Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich

In high school I played a lousy forward in girls’ basketball that wasn’t even close competitively to the game that is played by girls now. No resemblance at all. Seriously. Consisting of rovers, two guards on each team who were allowed to cross over center court, girls basketball, as I heard one coach say was “like watching paint dry.” That was kind of what I knew about basketball. Not much. Not much at all.

When Pete Maravich signed with the Atlanta Hawks in the spring of 1970, Atlanta came alive with anticipation of the college basketball player fresh from setting college records and energizing fans on the collegiate level in the South.

Since I was a teenage girl, Pete’s floppy hair, wide grin, and cool looks caused me to fall into the biggest crush. Not since Elvis Presley and Bobby Sherman had I fallen so hard for a “star.” For the next four years as Pistol Pete played basketball in Atlanta, I became a basketball aficionado. I learned the names of all the teams, their divisions, and their players, studied stats and box scores, and scanned the sports page for news of my “man.”

Because of Pete, I became a fan of professional basketball and my thirst for knowledge about it unquenchable. Maravich made me a sports fan [in the true sense of the word -- look it up] for the first time.

In my lust for all things Pistol Pete, I cut his action photos from the Atlanta Journal’s sports pages. I read every article, any mention of him, and got offended and angry with any criticism of him by sports writers who seemed only interested in his failure.

After playing four years for the Hawks, who managed to be a mediocre team with him on board, management traded him to the New Orleans Jazz, and I, crushed and heart-broken, lost the close access to seeing him play or reading about his exploits in the sports page. I followed his basketball career until he retired in 1980.

When he died in 1988 at the age of 40, I took the news hard: “Pete Maravich dead? How could that be?”

With that long-winded and rambling nostalgic introduction, I just wish to comment on the book I just finished reading: Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel.

Kriegel begins his book with an examination of the infant days of basketball and then introduces Press Maravich, Pete’s father, whose obsession with basketball bleeds into his family and his only son. Kriegel analyzes the volatile yet loving relationship between Maravich and his dad and makes conclusions about how Press’s determination to make his son legendary perhaps contributes to his not being so -- if that makes any sense.

Carefully researched and well crafted, this work, that captures the essence of how Pete was wired, mainly by his dad and his desire to please him, opened my eyes to the circus that became his reality once he broke into the arena of high school basketball as a freshman, the sensation that he created as a starting phenomenon at Louisiana State University, which took him to the apex of his basketball career, and then the downward spiral of his being cast as “the great white hope” among the predominance of African Americans in the National Basketball Association.

Some stories about his past I had heard, since I was such a fan, but some of it was new to me: his twirling the ball till his fingers bled, the blind folded dribbling, as well as the immersion into the sport on a level beyond rational, beyond logical -- beyond belief.

Kriegel also effectively describes the pressure that was put on Pete in his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks, a pressure mostly self inflicted, in a season dominated by too much attention as well as too much money.

Not only did Pete have personal demons and drama, but the conflict on the team, between established players and Pete’s exorbitant salary of 1.5 million, created an atmosphere of jealously, selfishness, and racial tension as the “Atlanta Hawks divided down racial lines.” Kriegel concludes, [there was] “more pressure on Maravich than any professional rookie in the history of professional sports.” Pete came out of a place where he carried the team to a place where he was only part, and he rarely found the balance that showcased how spectacular he could have been.


Pete “ a sad eyed wizard” would never be part of a championship team even though he put up championship numbers himself; he played with a “reckless abandon” and earned the monikers of “Pistol” and “showtime.”

Even though many who saw him play, like John Wooden the head basketball coach at UCLA, had the opinion that Maravich was “the best ball handler “ in the history of the sport: an opinion, yes, but one held by many in the sport. One sports writer noted about one game in which he watched Maravich play: “that was the best guard performance I have ever seen.”

In his stint with the Atlanta Hawks, I saw Pistol Pete play basketball several times live, caught him on television when I could, and listened to many games on the radio, and there was something about Pete that always made my heart ache -- not the love sick kind, but the kind given to those for whom I feel sorrow.

