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"This man has been quicker and faster than Jerry West or Oscar Robertson. He gets the ball up the floor better. He shoots as well. Raw-talentwise, he's the greatest who ever played. The difference comes down to style. He will be a loser, always, no matter what he does. That's his legacy. It never looked easy being Pete Maravich."
And, of course, it never has been. Even as we live and breathe and yawn through the National Basketball Association's endless nights and days, Pete Maravich is out there, pounding the ball up the court. The shirt is flying, the arms waving. The hair is straggly, the eyes all aglaze. Pete Maravich is working. He is playing. Ultimately he is surviving, too, grinding away at his craft as he desperately tries to live up to a reputation he created long ago.
Maravich scans the court, looking for openings, maybe even for a teammate. He switches hands on the dribble, going behind the back, between the legs. The ball is a yo-yo. He twists and turns. He contorts his face and body. Now he is in the air. Now beginning, as Hot Rod Hundley screams into the radio mike, "a gentle push...a mild arc...and the cowhide globe hits home. Oh my God. Unbelievable. I don't believe it. Once again, the Magic Man. The Pistol. Pistolllllllll Pete!"
Pistol Pete. For those who measure the passage of time in pop culture images, it may be difficult to realize that Pete Maravich of the flappy hair and the floppy socks and the outrageous shots and passes and turnovers and point totals; he of the childlike abandon and imagination and sheer, fundamental joy in the game; he who made basketball so much fun for so many of us, is 30 years old. And it ain't no fun anymore.
If Pete Maravich is not the unique athlete of his time, he is close, and certainly he is one of the more misunderstood and controversial. His teammate on the New Orleans Jazz, Rich Kelley, calls him "an American phenomenon, a stepchild of the human imagination." More simply, Maravich has always seemed to be misplaced: an individualist in a team environment; a perfectionist but not a purist; the white boy in the (now 75%) black man's game; the people's choice who feels that the people are against him.
Above everything else, Maravich has been an entertainer, the one-and-only, the star, a man who long ago chose style over substance as the best way to go. Cary Grant was like this and, more recently, Burt Reynolds, who made a few magazine covers himself. In another realm, Edward, Duke of Windsor, made a career out of style. Would the Duke have been able to rule? Can Cary and Burt act? Does anybody care?
The essence—and curse—of Pete Maravich is that he always has known the answers; too often he has shown that he knows. Honestly now, does it matter what team Pete Maravich plays for, or for that matter whether it wins or loses? Just so he performs. Just so he does another gig. Just so Pistol Pete shakes and bakes and makes the others quake. Just so the Pistol does it.
Grant him his need to be in the spotlight, to be the showstopper, to do it night after strenuous night, and one can sense what an awful burden Maravich has placed on himself. How relieved he must have been to return to his game this autumn after sitting out most of the final 11 weeks of last season with a knee injury; how dismal must have been his hours of idleness then. For, if the truth be known, Pete Maravich is nothing so much as he is Emma, the aging ballerina of the film The Turning Point, who finally must admit, "All I'm doing offstage is waiting to get back on."
On the occasion of Maravich's return to center stage following surgery on his right knee, his supporting cast was the same that put together a 26-24 record last winter with the Pistol in the lineup and a 13-19 record without him. Sadly enough, the Jazz, which usually rushes off to a quick start, stumbled out of the blocks in October and seems to be playing out the string toward another sub-.500 record. Only this time Maravich, whose psyche is even more fragile than his body, has been encumbered, as much mentally as physically, by the effects of the damaged knee. Before he was injured last year, the 6'5" Maravich was leading the NBA in scoring with 28 points a game. This season he is not even among the top 10 with 23.3. His shooting percentage (.408) is down from his career average of .441, but his free-throw percentage (.851) is way up. He is behind his normal pace in assists, steals—and turnovers.
The injury, which he incurred last January, was at first diagnosed as a stretching of the anterior cruciate ligament. Later, doctors found that a lateral meniscus cartilage was torn as well, which dictated an operation. Meanwhile, Maravich struggled to strengthen the knee in his own way. The delay set him back for two months. When the season opened, Maravich was still trying to rehabilitate the knee at the same time he was running and cutting and changing directions on it. For protection the Pistol chose the same evil-looking two-pound steel brace that Joe Namath wore—no basketball player had ever used the thing. This experiment immediately resulted in recurring problems in his lower back, which caused him to miss part of the exhibition schedule. Then, in November, Maravich lost 10 pounds when he came down with a bacterial infection that kept him in bed for five days and out of two regular-season games. Last week, the knee got to him again—ironically after a sparkling 33-point performance against Golden State. Tendinitis, a new ailment for him, had developed around his kneecap. He would miss at least two more games and face a classic sort of dilemma: the generally weakened state of his knee demands strengthening exercise; tendinitis, on the other hand, requires complete rest.