Photo: Dave Tenenbaum (AP)

Basketball what-ifs can be a fun game to play, so here’s one that wouldn’t have significantly changed the course of NBA history but is nonetheless odd: Did you know an in-his-twilight “Pistol” Pete Maravich might have picked the Celtics over the 76ers because of a threatened ass exam?

In the mid-aughts, there was a short phase of Maravich appreciation. Two biographies were written on him around that time: Maravich by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill, and Pistol by Mark Kriegel. Roughly 10 years later, I read the latter, which was informative and tragic and made me appreciate the Hall of Famer’s no-look darts and behind-the-back passing. Also, there was the ass exam thing. The late Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stan Hochman mentioned it in a 2007 column.

Let’s set the scene. It was the 1979–80 season and Maravich was at the end of his pro career. The Utah Jazz waived him in January, and he was a free agent with a litany of aches and injuries. Two competitive teams in the East wanted him. Here’s how it went down:

But suddenly, Maravich became a prize in the battle between the 76ers and the Celtics, both of whom had legitimate championship aspirations. On January 21, 1980, he arrived in Philadelphia, where he was greeted by the general manager, Pat Williams, the same guy who had traded him from Atlanta almost six years before. If Pete still had hard feelings, he kept them to himself as he prepared to take a physical at Temple University Hospital.

“The only real issue,” says Williams, “was his knee.”

To that point, the Sixers were considered front-runners to secure Pete’s services. Not only was their need more acute, having already lost shooting guard Doug Collins to season-ending foot surgery: the deal seemed inspired. In playing for Philadelphia, Pete would be teamed with Julius Erving, another aesthetically revolutionary player. Whereas Pete’s talents were most apparent as he handled the ball, Dr. J, as he was still known, was a leaper whose aptitude, and improvisational ability became manifest at higher altitudes. Williams had already taken the liberty of having a Sixer jersey embroidered with Maravich’s name. No less an authority than the New York Times reported in a headline that Pete was “Likely to Sign with 76ers.”

By the time the paper hit the stands, however, Pete had signed with Boston. Philadelphia owner [Fitz] Dixon was irate and called to upbraid his general manager: “How did you screw it up?”

Williams didn’t have an answer. In time, though, he would attribute the loss of Maravich to an overzealous physician, who insisted on administering a rectal examination as part of Pete’s physical. “Pete was really put out by that,” says Williams.

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Maravich picked the Celtics, had a couple of good games, and didn’t see much playoff action. Boston lost 4-1 to Philly in the Eastern Conference Finals. After the season, Maravich walked away from basketball due to a combination of his torn-up knee and a desire to keep his pride. The rectal exam might’ve been worth it.