High School Sports

Pistol on the court; shy boy a-courtin'

Pete Maravich was groomed to be a basketball star, tutored by his father from childhood to be the best in the game. As a senior at Raleigh's Broughton High School, he was so confident on the court he once needled an opposing team by saying he would run them to death, then scored 38 points.

But in 1964-65, Maravich was also a shy, skinny teen who was scared to call one of the prettiest girls in the school for a date and would not go to the school dance unless he could get a new suit. He agonized about dating, largely because his father, Press Maravich, then N.C. State's basketball coach, thought girls would distract him from his basketball career.

The contrasting sides of the young Pete Maravich are revealed in eight letters written to his girlfriend during his senior year at Broughton. Books, newspaper stories and a movie, "The Pistol," have told legendary tales of the basketball prowess of Maravich, who would become men's college basketball's all-time leading scorer. But the letters offer a new portrait of a basketball player who worked tirelessly to meet monumental expectations while battling the typical insecurities of a teenager.

The letters were written to Vada Palma, a self-described surfer girl who had no idea who Maravich was when they met at Broughton. "I said, 'Who's Pete Maravich?' and they said he was this great basketball player," Palma recalled recently. "That didn't mean anything to me."

Eventually they began to date, to go steady, and for 45 years Palma saved Pete's letters. She recently gave Broughton old pictures and the letters, written on lined notebook paper, often while Maravich was in class.

"I hadn't looked at them in years," said Palma, 61, a retired educator and a member of the Atlantic Beach Town Council. "I'm getting older and thought someone there might want them. I hadn't spoken to Pete in, I don't know, since around 1970." Maravich died in 1988 at age 40 of an undiagnosed heart ailment.

Maravich wrote to Palma about basketball, struggles in school and of being in love. He apologized for misunderstandings and in one letter drew hearts along the border of the paper and wrote "Kiss me" in each one.

"I am beginning to do pretty well in Anatomy, which is my worst subject, but at that same time I'm flunking the dog out of College Algebra," he wrote. "Man, it is really getting late. I wish I didn't have to go to school tomorrow but I'm going because you are there."

To Palma, Pete Maravich was an incredibly shy, cute guy, a sweetheart. But she could sense that he was in turmoil.

"I think Pete was in anguish much of the time," Palma said. "He wanted so badly to please his father and do what his father wanted him to do, but he was seeing me, and he knew his father didn't want him to have anything to do with girls."

The young legend

Maravich, who had been featured in Parade magazine, was nationally known by his senior year at Broughton. His father had been the head men's basketball coach at Clemson and an assistant at N.C. State before taking over as State's head coach earlier that year.

Maravich had started at Daniels High School in Clemson, S.C., as a sophomore and joined a veteran team coached by Olin Broadway at Brough ton for the 1963-64 season. The "Sizzling Six," as they were called, finished 19-4. Broughton lost 64-63 in overtime in the state championship game to Winston-Salem Reynolds when a last-second Caps basket was nullified by the buzzer. It would be the closest Maravich would ever come to winning a championship.

Maravich was the only returning starter for the 1964-65 Caps and their new coach, Ed McLean. McLean knew Maravich was an incredible talent. So did his teammates.

"When you played with Pete, you learned to always keep one eye on him when we had the ball," said Broughton teammate Ronnie Vance, now a co-owner of a carpet store in Wilson. "I guess every player on the team had a Pete pass bounce off his head at one time or another."

Maravich could throw in shots from remarkably long range, could handle the ball magnificently and was one of the game's best passers.

The string bean guard

The floppy socks he wore his senior year would become his trademark. At Broughton, he was sometimes called the string bean guard. Later, he would become known as Pistol Pete.

At the Christmas break, Broughton was 3-3, and Maravich was averaging 33.8 points per game. The Caps lost their next five games. About the same time, he spotted Palma, a junior, and made arrangements to meet her.

Maravich sent her a picture, via his friend Alex Allen, along with a request to phone her Saturday morning.

Maravich didn't call, and his first letter was an apology.

"Alex told me that you were mad at me for not calling you Saturday morning," Maravich wrote. "Well, I guess I was wrong, but I didn't know you waited for it. I guess I have no excuse, except I was going to call you but I said well, maybe she won't be home."

He said he dialed her number but hung up before it rang. "Maybe I'm chicken or something," he wrote. He added that he felt like a heel. "If at any other time I say I'm going to call you, I WILL!" He signed the note "The String Bean Guard."

Palma may have been Maravich's first romance, according to lifelong friend Bob Sandford, who later coached at Daniels Middle School in Raleigh for 30 years. "I never heard Pete mention a girl other than Vada until he met Jackie," Sandford said recently, referring to Maravich's wife, who was unavailable for comment.

Palma was described in Maravich's authorized biography by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill as a "local beauty." Forty-five years later, she is still striking enough to have had a waitress stare at her this month and say, "You're so beautiful."

"I think I must have been his first big crush," Palma said. "He was a high school senior, and the letters sound like something written by someone 13 or 14 years old. Ours was no great love. It is no unrequited love story. It was just a couple of high school kids who liked each other."

Fear of distraction

But Press Maravich was training his son for basketball stardom and believed girls had no part in the process.

And his fears seemed to be coming true. Maravich, who once made 178 consecutive free throws in practice, missed three in a 64-57 loss at Wilmington in late January.

"I know you won't believe this but I missed three more foul shots last night because of you." He wrote that he was up until 3 a.m. "I swear, every time I went to the foul line who did I think of. Yes, you['re] right, you. It was a wonder I didn't miss all of them."

