Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, by Mark Kriegel (Free Press, 400 pp., $27.00)
For many of us of a certain age, “Pistol” Pete Maravich remains forever fixed in the amber of memory, one of the iconic images of our fast-departing youth: the skinny kid out of Louisiana State with floppy hair and even floppier socks doing utterly impossible things with a basketball. Celebrated as few college athletes had ever been, on going pro he became one of the richest athletes in the world. Though he perhaps failed to live up to his astonishing potential, in 1997 the NBA named him one of the 50 greatest players of its first 50 years. He was the only one so honored who did not survive to see the ceremony, having died of massive heart failure nine years earlier at 40. (By then he’d found God, and he died during a break in a pickup basketball game in the arms of one of his fellow players—Reverend James Dobson.)
The proximate cause of death was a rare, previously undiagnosed heart defect, but as Mark Kriegel makes abundantly clear in his compelling biography, Pistol, Maravich lived not only exceedingly hard—even by pro athlete standards—but also in almost unrelenting psychic torment. Surely the anguish and self-loathing were in part genetic: his mother, also long beset by depression and like Pete an alcoholic, killed herself at the height of his NBA stardom.
But in this respect and others, Pete was even more his father’s child—indeed, his father’s creation. Born of Serbian immigrants in hardscrabble western Pennsylvania, Press Maravich grew into a gifted basketball player and an even more gifted coach, one who enjoyed the enduring esteem of such legendary contemporaries as UCLA’s John Wooden and the Harlem Globetrotters’ Meadowlark Lemon.
But when Pete came along, he became his father’s life’s work. Press began nurturing Pete’s extraordinary talent literally in his infancy, devising ever more complex drills throughout his childhood, until, by nine or ten, he was dazzling his father’s friends with his astonishing ball-handling and passing skills. Years later, NBA defensive ace Walt Frazier would explain his technique for neutralizing the league’s premier ball handler: “You sort of wait for him to stop dribbling,” Frazier said. “Then for a second all the hair that’s been flying in the wind comes down over his face and he can’t see. That’s when you steal the ball.”
The Maraviches’ relationship was as perverse as it was intensely passionate, culminating, much against Pete’s will, in a twofer: Press signed as coach at LSU, and Pete headed there to play. Press turned his son into a national sensation, urging him to shoot at will and otherwise showcase his array of otherworldly moves for the delight of spectators and, more important, the media. A one-man show, LSU didn’t win championships, but Pete emerged as the most prolific scorer in the history of the college game and twice appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The irony is that in turning his son into Pistol Pete, Press Maravich destroyed himself as a coach. Formerly a master tactician and a guru of the team game who had been voted Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year during his time at North Carolina State, he was now a cheerleader for selfish play and indifferent defense—at least where his son was concerned. Moreover, it was a style of play that would cause Pete massive problems once he graduated into the National Basketball Association.
Kriegel’s book is as much the story of a changing game—which is to say, its evolution from an exclusively white to an overwhelmingly black sport—as the story of the Maraviches. By most standards, Press was way ahead of the curve on race. As a high school coach in western Pennsylvania in the early fifties, he treated his black players with a level of respect and understanding that was far from the norm, and when he moved on to college coaching in the deep South, he worked to break the color line, finally succeeding in bringing a black player to LSU in the late sixties as his son’s teammate. Indeed, before almost any other white coach, he recognized that integration was essential not only as a matter of social justice, but for basketball’s future.
And yet—irony upon irony—when Pete signed with the Atlanta Hawks in 1970, he soon found himself scorned by both white traditionalists and black teammates. It was a more conservative NBA in the early seventies: more controlled, but also slower and far less spectacular. Among the league’s strongest teams, the Hawks featured a cast of talented black players, who meshed to play a classic, team-oriented game. The freewheeling Pete—marketed by Atlanta management as a white hope, and earning many times more than his veteran teammates—disrupted the team’s chemistry both on the court and off.
Among his greatest detractors was his coach, Butch van Breda Kolff. Formerly the coach at Princeton, VBK’s notion of the ideal player was his onetime charge Bill Bradley—as poised, disciplined and almost pathologically unspectacular in his play as Pete was irrepressibly flamboyant. Hardly incidentally, Bradley was a winner. Prodigiously talented as he was, Pete was routinely undermined by self-indulgence, going for the circus shot or firing a crowd-pleasing pass between his legs when a simpler move would do.
Still, Kriegel makes a persuasive case that Pistol’s style—the no-look passes, the gasp-inducing shots, the sheer speed, the entire “hip-hop ballet”—helped build the bridge from the past to the present. No one had ever seen such stuff, at least not from a white guy. Kriegel aptly compares Pete with an earlier revolutionary, Elvis, a “white boy performing in what had begun as a black form.” For all his squandered promise, over the course of his career Pete demonstrated beyond any doubt the potential effectiveness of his brand of play, not to mention its commercial appeal. Like talents, harnessed by greater self-discipline—think Larry Bird, Magic, Michael Jordan, Kobe, LeBron—would soon fundamentally remake the game, turning it into an international phenomenon.
Kriegel tells the story of Pete’s two shy teenage sons attending the “50 Greatest” ceremony in their father’s place, and being approached by the greats they grew up admiring. Over and over, they hear how much these men learned from Pete. Magic Johnson, for one, admits that he borrowed from Pistol the very term that his Lakers used as shorthand for their hugely entertaining offense. “Your pops, he was the original,” he says. “He was the real showtime.”