The old Sports Arena, an all-wooden building that resembled a small airplane hangar, was home to the Auburn basketball team from 1946 through the 1967-68 season. The arena, affectionately called “The Barn,” had a seating capacity of only 2,500, and was usually packed with a very loud and raucous throng of students. Auburn had some incredible and exciting victories in the Barn over the years, especially over Kentucky in 1960 on the way to an SEC championship. I had the privilege of attending one of the wildest and most thrilling games ever to be played in this unique building, and it occurred on the night of Feb. 7, 1968, during the last season Auburn played in the Barn.
It was the night a basketball magician by the name of “Pistol Pete” Maravich came to town, and played in one of the most memorable basketball games in Auburn’s history. In those days televised games were very rare. Maravich was only a sophomore playing his first varsity season (freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity) and was averaging 44 points per game. In an earlier game played in Baton Rouge, Maravich had scored 55 points as LSU defeated Auburn 76-72.
The entire campus was abuzz as the game approached. Everyone on campus, it seemed, wanted to see Pistol Pete in person.
A couple of days before the game, my roommate, Charles Beam, and I had given a ride on campus to Bobby Buisson, an all-SEC guard for Auburn who had completed his career the previous season. I asked Bobby, “How in the world is it possible for Maravich to average 44 points per game?”
“As soon as he dribbles across mid-court, he can score,” Buisson replied.
Charles and I knew that the 2,500 tickets would go very quickly, so even though the game did not start until 7:30 p.m., and the ticket office did not open until about 5 p.m., we headed to the Sports Arena after lunch. We were shocked to see a crowd of about 500 people already pressed up to the ticket windows. There were no organized lines. We immediately moved as close as we could to the front of the crowd.
As the afternoon progressed the crowd grew until it became obvious that everyone was not going to get a ticket. By 4 p.m., the situation had become rather dangerous. There were thousands pressing the crowd forward into the building at the ticket windows. I felt as though I was in an intense rugby scrum. Ticket Manager Bill Beckwith emerged and stood on the counter and shouted to the crowd to stop pressing forward, but fans immediately screamed at him to start selling tickets before someone was injured. A few minutes later all of the ticket windows opened and tickets went on sale. However, once you had your ticket in hand there was no way you could turn and walk away given the huge crowd pressing in toward the front of the building. The only way to move to the rear was to leave your feet and pop up on top of the crowd, which then passed you over their heads to the rear.
As I clutched my ticket close to my chest, I first felt like a watermelon seed getting squeezed upward, then I felt like a human balloon as hundreds of pairs of hands passed me away from the building.
As soon as the gates opened at 6 p.m., Charles and I rushed into the Barn and took a seat. Within a few minutes the arena was jam-packed. The official attendance was listed as over 2,600, but I think more than that had crammed in. We were packed in there like sardines. Many of the frustrated fans who were unable to get tickets climbed on the roof, entered through the windows and hung from the wooden rafters above the bleachers.
As game time approached, the atmosphere was electric. The throng of Auburn students could not wait to see this Maravich fellow.
Finally, both teams came onto the court. There was Pistol Pete with his floppy hairdo and his old dingy socks crumpled around his ankles. Maravich stood 6-5 and was quite lanky.
During warm-ups, he began to put on a show. He would spin the ball on his fingers, make behind-the-back passes and knock down one long-range fade-away shot after another. Even his dribble had a unique spin and would return to his hand like a yo-yo. The crowd was going wild and Maravich was eating it up. Each time the crowd cheered, he would grin at the packed student section.
As the game began it became clear that Bobby Buisson had been correct. After Maravich crossed mid-court, he soon was in range for his fade-away jump shots. Auburn’s defenders could not stop him, as he went on to score 49 points (there were no three-pointers then), though Auburn prevailed, 74-69. The home crowd cheered Auburn on, but also applauded the accomplishments of the amazing Pistol Pete Maravich. I was fortunate to see many great games in the old Barn, which provided an incredible home court advantage. However, I never saw it rock like it did on the night that Pistol Pete came to town.