Pickup game with legend ended with a tragic death

Times Staff Writer

It was supposed to be a treat.

It turned into a tragedy.

It was supposed to end with handshakes and autographs.

It ended in a morgue.

“Up until the divorce I’m going through right now,” accountant Norm Moline of Duarte says of the day he shared a Pasadena basketball court with the great Pete Maravich, “I would say it was the most horrible experience of my life.”

That’s because, less than an hour after arriving that morning for a friendly game of four-on-four half-court hoops at the First Church of the Nazarene’s Parker Gymnasium, Maravich collapsed and died on the floor.

College basketball’s all-time scoring leader and one of the sport’s ultimate showmen, “Pistol Pete” was only 40 years old when he was felled by a rare natural heart defect on that January day in 1988. Nobody knew it that morning, but Maravich had died of deterioration of the tissues in his heart because he had been born without one of the two artery systems that supply the heart with blood.


“It was a shock, an absolute shock,” says Chris Hancock of San Dimas, another CPA who was there. “You’re not in any way prepared for the sadness.”

Moline and Hancock, part of a group that regularly played three mornings a week at the church gym, had anticipated a memorable experience, but not like this.

This was supposed to be a special occasion for the group, which is why Moline retrieved some old basketball cards from his parents’ basement -- he wanted Maravich to sign them -- and brought a video camera to record the action.

Neither he nor Hancock had ever met Maravich, who lived in Louisiana. Nor had the man who invited Maravich to play with them, Dr. James Dobson, founder of the nationally known ministry Focus on the Family and unofficial organizer of the Monday-Wednesday-Friday pickup games at Parker Gym. Maravich, a born-again Christian, was in town to discuss his faith on Dobson’s nationally syndicated radio program, and Dobson asked if he’d like to join them for a special Tuesday game.

“We were all a bunch of duffers,” Dobson says, “so it was kind of audacious for me to invite Pete to come play basketball with just a bunch of guys.”

Maravich, who would have turned 60 this Friday, was one of the most spectacular players in basketball history, of course, and an iconic figure to boot, seemingly as recognizable for his floppy socks and shaggy black hair as his extraordinary skills.

He averaged a staggering 44.2 points a game in three seasons at Louisiana State, the all-time record by a mile, and 24.2 points in 10 NBA seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans and Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics. No less an authority than John Wooden called him the greatest ballhandler he ever saw, and, in 1997, Maravich was selected as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

In his new book, “Pistol,” author Mark Kriegel writes that Maravich’s dynamic flair was so far ahead of its time that, of the NBA’s top 50 all-time greats, “Pete was the only one who would have fared better in the contemporary game than when he actually played.” He quotes Magic Johnson, in 1997, telling Maravich’s sons, Jaeson and Josh, “Your pops, he was the original. He was the real Showtime.”

So the “duffers” in Pasadena were more than a little excited to share the court with Maravich, who had played his final NBA game eight years earlier. Dobson called in another interloper, fellow evangelical and former UCLA center Ralph Drollinger, to even up the teams, but there was little need, judging by Moline’s videotape.

Maravich, who told Dobson he had played only once in the previous year because of a painful right shoulder that kept him from lifting his arms above his head, seems to shuffle through the game indifferently, at half-speed.

“He wasn’t very impressive at all,” Moline says of the mop-topped figure wearing navy sweat pants and a white T-shirt. “He was having a good time, but he wasn’t playing hard, or he couldn’t. I don’t know if he was playing down to his competition or that was all he had right then. I think that’s all he had.”

Would anyone have guessed that he was once a star? “Absolutely not,” Moline says.

After about 45 minutes, the players took a break. Moline set down his camera. At the request of a man in a wheelchair, he and Hancock lowered a basket at the far end of the gym. Dobson, on the court with Maravich, asked how he felt.

“I feel great,” he said.

A moment later, he crashed to the floor. Dobson and Drollinger administered CPR. Moline ran to call an ambulance. Hancock and others knelt in prayer.

“It was one of the most shocking experiences of my life,” Dobson says. “To have a 40-year-old man, one of the great athletes of all-time, tell me that he was feeling great and then to just fall on his face without even breaking his fall ... and never taking another breath. I’ll never completely get over that.”

Nor will the others, they say.

They’d come to celebrate a legend, but Pistol Pete was gone.