Pete vacillated between two kinds of performances: he either had these incredible games making impossible shot after impossible shot, throwing original passes with finesse and accuracy, and assisting his teammates like a leader or he had these games that made a fan like me cover my eyes and plead for him to just stop.

As cute as he was, he always looked a little crazy and lost to me --- his hair flopping in his eyes, his awkward, gangly gait, his lankiness, and those otherworldly passes that seem to appear out of nowhere -- blindly, behind the head, from the wrist, or between the legs. He ran down the floor like a madman, making the most ridiculous looking of shots, some that swished like sweet music, others that bounced back like a boomerang -- all the while his body contorted into the strangest of angles.

Pistol Pete seemed crazy, a kind of freak, and perhaps, in retrospect, he was. Regardless, he was part of my youth, part of my past, and Kreigel gave me a new perspective. I don't know if that was a good thing or not.

Enjoy this highlight reel. :)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On Visiting: Few Choices - One Expectation

The blogger, Hunter, Ken, and Margaret

When I was a child, my parents took us visiting.

We put on clean clothes, washed our faces, and spiffed up our appearance in order to be presentable in some one else's home. Good clothes meant good behavior.

Eh. Not necessarily, but it was a start. *giggles*

Our parents expected us to go with them when they visited friends or family, and the expectations were simple: sit quietly while they talked “grown up." My siblings and I amused ourselves by closely examining the rooms, the houses, or the people with whom we visited.

There was much to observe.

My parents met in St. Louis, Missouri, married in 1948, and then settled to live out their lives in St. Louis. When daddy was transferred to Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953 and then again to Atlanta in 1954, they had been heart-broken to leave their good friends behind, especially the ones in Missouri. Determined to set down roots, Daddy changed career paths and made the choice to stay in Atlanta. The rest is our history.

One of the things my parents missed about St. Louis was all their friends, so in Atlanta they began an investment in people that blessed them with long term relationships, close friends who they eventually were able to, as a friend of mine says, "do life with."

In Atlanta, they carved out a time to visit, and visiting day was Sunday, a day of church, dress up, and rest from the work week. After church and a home cooked "dinner," they rounded us up, put us in the car, and we went visiting. :)

I actually liked these Sunday drives, but TFAB.

My parents' friends whom I remember visiting the clearest were the Watts', a couple my parents met at their first church in Atlanta, West End Christian Church. Even when we moved to Sylvan Hills and changed membership to Mary Branan Methodist, my parents and the Watts' kept in close touch through the rest of their lives, and this relationship partially cemented in those early years of Sunday afternoon visits.

Harry and Billie Watts became life long friends of my parents, and in the last years of their lives, they were blessed to be neighbors again as the Watts' and my parents settled in Roswell, Georgia, for their twilight years.

When Billie Watts suffered from Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my mother made them a full meal once a week to help Harry who kept Billie at home as long as possible. Mother's care and preparation of those meals for their lifelong friends resonated with me greatly. Billie had long ago forgotten who my mother was.


When we visited them in the late 1950s through the 1960s, they lived in an area of Atlanta known as Cascade Heights. I thought that the Watts were rich. Their modern brick ranch house had four bedrooms and three baths, a glassed-in porch, brick courtyard and stepping paths, and furnished, it seemed, on the level of Rich's showroom.

Their living room, only used for company, featured a blue couch with a smooth textured fabric, flower printed wing-back chairs, one with an ottoman, Chinese screens, polished [and totally unscratched] coffee and end tables, and lamps that dripped with sparkling crystals and topped with pleated fabric shades. The beautifully decorated room completed its splendor with painted vases and other accouterments that to my childhood eyes meant they had “money." I didn‘t dare, even though I was always tempted, touch or *gasp* pick up any of those beautiful objects, but I admired them greatly.

Their den was for casual living and boasted a color television, the first I had seen, and wood paneling, the epitome of the family who could afford to have an extra room just for watching tv or hanging out. If we were lucky when we visited, Harry Watts would turn on the color television and allow us a moment of its glory.

