Monday, May 21, 2018
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Pete Maravich: Basketball ruled his life

Running hard along the parallel tracks of history, psychology, sociology, and pop culture, Mark Kriegel's book about Pete Maravich might long be remembered as the definitive "Pistol," even as a predictably admiring and sympathetic homage to a much admired and sympathetic figure.

No one particularly needed 323 pages on how spectacular Pistol Pete was those many years ago, just as no one should be terribly surprised by what made him so singular an American sports icon.

Pistol worked like a dog.

Too often in the long history of entertainment culture, we think of the very best at any of several disciplines as inexplicably gifted. "He (or she) is just a natural. You can't coach that."

Yet in serious examinations, especially in what aspires to be literature, and Kriegel's book surely does, we find that our heroes, much as anything else, just flat outworked us.

Ted Williams, the acknowledged "best natural hitter ever," swung until the calluses on his hands cracked in pain in his native San Diego, and he studied pitchers with an anthropologist's passion. Tony Gwynn looked at video of himself and his opponents until his eyes stung. Julius Erving, the celebrated Dr. J., took his "doctorate" in the solitary confinement of darkened gymnasiums.

No surprise then that we learn that when his ball-obsessed father, Press Maravich, coached at Aliquippa (Pa.) High School in the mid-1950s, the team would convene in the gym before road trips, and Press would leave Pete there with one instruction: "play."

When the team returned home, sometimes between midnight and 1 a.m., Pete would be still be playing.

He was 7.

Fortunately, Kriegel's Pistol is so much more than the when and how Pete dribbled until his fingers bled, until he could do complex ball handling drills blindfolded. Pistol is far more compelling, far closer to a Jimmy Piersall story than a Ted Williams story.

The triumph of Pete Maravich was not so much that he averaged 44 points a game at Louisiana State nearly 20 years before the advent of the three-point basket, or that he'd take his place posthumously among the NBA's 50 greatest players at the time of the league's 50th anniversary in 1997, but that he didn't kill himself trying.

Such will be the legacy of Pistol, which brings into heartbreaking focus the inglorious truth that while Pete might not have been crazy, technically, he was so awfully close.

Although he died from a congenital heart defect in 1988, in his 40 years he did as much dying as living.

Physiology aside, what Kriegel posits here is that Pete's identity was so much the creation of his father that, even in the final years of that relationship, when they essentially saved each other from themselves, Pete couldn't go on without Press, who died only a year before.

To be sure, both were basketball visionaries who saw the game at an offensive tempo that wouldn't be fully realized until they were long out of it. Pete, who routinely made passes and shots that no one had ever seen before, would occasionally execute impossible offensive cadenzas he hadn't even practiced. Asked once by a teammate, "How come I never saw you practice that one?" the young genius replied, "Oh yes I have. Many times. In my head. "

To the book's credit, Kriegel gives an exhaustive documentation of his various sources, and allows many eyes to interpret the deep-seated Maravich torment, including those of the great sports journalist Heywood Hale Broun.

"He was so much the instrument of his father's desire," Broun once said, "that there wasn't much to Pete himself. I think it emptied him of personality. "

Press Maravich had innumerable constructive qualities as a coach and a father, but his passion for basketball went unchecked into clinical obsession. He gave us Pete, a singular talent, but ultimately just another needlessly tortured soul.

Should you know a parent who thinks three hours of practice are better than two, six better than four, nine better than six, you might suggest he or she pick up Pistol.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gene Collier is a sports columnist for the Post-Gazette.

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