Bible Reading: Titus 3:3-7
I love basketball. For 25 years I woke up at 5 AM, three times a week, to play pickup basketball at the local community college gym. I also love watching the sport and have been a fan for as far back as I can remember. I can vaguely remember watching Pete Maravich play when I was a kid. Years ago, I saw a movie and a documentary about his life and was fascinated by his story. I suppose that is why I was eager to read his biography (“Pistol: A Biography of Pete Maravich”; Mark Kriegel; Simon and Schuster). But his story far transcends his basketball fame.
In 1929 a missionary gave Pete Maravich’s father, Press, a basketball. Basketball would henceforth consume his life and control his destiny. Press worked hard to become a talented basketball player. He was forever obsessed with the sport and coached for many years even after he quit playing. When his son Pete was born, he was born destined, according to his father’s dream, to play the game his father loved and lived for.
And from the beginning, Pete was his pupil. Press invented a variety of drills to perfect Pete’s skills. From a young age, Pete went everywhere with his ball and would practice his drills for hours on end. He would play late into the night and even in the rain. Though a skinny and unimposing kid in Jr. High, he was nonetheless a phenomenal player and could do things that astonished both his teammates and opponents.
There was much pressure on Pete to fulfill his father’s dream that he would be the best basketball player ever to play. Everything in the household’s life revolved around basketball. Plays were diagrammed on the dinner table using salt and pepper shakers. But the household was not a very happy place. Basketball was an obsession, and it required more than some were able to give. Press’s wife became an alcoholic. She would eventually, in her despondency, commit suicide. “Even as Pete Maravich became Pistol Pete—a basketball icon for baby boomers—all the Maraviches paid a price.”
No one had ever before played the game of basketball quite like Pete. He could do amazing things with a ball. Upon graduation from high school, he played for LSU, where he became the most prolific scorer in college basketball history (he averaged 44.2 points per game). His Dad was the coach, and he refined the team’s offense to highlight Pete’s basketball skills. The team itself was not that great, but no matter where they played, spectators filled the arena. He made unbelievable passes and shots that drew oohs and aahs even from his opponents. He established himself as a basketball phenomenon and professional basketball teams took notice.
He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks. His rookie season was filled with heartaches. He had won the largest contract thus far in professional basketball. His envious teammates treated him accordingly. The team was not very good, but Pete’s name and play were enough to draw a crowd. The spectators loved to watch him play, and even worshipped him, but he himself grew increasingly disillusioned with basketball and life. He drank heavily. He was haunted by the failure to live up to his own expectations. He sought answers. He involved himself in martial arts for a time. He interested himself in all kinds of “isms” (i.e., vegetarianism; Hinduism; extraterrestrialism; survivalism). He believed in UFOs and wrote in big letters, “Take Me,” on the roof of his house. He had it all—fame, fortune, and the opportunity to have fun playing the game he was born to play—but he was lost and miserable.
He managed in his professional career to set many records and establish himself to be one of the 50 best players of all time. He was an NBA All Star. He was traded to the New Orleans Jazz and in playing for them always drew a crowd—despite the team’s terrible play. But none of that mattered to Pete. He was miserable. He developed a reputation for being difficult. He was traded again. And then injuries ultimately brought an end to his career. And in that too, he was distraught. He often contemplated suicide, driving his car at ridiculously high speeds, and sometimes thought of veering off the road.
Were that the end of the story, it would be a sad story indeed. But amid his post-career despair, God came to his rescue. One night he couldn’t sleep. Burdened by his many past sins, he prayed, asking God for help. He hadn’t been a praying man, but his desperate estate brought him to it. God heard his plea and made Himself known to Pete. Jesus saved him and transformed him. He had loved basketball, but his love for basketball was replaced by a passion for Jesus and making Him known. Whenever he had the chance, he gave out gospel tracts. He proclaimed the gospel at Billy Graham crusades and in other venues. He was privileged to witness the salvation of both his wife and his father. He was a great father to his two sons. Then his father passed away. He had said, as his father was dying, “I’ll see you soon.” His wife, Jackie, heard what he said—those words stuck in her mind.
He was to speak on the Focus on the Family radio program. And beforehand he was invited to play in a pickup basketball game with James Dobson and some others. It had hardly begun when Pete collapsed on the court and died (nine months after his father had died). The autopsy uncovered a startling truth—he was born with a heart defect that would have killed most people by age 20. But he had lived, and played basketball, ‘til he died at age 40 (when God had finished His work in his life). His father’s dream had been for him to be the greatest basketball player ever, but His Heavenly Father had a better plan. Most know of Pete Maravich as a famous basketball player, but it was in Jesus that Pete Maravich found true purpose and meaning in life. He seemingly had it all, but he wasn’t a happy man until he had Jesus (1 Peter 1:18; John 10:10).
I WILL SING OF MY REDEEMER
I will sing of my Redeemer
and his wondrous love to me;
on the cruel cross he suffered,
from the curse to set me free.
Chorus: Sing, O sing of my Redeemer!
With his blood he purchased me;
on the cross he sealed my pardon,
paid the debt, and made me free.
I will tell the wondrous story,
how my lost estate to save,
in his boundless love and mercy,
he the ransom freely gave. [Chorus]
I will praise my dear Redeemer,
his triumphant power I’ll tell:
how the victory he gives me
over sin and death and hell. [Chorus]
I will sing of my Redeemer
and his heavenly love for me;
he from death to life has brought me,
Son of God, with him to be. [Chorus]