they played it real hard.”

For a singular talent like Maravich, Mears created yet another wrinkle to his beloved 1-3-1. Instead of zoning up Maravich on top, Hann was now asked to shadow the game’s most lethal scorer for 40 minutes. Even though the 6-5 Pistol technically had the size advantage against the 6-3 Hann, Mears’ was counting on his playmaker’s intellect to make up the difference. 

“Our offense and defense in high school was the same one we ran at Tennessee,” says Hann, who because of that familiarity with the system was almost a coach on the floor for the Vols. “Where I was lucky was that he trusted me. I was the only one allowed to dribble behind my back and allowed to make crazy passes and stuff like that. So I had a different relationship than some of the other players. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t get after me, because he did.”

“Hann had quickness and more speed than Maravich,” coach Mears told the Knoxville News-Sentinel.” By having him anticipate his many moves on his own, Billy was able to better anticipate the moves Maravich might make.”

By the time Tennessee’s game with LSU rolled around, Maravich was a full-blown national sensation whose scoring exploits made him front-page news. Press’ fever dream was a reality, his favorite son the toast of the town and the most-recognizable college baller outside of Los Angeles. He was rolling up 40-point games against almost every team he encountered, something the majority of SEC teams were fine with. If Pete got 50 and the other team got the W, they couldn’t complain. 

“Dad and I experienced a fantasy year as we became household names in the world of sports,” Maravich said in Heir to a Dream, “and the entire country monitored the progress of my mounting numbers, counting the days until the next collegiate record.”

“His dad took some criticism for that later on, because he played with some pretty good basketball players down there,” Justus says. “If they had been a little more of a share-the-ball type, they might have been a better team. But that was Press’ thing: he promoted Pistol Pete. The other guys just went along with it.”

Mears bucked popular thinking, instead opting to shut down Pete and make “the other guys” beat them. Bob Hickman and Ralph Jukkola getting as many open shots as they wanted weren’t going to frighten the coach who went against Dan Issel and Louie Dampier twice a year. He knew his Vols, who were ranked sixth in the country, were smart enough to execute the peculiar game plan. The mind games didn’t stop there, either. Before tipoff, the normally stodgy coach allowed his team to watch Maravich warm up, something that was far more exciting than the last sentence makes it seem. 

“Before our first varsity game against Pete, coach Mears said, ‘There’s one change during warmups tonight. Feel free to turn around at halfcourt and watch Pistol Pete warm up.’ ” recalls Justus. “He put on a magnificent show during the warmups. He was going behind the back, between the legs, and over the shoulder. Hook shots from wherever he was. Coach Mears knew we wanted to see that, and he knew we were going to win, so he said I’m not going to deprive you of watching this. It was like watching the Globetrotters warm up.” 

But Mears’ boys wouldn’t be outdone by basketball’s one-man show. They may have even gained a fan or two with their own warmups, which involved juggling basketballers on a unicycle, a pep band, smoke machines, and fancy dribbling routines. 

“We’d run through the T and there’d be smoke, and what would happen would be that Pistol Pete and his teammates, as good as they were, would stop and watch us and our warm-up drills,” Hann says. “And that’s just what coach Mears wanted. Press would want to talk to them and get them ready, and we’d have their attention with our warmups. It would get their mind off the game they were just about to play.”

The Tigers never got their minds back on the game. 

Part IV – The Game 

  • (Tennessee Athletics)

LSU fans streamed into the Cow Palace expecting a party, or at the very least a Maravich highlight reel. They instead witnessed Pistol’s least effective outing since high school. Hann hounded Maravich, picking him up full court as the primary defender in Mears’ new “T and One” defense. With Mears’ trapping principles still in effect, that meant Maravich was constantly being trapped by two defenders every time he touched the ball. 

“I defended him man to man, and when he cut to one side, I had to stay with him and anticipate where he was going,” Hann says. “That was easier to do when he had the ball because when he passed it off and started to do his cutting, he could play the whole floor.”

Bill Neikirk of the Associated Press wrote that LSU did not score until six minutes had passed, and “Tennessee’s deliberate style of play and its double-teaming of Maravich handicapped the scoring sensation.” Maravich senselessly chucked up shot after shot while double-teamed—the brilliant basketball mind completely perplexed by this foreign scheme. 

“Don’t foul was a key point in Mears’ plan, and Hann did not,” the Knoxville News-Sentinel proclaimed. “With excellent body position and long arms up, Billy simply forced Pete to shoot over him.”

As Maravich’s misses piled up, Bill Justus started to run his mouth. The All-SEC guard was having himself a game too, and actually became the first player in the SEC to outscore Maravich in a head-to-head matchup. The 29-point man ruthlessly berated the golden boy throughout the game, with his jawing only growing louder after every Maravich miss. Sports Illustrated would dub Pistol “The Coed Boppers Top Cat” a few months later, but Justus was already demeaning a frustrated Pistol by calling him “Teenyboppers Top cat.”

“So there was one play, and it was my bad, where Pete didn’t get down the floor on defense, Justus says. “So we shot and we missed and they throw a length of the court pass to Maravich, who had just stayed down there and not even tried to run back on defense.”