We mostly sat stiffly in the living room, itching to do touch something, while Billie Watts, like a hostess in a movie in her Sunday dress with perfectly matching shoes, served afternoon coffee in china coffee cups and offered slivers of almond flavored pound cake on small, fragile bone china dessert plates. The adults visited; the children sat, looked around, and tried not to break anything.

As I recall, it was pretty hard stuff those afternoons of "not."

Hunter and Margaret, dressed up and ready

When we went back to Lynchburg, Virginia, where my mother’s parents and sisters lived, my mother took us to visit relatives for a different reason, I think -- perhaps to show us off? Except not. It was for the same reason --- to teach us what it means to establish relationship with our extended family. This was the way she was raised, and she wished it for us.

We were the only grand-children of her parents in her very large extended family, so we were on display in a way. We hated all of this fuss over family [a little -- the people were interesting], but we hated what we perceived to be boring visits with them. We visited, well, because we were not given a choice. It's what we did. It's what my parents' generation did. They kept ties to family and friends. Period.

Ken, Hunter, me, and Margaret, 1955

That, blog readers, pretty much sums up my childhood : few choices -- many expectations.

We visited relatives all over Lynchburg, Appomattox County, and Spout Spring, Virginia. I mean all over.

We always stopped to see my mother’s first cousin, Kathleen Dunn and her husband Floyd, who lived in Lynchburg. Since we had only one uncle [my dad was an only child and my mother had four unmarried sisters], Floyd was a hoot to be around. To my puzzlement, he called me “Richard,” a nickname that I tried to explain to him did not fit since I was a girl, and he always gave me a Buffalo nickel, a value of which escaped my young mind.

Sometimes Floyd just gave me the nickel; but mostly, he entertained me by hiding it on his person -- in his coat pocket or shirt sleeve, and he also handed us all peppermints, which could be a half hour of good times if you knew how to make it last.

As a child, I was saddened that Floyd didn’t have his own children to spoil, but all of my siblings and I loved Floyd, who smelled of pipe tobacco and always emerged from the upstairs after we had been there a few minutes, as if he were making an entrance.

Kathleen, plump, bejeweled, and powdered and very gregarious, always sat comfortably in an overstuffed chair and held “court” with my mother. They would talk about family, the state of the world, and giggle over unknown things. I was always kind of put off by Kathleen, as she seemed regal and un-motherly, but she was older than my mother by ten or fifteen years, and after initially examining us -- she was done and more interested in my mother's news.

Floyd seem to understand how hard it was for us to sit still while mother and Kathleen blathered, so from time to time,he would tell us of stories -- perhaps of his exploits in the war, but I remember little of that.

*hangs head in shame*

When Kathleen’s unmarried sister Ina, a thin version of Kathleen was also there, fresh from her mysterious, single life in Alexandria, Virginia, Floyd, a wry guy anyway, seem doubly entertaining as if we were all in cahoots over some secret thing.

*wink, wink*

We also visited with Ethel and Jim Redford, another childless couple, who were cousins of my maternal grandmother’s and lived in a house full of wonderful and gorgeous antiques [they had the coolest claw-footed bath tub and allowed us to turn on the water for it from an overhead lever]. Again, mother and Ethel would prattle away while Jim would make wisecracks to us kids.

Sometimes Jim vacated us to the front porch where we sat on a swing and watched all kinds of people pass by on the sidewalk. Other times he took us to the back porch, which loomed up two stories and was like being suspended high on air, and tell us about his garden. If left unattended for a minute on that porch, we amused ourselves by examining the menagerie of items stacked haphazardly around or by opening the many doors to the built in cabinets and snooping like bad detectives.

We loved having these two men in our lives who were surrogate uncles to us. When Floyd and Jim were around, the visits weren’t that bad, and they seem to secretly sympathize with our plight.

Hunter at Great Uncle Aubrey's , 1961

When I was really young and more of my mother’s cousins and aunts and uncles still lived about the home place in Appomattox, we visited them in "the country."

