The legacy of Press and Pete Maravich at NC State
While doing some research this long, hot summer for a project I’m trying to get off the ground, I was re-reading the biographies of one of the greatest men’s basketball players to ever set foot on the floor of Reynolds Coliseum.
He never suited up for the Wolfpack, though that was his and his father’s dream from the first day they crossed into the Raleigh city limits and the younger player began dribbling and shooting at Needham Broughton High School. He went on to play in some of the greatest and best-attended pickup games ever at Reynolds, where his father was the head coach of the Wolfpack.
Petar “Press” Maravich and Peter Press Maravich, however, ended up going elsewhere, primarily because of the ACC’s hard and fast academic rules at the time. They packed up and went to LSU, begrudgingly on Pete’s part. He ended up becoming college basketball’s all-time leading scorer in just three seasons, and Press fulfilled his lifetime goal of coaching his only birth son as a college player.
There was a line, however, in Pete’s autobiography – Pistol Pete: Heir to a Dream (1987, Premier Publishers, by Pete Maravich and Darrel Campbell, with Frank Schroeder) published only months before Pete’s 1988 death – that glaringly caught my eye.
“Dad was the only survivor of 10 children,” the book states. “During World War I, a great flu epidemic swept the Northeast and claimed the lives of his six sisters and three brothers.”
Given our current circumstances — all shut down because of the global COVID-19 pandemic — it made the Maraviches movingly modern. Imagine a world in which Pistol Pete’s basketball exploits – the moppy hair, the saggy socks, the no-look passes, the unselfishly selfish scoring – had never happened because the Spanish flu pandemic that wiped out somewhere between 17 and 50 million people worldwide had claimed the entire family of Serbian immigrants in the Pittsburgh suburb of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.
It was a basketball version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that not even Jimmy Stewart would ponder.
There’s only a small problem with that one-line memory in Pete’s book: It’s not entirely accurate. A better version of Press’s childhood is from the 2008 New York Times bestselling book Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel.
Yes, Press Maravich was the only surviving child of Vajo and Sara Maravich, a pair of Serbian immigrants who met after they moved from the rocky hills of the Balkans near Dreznica to the rocky hills of the Alleghenies near Pittsburgh. They lost five, not nine, children before Petar “Press” Maravich was born. But the incomplete records of the times don’t actually indicate what took the lives those children, other than the awful plight of immigrant communities near the steel mills of Pennsylvania.
First-born Milan died before he turned one. Twins girls Marta and Marija both died at six months. Neither daughter Melosova nor son Velamir lived more than five days.
So it was a family miracle when their final son was born Aug. 29, 1915, and survived both infancy and toddlerhood. The family’s good fortune did not last. On March 11, 1918, Vajo Maravich – Press’s father and Pete’s grandfather – was killed in a mining accident, when the small engine he was driving collided with a railroad car.
His death had a profound impact on Press, mainly because his mother remarried less than a year later. Marriage was important in the Serbian Orthodox community, and few people have ever been more orthodox in their Serbian heritage than Press’s mom, Sara Radulovic Maravich Kosanovich. She and her new husband had two sons, making Press the family outlier, never truly accepted or loved by his stepfather.
The young adolescent became Aliquippa street smart among the speakeasies, back-alley casinos and the barely concealed brothels of the Prohibition era. The card sharps he hung around knew if they needed information, all they had to do was ask the young kid in knee pants they called “The Pittsburgh Press” – a nickname he kept his whole life.
A star basketball player at Aliquippa High School and at Davis & Elkins College, Press enlisted in the Navy during World War II, becoming a decorated pilot in the South Pacific. After the war, he played basketball professionally for some minor teams in the Midwest, but eventually chose to go into coaching, a profession far less dangerous than the coal mines and steel mills he grew up near. He was the head coach at two high schools and six colleges — West Virginia Wesleyan, Davis & Elkins (his alma mater), Clemson, NC State, LSU and Appalachian State. After retiring from coaching, he became an assistant athletics director at Campbell.
It was a vagabond life, one in which Press was willing to move every 18 months or so to chase new dreams for himself and his family. When Press was handpicked by Everett Case after the 1962 season to be his successor at NC State, Maravich gave up the head coaching job at Clemson to be Case’s assistant for two years. He took over in December of 1964, when Case stepped down for health reasons two games into the season.
Press and Case’s final team won the ACC Championship in dramatic fashion, beating Duke in the 1965 tournament at Reynolds Coliseum, while Pete finished his final year at Broughton High School. The Pack went back to the championship game the following season, losing to Duke, while Pete finished up a year at Edwards Military Academy, a prep school in Salemsburg, North Carolina.
Pete would never enroll at NC State, though, and Press Maravich would never coach another game for the Wolfpack.
Pete never made the mandatory minimum on the standardized tests the Atlantic Coast Conference required at the time. So Press packed up the family and left for LSU, where Pete became a three-time SEC Player of the Year, a two-time national player of the year and the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer with 3,667 points, even though he played only three years, never had access to the 3-point shot and didn’t play with a shot clock.
However, the Maraviches had a contentious relationship. They were as different as Press’s crew cut and Pete’s Beatles-esque moptop. Pete never wanted to go to play at a Southeastern Conference football school. He wanted to play at West Virginia, for NC State alum Bucky Waters who later coached at Duke. Press not only had threaten to disown his only birth son, he had to buy Pete a car to get to Baton Rouge.
“They always had a difficult relationship,” said former NC State player, coach and athletics director Les Robinson, who considers Press Maravich his lifetime mentor. “It’s something they never really resolved until after Pete finished playing basketball.”
Pete fought many demons during the rest of his life, including alcoholism, depression and an unsuccessful search to find life’s great answers. He did, however, become the unparalleled scorer and superstar player Press had always dreamed of, even though Pete never won a championship in high school, college or the NBA, where he had a 10-year all-star career.
After playing for the Atlanta Hawks and the New Orleans Jazz, Pete was a reserve for the 1980 Boston Celtics, a role he could not embrace. He walked away from the game in the fall of that year, and the Celtics went on to win the NBA championship.
Press Maravich’s gypsy life ended in 1987 in Florida, due to non-medically treated prostate cancer. Pete died less than six months later, suffering a massive heart attack after playing a pickup game in a church gym.
The father-and-son duo, survivors of tragedy and turmoil in their lives, remain an important part of NC State’s basketball legacy, even though their time with the program was fleeting.
Tim Peeler is a regular contributor to The Wolfpacker and can be reached at email@example.com.