It is going on 1 a.m., and the swing shift crowd finally is starting to thin at the Tap House on West Charleston Boulevard. Patrons are now required to push the buzzer to get in, and nobody gets in until Rich Lupcho says it is OK.
Lupcho puts a match to a fat cigar and comes out from behind the bar. He slips a few coins in the jukebox, punches the buttons for some classic soul.
Oh, I see her face everywhere I go
On the street, and even at the picture show
Have you seen her?
Tell me have you seen her? …
In addition to being a graveyard bartender who has an affinity for the Chi-Lites — which immediately endears him to sports writers of a certain age — Rich Lupcho has another claim to fame:
He was one of the guys who passed the basketball to Pete Maravich at Louisiana State.
He stands only 5 feet 7 inches, and he will be 70 in June, and so he no longer looks like he once played ball with “Pistol” Pete.
But raise an eyebrow, and he displays his shooting form. Left-handed. You still don’t want to play him in HORSE, he says with a gravelly cackle.
He pulls out a Xeroxed sheet from behind the bar. It’s an Associated Press story from 1968. The names of Lew Alcindor and Dan Issel, then a big star at Kentucky, are mentioned.
It says LSU’s Rich Lupcho just set a school assist record, 13 in a game against Dave Cowens and Florida State.
“How many of those were to Pete?” asks an inquisitor.
SOUTHBOUND & DOWN
Rich Lupcho played two seasons at LSU, as the Tigers’ sixth (or seventh) man. “My grade-point average was higher than my scoring average,” he says with another cackle. His career scoring average was 1.4.
He played two years with and for a Maravich — Pete’s father, Press, was the LSU coach.
Press and Pete and Rich Lupcho are from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a city of immigrants in the shadow of Pittsburgh’s smokestacks that also produced football players Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Darrelle Revis. Lupcho and Pete Maravich went to elementary school together until Press Maravich moved to the Carolinas to coach Clemson and North Carolina State and took Pete with him.
That’s where Pete learned to spin the ball on his finger, and mad ball-handling skills, and all the other outrageous things he could do with a basketball.
Lupcho’s uncle, Joe Pukach, was Press Maravich’s assistant in Aliquippa. That explains how a 5-7 guard wound up on the Bayou passing the ball to Pistol Pete. Owing to his stature, Rich became a crowd favorite at John M. Parker Agricultural Coliseum — aka the “Cow Palace” — before the Pete Maravich Assembly Center opened in 1972.
In Mark Kriegel’s best-selling book, “The Life of Pete Maravich,” Rich Lupcho is described as “an otherwise unwanted guard from Coffeyvillle (Kansas) Junior College by way of Aliquippa. Press was partial to the undersized Lupcho — ‘five eight in elevator shoes’ — who just happened to be Joe Pukach’s nephew.”
While Rich Lupcho averaged 1.4 points over his 47-game college career; Pete Maravich averaged 44.2.
PLAYING WITH THE PISTOL
When Pete died of a heart attack in 1988 when he was only 40, Rich Lupcho said the national basketball writers called to ask about The Pistol in the way I was asking about him now.
“He was the best I ever played with or against …
“He did things with a basketball nobody else even thought about doing …
“He was a very, very good (teammate). Likeable and humble …
“Pete probably shot the ball 45 times a game …”
A box score is found on the internet, dated Jan 27, 1968. Kentucky 121, Louisiana State 95. It shows Pete Maravich attempting 51 field goals, making 19; attempting 17 free throws, making 14, for a total of 52 points. It shows Rich Lupcho attempting two field goals and making two for four points.
It was difficult to upstage Pete Maravich at LSU, but Rich Lupcho managed to do it once.
He sank a free throw in overtime to lift the Tigers over Neal Walk and Florida. “Pete must have scored 45 points, and I scored one, and they carried me off the court,” Lupcho said.
That was 1968. It had been nearly 50 years. And while I didn’t doubt that Lupcho had made that free throw to beat the Gators, I was thinking maybe the part about being carried off the court was the Hollywood version.
Some of his other memories of playing with Pete Maravich were spread out in black-and-white framed photographs in a corner booth. “Wow — low-top Converse. You guys played basketball in those?” a young photojournalist said.
It was now going on 9 a.m.
Instead of the Chi-Lites, the Jefferson Airplane was playing on the jukebox. Rich Lupcho had gathered up his framed memories and placed them in his car when I saw him walking toward mine.
He was toting a shadow box that two of the regulars on the graveyard shift had given to him. Displayed inside were more faded photos and newspaper clippings.
One showed Rich Lupcho being carried off the court after he sank that free throw to beat Florida.