Pistol Pete and Wondrous Wendell turns into main event

So, I was doing a podcast with a friend recently, and he posed this: “Tell me the most amazing performance you’ve seen in sports in Mississippi that our listeners wouldn’t know much about…”

And so I told him about the first time I ever saw Pistol Pete Maravich play. This was back in February of 1967, at a time when college freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity. I was a 14-yearold gym rat, who had only read and heard the tall tales of Maravich, who was pouring in about 50 points per game for LSU’s freshmen.

The Baby Bengals, as they were called then, were coming to Hattiesburg to play the Southern Miss freshmen, who featured a teenage wunderkind of their own, Wendell Ladner, a physical marvel who would go on to become a professional All-Star in the old ABA. Seldom have preliminary events, as the freshmen games were then, caused such a stir.

When the teams took the floor for tipoff at 5:30 p.m. Reed Green Coliseum was packed with more than 9,000 people. For perspective, you need to know that varsity games at the time often drew crowds counted in the hundreds, not thousands.

Maravich was 6 feet, 5 inches tall and seemingly as skinny as a broomstick, from his floppy, mop-top hair down to his floppy, loose-fitting socks. Standing beside Ladner, he appeared anemic. Ladner was just a tad taller but built like an NFL tight end, broad-shouldered and heavily muscled. I remember thinking that if the two collided, Wondrous Wendell, as he was known, might break Pistol Pete in two.

So, LSU got the opening tip and the ball went to Pistol Pete at the top of the key, and you won’t believe what he did next. He took one, two and then three dribbles – backwards! – out to near midcourt. Then, he stopped and, while everyone was trying to figure out what he was doing, he took the ball down to his chest and let go a high-arching, two-hand set shot from about 40 feet. The ball swished through the net, not touching anything metal. For a moment, the crowd was silent and then there was an extended, collective, “Ooooooh…”

And so it began.

Even a 40-footer counted for only two points. There was no three-point line back then. Maravich would go on to score 44 points per game over his three varsity seasons. It easily would have been more than 50 per game if a three-point line had existed

Southern Miss had a terrific freshman team, featuring Ladner from Necaise Crossing, point guard Johnny Vitrano out of New Orleans and Paul Dodge from Gulfport. Ladner was – and still is – the most highly recruited basketball player in Southern Miss history, offered scholarships by Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Babe McCarthy at Mississippi State and many other of the nation’s top basketball schools. He chose Southern Miss, largely because his older brother Berlin played there. (Hancock North Central, his high school, once featured a starting lineup of all Ladners, brothers and cousins. They were coached by Roland Ladner.)

Vitrano drew the task of attempting to guard Maravich. Years later, he would tell me: “That first shot had to be from 40 or 45 feet. I know. I was supposed to be guarding him. I was supposed to be guarding him two other times when he hit the same shot.”

Maravich was just getting started. Yes, he hit more of those outrageously long set shots, but he also hit an assortment of mid-range jump shots and twisting, spinning layups. He dribbled between his legs and behind his back. He passed to people without looking at them, sometimes behind his back. A couple times, he hit teammates in the face or chest when they weren’t expecting his crisp, on-target passes from impossible angles.

Meanwhile, Ladner was matching him nearly bucket for bucket and clearing nearly every rebound. The lead went back and forth. LSU led by a single point with about six minutes left in the half. That’s when it happened. Vitrano, now a high school principal in the New Orleans area, remembered, “Pete was going for a layup and I was trying to draw a charge. Paul Dodge came up from behind and knocked Pete over me. Pete hit the floor hard, face-first. There was blood everywhere.”

Maravich, dazed and unsteady, was helped off the court and was taken to the USM infirmary where a doctor repaired a laceration above his left eye with seven stitches. Meanwhile, Ladner and USM took the lead.

We thought we had seen all we would see of Pistol Pete. We were wrong. Three minutes into the second half, Maravich returned, a big white bandage above his left eye. Vitrano: “He looked almost dead. I thought, ‘Now, I’ve got him. No way he can continue to do that stuff.’”

No, Maravich simply did more. The Pistol scored 27 points over those last 17 minutes with an assortment of moves and shots that, more than half a century later, still surpass my ability to describe.

Vitrano does better: “Pete just ate my lunch. He was unconscious…. One time, they had a two on one fast break and I was the one. Pete had the ball and I was sure he was going to pass behind his back. So, the second he goes behind his back, I make my break to steal the pass. Only, he palms the ball behind his back and switches to a bounce pass, between his legs, that hit the guy perfectly for an easy layup. He did it all in one motion, fullspeed. He played me for a fool.”

USM still led with nine minutes to go. That was when Vitrano, the team’s quarterback and normally a top-shelf defender, fouled out in his futile attempt to stop the unstoppable. And that was that. Maravich and the Tigers took the lead and then pulled away for a 92-84 victory despite Ladner’s heroics.

Wondrous Wendell finished with 32 points and – get this – 24 rebounds. Maravich? He scored 42 despite missing nearly a quarter of the game to have his face repaired.

Remember, this was the preliminary game. When the USM varsity tipped off about 30 minutes later, only a sprinkling of fans remained, mostly to talk about what they had just witnessed.

Yes, and 53 years later, some of us still do.

Rick Cleveland is a sports columnist for Mississippi Today.

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