“So I go running down the floor, and he stopped under the basket, turned around to me as I was running after him, and said, “Here’s two more for you, Teeny-Bopper’s topcat.” He was entertaining to the fans, but he was entertaining to have on the floor with you too. He was fun.”

Perhaps Bill Justus would have been quieter had he been in Hann’s position. While Justus talked more trash than a drunken uncle during a game of Texas Hold‘em, the other Bill stayed quiet as he tracked Maravich. 

“Bill Justus was the trash-talker, and I was the one who kept my mouth shut because I understood the last thing I wanted to do was to motivate Pete and have him retaliate against me,” Hann says. “What I wanted to do was to make him really uncomfortable and show him whatever he was doing was not going to affect me emotionally, psychologically, or verbally. I didn’t say a word to him until the very end.”

The Tennessee team was far more than just its guard tandem. Boerwinkle controlled the interior, grabbing 21 rebounds to go along with 16 points. Bud Ford says assists were not tracked as they are now, and there is a great chance the talented passer also put up a handful of dimes in the contest. 

“Assists and steals and turnovers were stats that were just coming in at that time, and I’m not sure that everyone was as sensitive to assists as they are right now,” Ford says. “I don’t know when we started keeping a full box score with those stats, but I do know an early complaint was that we only had someone having three steals or four assists.”

Hann somehow scored 13 points himself, a minor miracle considering he was exhausting himself on the defensive end. Even a less-burdened Hann was not usually asked to score double-digits that season as the playmaker for Mears’ deliberate attack. After another game where he scored close to 20 points, Mears made sure to set the point guard straight. 

“He pulls me into his office and gets face to face with me and says ‘Billy, as long as you’re at Tennessee, you’re a playmaker. You’re not a scorer, so get that out of your head,’ ” Hann says with a laugh. 

There was little laughter on the LSU sideline, where Press Maravich had to suddenly rely on players other than his boy to put the ball in the hoop. Guard Jeff Tribett and little-used center Randy Lamont actually combined for 36, but the rest of the team sputtered as Pistol’s chamber unloaded dozens of missed shots. In one of the worst shooting games of his career, Maravich made only nine of 34 shots before he committed his fifth foul.

“You didn’t have to worry about the other guys,” Mears told Kriegel in The Life.

But even though Tennessee stymied the great Maravich, both Bills have nothing but respect for the late showman (Maravich passed away in 1988), 50 years after their showdown. Both spoke almost reverentially when asked about Maravich’s skills as a ballhandler and shot maker. 

“I would say Pete was as talented a ballplayer and ballhandler and as entertaining a player as the SEC has ever had,” Justus says. “I don’t think we’ve had anyone like him since. He was one of the early guards who was 6-5 but had tremendous ballhandling skills, and did the behind the back, over the shoulder, no-look, between-the-legs passes. He would shoot it from everywhere, and gosh he’d get 30 or 40 shots a game. He was incredible.”

If you asked me back then who was the best player in the nation, I would have told you that there was nobody like Pistol Pete. Nobody,” Hann says. 

The 87-67 loss, the Tigers’ fourth in a row, dropped them to 9-7. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s sparkling record was boosted to 15-2, and the Vols remained atop the conference. LSU ended the season 14-12, and of equal (or more) import, his son sat atop the scoring charts with a record-breaking 43.8 points per game.

Part V – Aftermath

Peter Maravich played Tennessee five more times during his career, and not once did he break more than 30 points in any game against the Vols. In fact, Pistol seemed almost gun shy after his 25-miss debut against Tennessee, taking only 18 shots in his second meeting with Tennessee (a 74-71 loss). The Pistol averaged a (by his ridiculous standards) paltry 23 points against the Vols in six varsity matchups, compared to 45.8 against all other competition. 

Even though Justus and Hann had graduated by the time Maravich played a home game against Tennessee in 1970, Mears still managed to play one last mind game with the Pistol. After a cup of coffee with the Atlanta Hawks in training camp, back problems forced Hann to choose another path. Hann came back to Knoxville and became a graduate assistant for Mears, often coaching the freshman team and rarely straying too far from home. 

But one winter night in Knoxville, coach Mears called Hann into his office, and told the recent grad he was going to be traveling with the varsity for its matchup in Tuscaloosa, and more importantly, the game in Baton Rouge. When the Vols arrived in hostile territory, Mears’ instructions were plain: walk to the LSU corner of the court, just outside of the tunnel, before LSU runs out onto the court. Wear your brightest orange blazer and say not a word. 

And then stand ready to guard Maravich, one last time. 

“So I’m the only one out there and people are booing me because we’re in Baton Rouge,” Hann says. “I’m sure they’re wondering “What is this idiot doing?” but I walk over to the other end of the court and stand on the corner. And Pistol comes out, takes two dribbles, and stops. He just looks at me, and the rest of the players almost run over him. Then he continues to dribble forward and onto the court but looks back at me.”

“We just want to get in his head,” Mears told his former point guard. “You’re gone, but you’re not gone, and we’re going to do the same thing now that we did the last four games.”

Pete Maravich was shaken up. 

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