I originally planned to write a column excoriating the New Orleans Saints and Mayor Cantrell. The former for colluding with the Archdiocese of New Orleans to spin its latest sexual abuse scandal and the Mayor for her imperious and inept handling of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse, which happened 118 days ago.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. Additionally, I have outrage fatigue from the way Senate Republicans have handled the removal trial of the Impeached Insult Comedian so I’m telling another story from my checkered past instead. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.
Memory is a tricky thing and I’m relying on it for this column. I did some basic research, but this story is largely painted from memory. This particular memory was jogged by an excellent column by the Advocate’s Scott Rabalais. The title sums it up: Remembering ‘Pistol Pete’ Maravich and the 50th Anniversary of his brilliance.
On January 31, 1970 Maravich broke Oscar Robertson’s college career basketball scoring record. He still holds the record with 3667 points; averaging an astonishing 44.2 points-per-game. A quick note about Oscar Robertson for those of you too young to have seen the Big O. He was a combination of Magic Johnson and LeBron James only with a chip on his shoulder; make that a boulder. He was scarred by racism, so I give him a pass on his cantankerous personality. And Oscar could ball, y’all.
It was so long ago that I had almost forgotten the day I met Pistol Pete on the LSU campus. My memory of this meeting involves the Gym Armory, the Assembly Center (now named for Pistol Pete) and the LSU lifer that everyone called Coach Jay.
I only learned recently that his full name was Lawrence J. McCreary. He was Coach Jay to one and all. When I was an LSU student, he was the director of Intramural Sports, which is how I came to know him. I worked for him. I almost put quotes on worked because I manned the equipment room 3 or 4 days a week. I checked out nets, balls, and weightlifting belts to the student masses. It was so easy that I got most of my studying done while there. A sweet gig for a student even if the old gym smelled of sweat and other unsalubrious odors.
I got the job through an old friend of the Gret Stet branch of my family, then LSU Sports Information Director Paul Manasseh. Paul and Jay were buddies, so some of their friendship adhered to me. Besides, Coach Jay and I had something very important in common: a love of basketball. We were in the minority in football crazy Louisiana.
Jay McCreary was such a great high school and college player that he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1970. He turned to coaching after playing on the 1940 national champion Indiana Hoosiers and serving in the Army during the Second World War.
Coach Jay’s stint at Muncie [Indiana] Central High School from 1951-1956 made him a hot commodity. It also gave him a unique claim to fame. Muncie Central was the overdog school fictionalized in the 1986 movie, Hoosiers. The McCreary-like character was played by Ray Crowe who was Oscar Robertson’s high school coach. It always came back to the Big O with Jay McCreary.
Coach Jay was head basketball coach at LSU from 1957-1965. His record was undistinguished: 82-115. He often lamented his inability to recruit black players. He wanted to break the color line, but the administration wouldn’t hear of it. He once told me that he would have sold his soul to be able to recruit such Louisiana stars as Willis Reed and Elvin Hayes.
Coach Jay was fired after the 1965 season but returned as an assistant to Press Maravich, Pistol Pete’s volatile father. In this instance, volatile is a polite euphemism for jerk. Father and son had a tumultuous relationship. Press essentially forced his son to attend LSU. This vexed Pete mightily and relations between the two-never good-soured.
That’s where Jay McCreary came in. He served as a buffer between Maravich father and son and, to some extent, became the assistant coach in charge of Pistol Pete. Coach Jay was every bit as gruff an old school coach as Press Maravich but once you got beneath the surface, he was a kind man. If Coach Jay were a dessert, he would have been creme brulee: crusty on the outside and sweet on the inside.
My take on the Jay-Pete relationship is painted from memory. It’s based on conversations with Jay and Paul Manasseh. Both men were old-fashioned raconteurs who were known to embellish a story to improve it. I vividly remember Coach Jay saying that he finally got his black player at LSU when he coached Pete Maravich. I was taken aback so he explained that Pete was a white kid who played just like Earl the Pearl, Doctor J, and Oscar Robertson. It always came back to the Big O with Jay McCreary.
That was a lot of exposition, wasn’t it? They don’t call me the 13th Ward Rambler for nothing.
One afternoon in 1983 or 1984, I was at work in the dank confines of the equipment room at the Gym Armory. A guy came over and said, “Coach Jay wants to see you. I’m taking over.”
I was perplexed and wondered if I’d messed up or a family member had died. Coach Jay didn’t play favorites, so it didn’t matter that I was teacher’s pet.
I was surprised to see Coach’s door closed. It was usually open. I knocked and entered. To my astonishment, Pete Maravich was sitting on the edge of Coach Jay’s desk like shamus Paul Drake in the old Perry Mason TV series. Coach Jay smiled and said: “Pete meet Peter.”
I nearly fainted because I was so surprised to meet Pistol Pete in the flesh. On the basketball court, Pete Maravich was flashy and comfortable with being the center of attention. Off court, he was a shy man with a surprisingly weak handshake. The first time I shook Jay McCreary’s hand I thought he’d broken it. Crunch.
We talked hoops. I was surprised to learn that Pete-who ended his career with the Boston Celtics-took the Los Angeles Lakers side in that great basketball rivalry. “They play like me, especially Magic Johnson but he’s bigger, stronger, and better looking,” Pete explained.
In the mid-Eighties, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry was the hottest thing in sports. In the Gret Stet of Louisiana, white people were down with Larry Bird and the Celtics whereas black folks and the odd liberal such as me sided with Magic, Kareem, and the Lakers. In Pistol Pete’s case, the style of play was the attraction. He was “showtime” before the Lakers were.
What happened next is painted from memory. I recall Jay asking Maravich if he was still in shape. He’d last played in the NBA in 1980. He shrugged and said, “Haven’t lost my shooting eye.”
Coach Jay perked up and said, “Really? Tell you what; if you can sink fifty straight free throws, I’m buying dinner, hotshot.”
Jay picked up the phone and made a brief call. Then it was showtime. I’m uncertain if we went to what is now the PMAC (Pete Maravich Assembly Center) or the court at the Gym Armory. I believe it was the former because then LSU head basketball coach Dale Brown joined us. I knew it was serious because he was wearing a whistle. I’d met Dale before and knew I was in for a hearty handshake and manly slap on the back. Ouch.
We hit the court. Dale Brown acted as referee, I was the counter, and Coach Jay the heckler. He wasn’t going to go easy on his former player. It didn’t matter. Pete sank the fifty free throws and won the bet. I didn’t get to go to dinner because Jay looked at me and said, “Don’t you have a test tomorrow, hotshot?” He was right.
That’s the story of Coach Jay, Pistol Pete, and Me with cameo appearances by Dale Brown and Oscar Robertson. It always came back to the Big O with Jay McCreary.
The last time I saw Coach Jay was on my final day as a student at LSU. I went to say goodbye and he gave me a pep talk about life and law school. I got another bone-crushing handshake and, to my surprise, a hug. I’m a hugger. Jay McCreary was not.
Jay McCreary died in 1997 at 77; nine years after Pete Maravich who was only 40. I’ve wanted to tell this story for years. He was an unpretentious man, so I don’t think Coach Jay realized what a powerful impact he had on so many young lives. He was not just a coach; he was a teacher.
The last word goes to Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach: