By Ted Kietlinski
No-look around-the-head passes, between-the-legs dribbling at full speed, off-balance, double scoop lay-ups, and 360-degree spinning jumpers in the lane could describe the actions of any number of today’s basketball stars, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only Pete Maravich was capable of such wizardry. After all, “Pistol Pete” was a basketball maestro, a brilliant conductor who performed a new magnum opus every night he took the floor. People who saw Maravich play speak of him in glowing superlatives like innovative, revolutionary and charismatic.
Maravich electrified crowds with “Showtime” basketball not just during his LSU years (1968-70), but also during successful NBA stints with the Hawks and Jazz. Collector Joe Henninger was one of many fans drawn to the LSU scoring machine.
“Though I was just a kid when he played, I was a big fan,” he said. “I liked his floppy socks, floppy hair, all those points, and the flair with which he did everything. Maravich doing that on half a heart is just an incredible story.”
Maravich’s untimely death of heart failure in 1988 at the age of 40 “adds to his status as a mythical, larger than life figure,” said basketball collector Steve Taft.
This is just one of many reasons why collectors, both young and old, are lured as if by a siren’s call to collect Pistol Pete Maravich items.
Taft notes Pistol Pete’s collegiate scoring prowess (an NCAA record 44.2 career ppg) as another reason hobbyists fawn over Maravich collectibles. But perhaps the most interesting reason Maravich still tops many collector wish lists has to do with faith.
“Maravich converted to Christianity after his playing days and there is a strong core group of collectors who pursue just Christian players,” Taft said.
A person who knows all about Maravich’s story is Norm Vener, one of the nation’s foremost Maravich memorabilia experts. The Seattle-based Vener got his start in the hobby selling Seattle-area sports collectibles, but wanted to set his “Yes I Can” business apart from the other sports enterprises. He knew of only one player who could carve such a unique niche for his company – Maravich.
“Any skinny kid growing up in the late ’60s or early ’70s saw in Pete that the game didn’t have to be played above the rim,” Vener said. “For people from my era, Pete was the man. His fancy approach to the game appealed to kids like me immensely. Yet, because the Hawks and Jazz played in small markets, there wasn’t much Maravich stuff available.”
As if to make up for that oversight, Vener has, for more than a decade, provided fans with a wide variety of Maravich collectibles at his www.thepistol.net website, including a newly released purple-and-gold Pistol Pete wristband.
Though many Maravich fans are looking for novelty items like hats and t-shirts, Vener says there’s a number of avid Maravich collectors in constant pursuit of autographs and game-used memorabilia.
For those die-hard, game-worn collectors, the Maravich quest proves both scant and pricey.
“Short of George Mikan, Pistol Pete game-worn jerseys sell for the most money,” Vener said. “Expect to pay at least $10,000 for even the easiest to obtain game-worn Maravich item.”
Of course, not all material that once soaked up the sweat of Pistol Pete is plundered for so cheap a ransom. Pete’s LSU jerseys are extremely scarce and highly coveted because they represent his unsurpassed scoring accomplishments and his uncorrupted schoolboy innocence. In a 2001 Grey Flannel auction, a game-worn LSU Maravich jersey sold for $94,300.
His LSU shooting shirts and warm-up jackets have also hit the auction block in recent years, with one of the latter selling for $23,500 in 2006.
Yet one Maravich fan landed free game-worn attire simply by being in the right place at the right time. A Vener customer had Maravich’s 1979-80 Celtics jersey handed to him by the Pistol himself.
“He literally took it right out of Pete’s locker,” Vener said. “Pete offered it to him the day he was cleaning out his locker after hanging up his NBA career for good. He gave the shorts away, too.”
Two coveted items that Vener gets plenty of requests for but has never seen auctioned are Maravich’s floppy socks and any of his game-worn sneakers.
“A pair of his socks are on display at the Hall of Fame, and perhaps the shoes were all thrown away,” Vener said.
Sign this, please
While many pro athletes have two types of signatures (sloppy and neat), Maravich actually used two variations of his name when signing items.
For much of his life, Maravich believed in The Pistol: the myth, the man, the legend, the marketing machine. He bought into the concept so much that many of his pro jerseys had “Pistol” stitched on the back instead of his last name. Likewise, many autograph requests were penned simply “Pistol Pete.” A “Pistol” version is the most common signature signed and, according to Vener, accounts for approximately 90 percent of all Maravich’s signatures. A signed “Pistol” photo catalogues for $500 and a basketball $1,200.
Occasionally, Maravich did use his complete name when signing. However, many of the “Pete Maravich” style autographs appear on official documents like checks and legal statements. Thus, memorabilia signed with his full name is rare indeed. A signed “Pete Maravich” photo ($1,500) and basketball ($3,500) book as the highest signatures of any NBA Hall of Fame member.