"Missing free throws because of a girl," Palma said, "No, I don't think that is what Press had in mind."

After a win over Goldsboro on Jan. 30, Maravich worried that his coach had offended Palma by shooing her away after the game.

"I hope you're not mad at me about last night," Maravich wrote. "Coach is like any other Coach in that he doesn't like to see girls hanging around his basketball players."

The incredibly thin 6-foot-4, 150-pound Maravich also talked of the beating he took during the game.

"I had more bruises and cuts than a cut up piece of lamb," he wrote to Palma the next day. "When I got up and took a shower this morning it burned so bad, but when I began thinking of you, the pain ceased (tee hee)."

The big dance

Maravich and Palma often went to church dances after Broughton games. Other times, they went to movies.

Former teammate Vance said Maravich would dribble during movies when he went with the guys, switchingaisles to work each hand.

But not if Palma was around.

"Never. That would never happen with me," Palma said.

"I remember once he showed up at my house with a basketball," Palma said. "We didn't have a basketball goal. So why did he bring a basketball? He told me that he had ridden his bike over and had dribbled all the way. Can you imagine?"

In the winter of 1965, the headlines were about the Vietnam War, a satellite that sent back pictures of the moon and a fire that burned down N.C. State's Pullen Hall.

But Maravich was big news, too, after scoring a school-record 47 points in an 81-73 win over Enloe on Feb. 2. In his letter after the game, Maravich was concerned that Palma had been grounded and might not be able to go to Broughton's annual Queen of Hearts dance.

"I told you about a week ago that your parents would ground you if you didn't buckle down," he wrote. "But you just said, they won't ground me. Well now the geese is goosed. When ever you write me again please don't say, 'Since I'm grounded go ahead and date other girls.' Vada, I'm serious, I only want to date you."

The must-have suit

Maravich hoped that she would be allowed to go to the Queen of Hearts dance in mid-February, which was and is a huge social event. But he would go only if he had a suit to wear.

"I've got to get a suit before Saturday or I'm not going," he wrote. "But I just don't have the time. Somehow, I will figure someway to get it."

Broughton had lost to Rocky Mount 73-61, and Maravich fretted about the season. "This is the first time in my entire life that I have been on a losing team."

Broughton had won only six of 16 games on the eve of the Caps' big game against Durham, the league co-leader, in February. Maravich mentioned in another letter that he would be miserable the rest of the school year if the Caps lost.

After Broughton recorded one of the biggest upsets of the season by beating Durham 80-71, his joy was apparent.

"It's 1:30 in the morning and I still love you," he wrote. "I'm so happy about our win tonight. Nobody would haveever believed that we could beat them."

The other big news was that he had gotten a suit. "I got my suit today. I think it's really good looking. All of this is for you," he wrote.

Among the pictures Palma gave Broughton is one from the Queen of Hearts. Maravich is looking sheepishly at the camera, and she is waving. They danced to songs like "Louie Louie," "Wooly Bully" and a few slow dances by the Right eous Brothers. Their favorite song was Dinah Washington's "September in the Rain."

"I had a wonderful time. I think Pete was very awkward. It was new to him," Palma said.

The awkwardness of the night is reflected in Maravich's next letter, written before a game against state power Fayetteville.

"My only wish was that we would have had a better time after the dance," he wrote. "... Boy, what a drag that was driving around not saying a word to each other. You really did look beautiful. ... "

Broughton lost to Fayetteville and then Wilmington in its last two regular season games.

On the eve of the conference tournament opener at Wilmington on Feb. 23, in the last letter Palma saved, Maravich wrote, "If we win this game tomorrow night I'll buy you anything (within reason) (a night out on the town.)"

Despite an injury, Maravich helped beat Wilmington, but the Caps lost the final two games and missed the playoffs.

The Caps' season was over. They had finished 9-14. Maravich had scored 20 or more points in all but two games.

Maravich still occasionally saw Palma, but the romance cooled. Palma was a senior at Broughton. Maravich was at Southwood College in Salemburg.

"If you were writing a book about my life, Pete Maravich would be one paragraph. I was really happy when I heard he had met someone and gotten married. He was such a sweet boy."

Palma did go to the N.C. State Fair with Maravich and his friend Sandford that fall.

"I just remember him shooting at the basketball throw," she said. "He never missed, and I carried out all these bears and things. The guys running the booths would run him away and tell him he couldn't shoot anymore. The carny was so mad. He was just giving all these stuffed animals away."

Record breaker

Maravich's NCAA scoring records at LSU have never been broken. His career average was 44.2 points per game. Maravich was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1970 and played in the NBA for 10 years, averaging 24.2 points per game, including 31 points per game in 1976-77. He made the all-NBA team in 1976 and 1977.

Maravich died while playing basketball at the Church of Nazarene in Pasadena, Calif., less than a year after the death of Press Maravich. He left behind his wife and two sons. Pete had visited Broughton just 10 days before his death, attending a ceremony to retire his high school jersey.

Palma later married and now lives at Atlantic Beach. She noticed the letters and pictures in her cedar chest recently and thought someone at the school might want them.

The school plans to display some prominently and may hang a large picture of Maravich in the lobby.

In his letter to Palma after Broughton's big win over Durham in February 1965, Maravich expressed both his joy and his love of the game.

"Coach McLean was so happy I thought he was going to kiss all of us. I played my usual bad game. It seems every time I look terrible we win. I guess I'm going to start playing bad every game as long as we win."

He neglected to mention that his "bad game" had resulted in 38 points. But that wasn't unusual.

The most prolific scorer in NCAA history, a player who once scored 68 in an NBA game, never mentioned scoring a single point in any of his letters.