Coroner's Office Says Heart Disease Is Cause of Maravich's Death

Times Staff Writer

Heart disease killed basketball's Pistol Pete Maravich, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office ruled Wednesday after an autopsy, but officials said that additional tests will have to be performed to pinpoint the precise type of heart attack that took his life at age 40.

At least two weeks will be needed to complete microscopic examinations of tissue from Maravich's heart. Those tests will establish exactly what type of heart disease was involved, a coroner's spokesman said.

Maravich collapsed Tuesday after playing in a pickup half-court basketball game at a Pasadena church. Eyewitnesses said he told them he felt "great" shortly after play had stopped, turned to walk away and fell heavily to the floor.

The spokesman said a battery of tests will probably be performed on blood samples from Maravich's body, noting that screening for possible drug abuse is routine in such cases.

However, the coroner's office said the initial autopsy Wednesday morning clearly found heart disease responsible for the death. And Maravich's family physician in Covington, La., said the former Louisiana State University and National Basketball Assn. star's life style had been free of drug use for at least the last year.

"I can tell you that that (drug use) is not even remotely possible," Dr. William Mitchell said. "Not even remotely possible."

Dr. Paul Thompson, a Brown University expert on sudden death, taking note of reports that had linked Maravich to possible past drinking and cocaine use, said details of the Maravich case indicated that drug or alcohol use could not have been a factor in his death.

Thompson said that heart attacks linked to cocaine and alcohol generally occur almost immediately after drug use and that someone who abuses either drug but later stops undergoes a return to comparatively normal heart function within a comparatively short time.

In Covington, Mitchell said he is the family doctor for the entire Maravich family and that he had treated Pete Maravich's father and former coach, Press, before the elder Maravich died last year of prostate cancer.

Mitchell, a born-again Christian like Pete Maravich, said he had joined Maravich in a running program in recent months and that he had specifically ruled out the possibility that Maravich might have had Marfan Syndrome, a bizarre, potentially fatal genetic defect that affects tall people and weakens their connective and heart tissues.

Mitchell said that Maravich had undergone a full physical examination within the last 12 months, including an electrocardiogram, blood pressure and cholesterol tests and that results were normal.

"It certainly was a sudden death and he was a young man," Mitchell said. "But his overall health was fine."

Meanwhile, in a terse, two-paragraph statement after Wednesday's autopsy, the coroner's office said: "The cause of death is attributed to heart disease, the nature of which has not been determined. Additional microscopic analysis will be conducted to determine the exact cause of death."

The coroner's office declined to say what evidence, if any, of accumulation of fatty plaques had been found in the arteries feeding blood to Maravich's heart. Medical experts agreed that some kind of artery problem was a likely cause of the heart seizure.

LSU officials said Maravich's body would be on view Friday between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. (CST) at Rabenhorst Funeral Home in Baton Rouge, La., and again on Saturday from 9 to 10 a.m., followed by funeral services at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Covington, La.

Burial is scheduled after the services at Resthaven Cemetery in Baton Rouge.

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