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. :)