“Pete was a prolific signer all through college, the pros, and even after his playing days,” Vener said. “I’ve never heard of anyone who was turned down for Pete’s autograph. After 1982, the year he became a born-again Christian, nearly all of Maravich’s autographs also included a Bible verse or two.”
Cards and Such
Any talk of the most important basketball cards in the hobby must include his 1970-71 Topps rookie card. It’s a must not just for Maravich fans, but also for all basketball card collectors.
“The rookie card is hard to find in high grade,” Taft said. “Many of them are off-cut, while others have centering problems. It’s also hard to find one with good picture focus.”
As of this writing, PSA’s population report tallies only 49 graded 9s and one lone 10 for the Maravich rookie. The 9s sell for around $2,200.
Buyers have learned that patience is a must when pursuing a high-grade Maravich rookie.
“I’ve owned several of the Maravich rookies since I was a kid,” said Michigan hobbyist Joe Henninger. “A while ago, I sent the best one off for grading and it came back a 6. Ever since then I was on a quest to find a better one.”
That online quest lasted many months, as Henninger was outbid on numerous occasions and folded on several others when the price escalated into the $2,500 range.
“I waited out this trend,” he said, “and luckily finally found a nice 9 for a more reasonable price.”
However, outside of the rookie card, Taft says the other Topps Maravich issues are rather plentiful. Die-hard Maravich collectors, therefore, long ago checked into oddball sets for rare Pistol Pete cardboard.
“It’s hard to find enough stuff to satisfy all those collectors who want Maravich,” Taft said. “That’s why the oddball singles are so sought after, because there are so few Maravich cards out there. When dealers break oddball sets from the 1970s, Maravich is always the first card to sell.”
The PSA Maravich Master Set Registry contains 23 cards, including several of the rare oddball issues. Perhaps the most difficult to obtain on the registry list is the ’72-’73 Comspec card.
“I’ve only had three of them in the last 10 years,” Taft said. “Collectors may search for a long time before they find any of the rare oddball issues. And when you do find one, expect to pay over book price. If you get a chance to upgrad e later, do it, because you might not ever get a shot at another one.”
The Comspec issue (which uses the same photo as the ’72-’73 Topps Maravich) books as the most expensive oddball card at $600. Following close behind is the 1978 RC Cola Maravich at $500. Though the card’s purpose is a bit of a mystery, Taft speculates that the card was a hang-tag stuck in six-packs of RC Cola.
Another soft drink company produced a Maravich card in the late ’70s as well.
“The Pepsi All-Stars is a nice looking card,” Taft said. “It’s an 8-by-10 on thick stock. Though extremely rare today, Pepsi probably made a boatload of them. Where are they now? I have no idea.”
Though most of Maravich’s Topps cards are easy to find, one particular year has resulted in lots of collector headaches. Henninger, whose Maravich set currently ranks 3rd on the PSA registry, has experienced the frustration of ’74-’75 Topps Basketball cards. “That year is hard to find in high-grade because the card stock is so poor,” he said. “I’ve searched and searched through singles and set break-ups, and when I finally find one with solid card stock, the centering is poor.” To date, only 13 PSA 9s exist for the regular issue ’74-’75 Maravich, and just three 9s (zero 10s) have been recorded for the ’74-’75 Hawks team leaders card featuring Maravich.
A few other oddball Maravich cards that remain popular include the ’85 Star Co. Schick Legends and an ’87 LSU tribute card. In addition to cards, Taft says yearbooks and programs with Maravich on the cover sell well. These, he said, are typically worth $15-$60, depending on condition.
Of the few Maravich oddball cards, the most popular and most plentiful is the 1972-’73 Icee Bear. 104 PSA 9s exist, with 8s as well as ungraded versions available quite frequently online. The card books for $60 and sells for around that price in a PSA 8. PSA 9s command $200. Some price guides label this Maravich card a short-print, something Taft disputes.
“I believe that the demand for the Icee Bear Maravich was so great that dealers ran out of it quicker than the other players,” he said. “Warehouse finds over the last 10 years seem to disprove the short prints in the Icee Bear set.”
Store clerks originally handed out the Icee Bear cards after customers bought an Icee Bear slushee. Maravich was a customer favorite then. Not much has changed in 35 years.
“Demand for this card is incredible,” Taft said. “If I take a Maravich Icee Bear to a card show, it won’t be in my pile to take home.”
Maravich collectors cherish the Icee Bear for one special reason. True, the card uses the same photo as his Topps issue, but with one crucial difference: the Icee Bear card has a background of blue sky and wispy clouds – heaven personified – hovering beyond his brooding face. And though by Maravich’s own admission heaven exceeded his grasp then, the Icee Bear speaks to its existence, as if waiting for him all along. Seems that’s just the way he would’ve wanted it. u
Ted Kietlinski is a freelance writer and a frequent Tuff Stuff contributor.