Piled in my daddy’s car, we would ride from place to place, where I have faint memories of farm houses in disrepair, people who smelled of kerosene, wood smoke, camphor, and old clothes, and their houses had, what seem to me, the old curiosities of a by-gone era such as wells, outhouses, and dirt floors. There we sipped water from a ladle dipped in a bucket, a taste both metallic and foreign but strangely delicious.

My memories of these visits are faint as by the time I was older and better able to remember, most had passed away or were in nursing homes, their children scattered to other towns, and their homesteads closed up, and land, that had been in the family for generations, sold.

The last people we would visit in Appomattox was a couple named the Myers who lived adjacent to the land where my mother was raised and was their nearest neighbor. Unlike the Watts' or my mother‘s family, the Myers were what my mother called “dirt poor” but “salt of the earth.” Mrs. Myers was a frightening as a ogre out of a fairy tale. Sitting on her front porch in a cane chair with the bottom so broken down it sank to the floor, she dipped snuff, cackled like a hen with a mischievous grin that sported only a few yellow teeth, and on the side of her face was a huge mole that as a child both fascinated and repulsed me.

Her husband, a humped back man who rarely talked, usually made excuses when we arrived to fool with a piece of farm equipment or a mule. While his wife seemed to talk endlessly with my mother about people they had in common and was quite interested in us children, I would try not to make eye contact with her and instead focus on the mounds and mounds of junk that lay sprawled around their home, a ramshackle affair that looked on the edge of collapse; the house reeked of wet dog, burnt bread, wood smoke, and chicken poo.

My mother faithfully stopped by to see them whenever she was in Virginia , and she always brought them something: hand me down clothes for their only daughter, canned food, or magazines. In turn, the Myers handed us vegetables, and one time a scrawny puppy ["not fit for killin'" according to Mrs. Myers] that my mother emphatically turned down.

My mother had a huge, giving heart, and since this family knew her well, her parents and siblings, she always felt and had a kinship with them. My mother’s life became very different after she left the farm work of her childhood and moved away, but she never forgot where she came from or the people she had known and loved.

So, we visited them too.

As I look back on this, it was a sweet time, wasn’t it? To be able to visit -- and not be thinking about what else I had to do, but simply to be focused on the moment -- catching up and sharing stories.

I wish I had listened better.


Friday, September 23, 2011


I'm listening to the radio today, and this song comes on.Link
Yep. "Brandy" by Looking Glass.

A one hit wonder.

In the summer of 1972, I graduated from high school, and in August, when this song debut, it became hugely popular: the guy's voice and the island sound so different in the era of the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, or even the Allman Brothers. I think I thought I was a hippie as I tended to listen to the harder rock bands ... even though I was a Three Dog Night fan. I remember at the time a friend of mine, a music aficionado, said that TDN "were so pop; they fizz."

I think that was an insult. *shrugs*

Something about "Brandy" led even the harshest of critics to admit that it was catchy -- and it told a story you could follow unlike, let's say, "House of the Rising Sun."

Just kidding. I followed that story. I think, but "Stairway to Heaven"?

Never mind. I'm still kidding. I know what that was about too.

I can't hear "Brandy" without thinking of the student center at Lagrange College in the fall of 1972 where I was a freshman, the mailbox that I visited daily, located in that said student center, in anticipation of good old fashioned letters from home [seems so archaic now], and that song blasting from the jukebox.


*shrugs again*

BTW: I never knew what the lead singer's looked like until I searched for this song on You Tube today. LOL. He's not what I pictured [his voice just doesn't match]-- nor the fact that he would be wearing his sister's clothes.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Sudden Country

Karen Fisher’s A Sudden Country follows two characters, James MacLaren and Lucy Mitchell, who cross each other’s path on this harrowing adventure, set in 1847, to reach the Oregon territory.

