Jenkins: Pistol Pete's greatest blessing

January 30, 2013 

Pete Maravich

LSU coach Press Maravich embraces son Pete, who just broke the all-time men's NCAA scoring record in 1970. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ANONYMOUS — AP

Another book was out, and as with the ones preceding it, Bob Sandford had been the man to see. He had taken the author, Norm Vener, on a tour of the old haunts in Raleigh, helped him with pictures, told his stories, so many stories, of his nearly quarter century friendship with a legend. And on this night in January, Sandford stood by Vener at the Players’ Retreat in Raleigh, helping the Seattle-area author promote his book, “Pistol Pete in Pictures, a Pete Maravich Pictorial.”

Since Pete Maravich, a basketball sensation for the ages, died at 40 in 1988, Sandford has made multiple appearances on television and helped several authors. It is not something he has sought out. But when the topic is Maravich, who starred at Broughton High School before he went to Louisiana State University to set all-time collegiate scoring records and then to a promising but injury-prone career as a professional, Sandford is the man to see.

But perhaps the real book isn’t about basketball at all. And maybe it’s not just The Pistol’s story.

They met, Maravich and Sandford, at a basketball camp one summer in the early 1960s. Maravich was two years younger, but playing with the big kids. Not long thereafter, Sandford was working at the Raleigh YMCA when Maravich walked in.

“We just saw each other across the gym, and said, ‘Hey man, I remember you,’” Sandford said, talking about Maravich as he sat near a Raleigh condominium complex that used to be an outdoor basketball court where he and the Pistol played.

Sandford, who’d go on to earn nine letters as a college athlete himself, was a big brother, counselor and friend to young Maravich, whose life was not a storybook. His father, Press, was head basketball coach at N.C. State during the mid-1960s, and instilled in his son an obsession with basketball.

Pete cared about nothing else, including schoolwork. But he was looking forward to going to West Virginia for college. One afternoon, like many others, he was hanging out with Sandford and some other guys at Sandford’s Spanish Trace apartment on Dixie Trail, a popular spot for young singles. Maravich, in a sometimes tense relationship with his father and with a troubled home life, often stayed there.

“It was a Saturday,” said Sandford, who’d go on to a long career as a coach at Daniels Middle School and as an administrator in the Division of Motor Vehicles. “Pete had graduated. Press called and said he’d signed a contract with LSU. Pete said he didn’t want to go to LSU. Press said, ‘If you don’t go with me to LSU, you’re never coming to my house again.’” Maravich went to LSU.

He often came back to Raleigh to hang out with Sandford. There were parties, girls, good times.

The pro career came with a huge contract, and stops in Atlanta, New Orleans, Utah. Injuries cut everything short, and Pete Maravich, the brightly shining star, was done. He became a recluse for two years, and then, when one of his sons was seriously ill in the hospital, Maravich prayed for his recovery, which came suddenly. Maravich later found a literal calling in evangelical Christianity, and spoke in prisons, churches, everywhere.

Through bad times and good, from youth to family and glory and pain and sadness, Bob Sandford was the one he called, about everything.

Today, Sandford tells the stories, but steers from anything that might seem like bragging. He acknowledges that the famous floppy socks, Maravich’s trademark, came when he loaned the kid a pair to go play basketball, and that day Maravich couldn’t miss. He wore them the next day and the same thing happened. “He’d come by sometimes and take a couple of pairs, because I wore them to prevent blisters. But he just kept wearing them,” Sandford said.

Pete was generous even as a young college player, taking Sandford and another buddy to Daytona Beach once, where they partied and where Maravich cleaned out the owner of a boardwalk basketball shooting game, winning five large stuffed bears while swishing baskets in a stiff breeze. He gave the bears to kids in the crowd that gathered.

In December 1987, his life together, The Pistol came to Raleigh and returned to Broughton High School, where he was and remains a legend. They had a long talk that night, “until 2 o’clock in the morning,” Sandford says, about everything, including a new basketball camp.

A little more than a week later, in January of 1988, Pete Maravich collapsed and died after a pickup basketball game in California that included the famous evangelical leader James Dobson. It turned out that the man who had such a big heart for basketball had a congenital heart defect..

“I do think about Pete a lot,” Sandford says, staring into a blue sky. “But he was at peace. He was doing good things. For the first time in his life, basketball was not his primary motivation.” That he’d had a steadfast friend through it all had made the sometimes difficult journey better.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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