MacLaren, once a trader for the Hudson Bay Company, suffers the ultimate tragedy -- his wife deserts him, and then his three children die of smallpox. Unable to deal with his grief over both losses, he decides to try to find his wife. As his journey heads east, he runs into Lucy Mitchell, a remarried widow, who is traveling west with her new husband and four children to the new frontier. In MacLaren, Lucy sees a formidable-ness that she believes she and her family will need to survive, and she convinces her husband Israel to hire MacLaren to help drive them across country, a land that MacLaren knows well.

Part love story, part western, Fisher’s magical and mystical language and harsh but effective descriptions of the conditions under which the pioneers suffered makes this novel both majestic and heart-breaking.

One aspect that propels the story is its precise details of the journey itself: the daily setting up and breaking camp, the meals, especially the making of them out of little, the washing of clothes and bodies, the river crossings, the aches of muscles from walking all day, and even the smells associated with such, especially those associated with illness and death.

Even though there are places in the novel where Fisher seems to drift [she loves a sentence fragment], her poetic approach in some passages reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, but unlike him, she is inconsistent; however, her imagery filled chapter names seem suggestive of more than just what happens: “The Heart So Quick,” “Wild Stone Heart” or “To Drink From Empty Cups.”

BTW: Fisher based this novel on her own family. Her great-great-great grandmother was eleven years old when she rode in a covered wagon to Oregon with her mother, Lucy Mitchell.

ETA: I know that my blog has been MIB, but I have been busy. Really. :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

We ate them. Words.

I was always a good reader. In fact, perhaps a better word would be excellent, voracious, or perhaps -- a lapper?

I lapped up written text. I desired it. I wanted it. I wallowed in it.

By the time I went to kindergarten in 1959, I was a sight recognition reader.

In first and second grades, the teachers placed us in reading groups, a placement I recognized as dealing with skill, but perhaps not in a competitive or even a point and laugh way. Reading groups were part of the curriculum of the time, and the philosophy was that good readers were with good readers and poor readers were with poor readers.


Teachers also encouraged students to read aloud [a practice that has some how gone by the wayside], and if a fellow student struggled with the pronunciation of words, I tended to lean forward or backwards or side ways to whisper the word for him to help him, move him along, or just out of sheer impatience. I’m not suggesting that I was altruistic, but perhaps, over skilled?

The whole family loved to read. At breakfast, we read the back of the cereal boxes -- and we read them over and over and over, the same text; it just didn’t matter.

On Saturdays and Sundays, we fought for the newspaper comics -- Pogo, Andy Capp, Brenda Starr, Dick Tracy, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, the pipe smokin' guy? ; we read series The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and any magazine that my daddy subscribed to -- Life, Newsweek, Look, Harpers’s, Atlantic Monthly …..and when visiting our aunts in Virginia, we devoured their Reader’s Digest.

Words. We ate them.

I don’t know what grade I was in when I received my first literature text...



But when I did --


I’d take that book home, flip through the pages of short stories, poems, plays, myths, fables, or whatever was there, and happily and nerdily read them. Yep. I’d read as many as I could.

I’d be on a rampage to uncover the good stuff before the teacher assigned it,or before someone whom I thought was cool told me the work was awful and despised it. I read it before someone, who didn't "get it, love it, want it," ruined it.

Former Students: Do you mean the teacher, Mrs. Gillham?
Me: No, I mean before YOU ruined it. *tee hee*

Never did an English teacher make an assignment out of a literature text that I hadn’t already looked at, read, or skimmed.

BTW: This habit totally ended when I became an English major and was handed my first Norton Anthology. I never got to all of that. Never.

Somewhere out there are English majors nodding their hoary heads as they squint their myopic eyes at this blog.



When I became a high school English teacher, especially when I was teaching ninth graders, I always fell a little in love with the student, who after he or she got to know me, would come in before class or hang around after class and confess his habit: Uh, Mrs. Gillham? You know that story or that poem or that play …? And then he would want to discuss it, you know, before the other students ruined it.

Did any of you guys do this? I mean, lap up the literature -- I already know that a few of you ruined it.