They cannot see
him, this slouching, ashen-faced man in their midst. To their oblivious eyes,
he remains what he once was, unblemished by the years, much as he appeared on
his first bubblegum card: a halo of hair, the fresh-faced, sad-eyed wizard
cradling a grainy leather orb.
� One of the
regulars, a CPA, retrieved that very card last night. He found it in a shoe
box, tucked away with an old train set and a wooden fort in a crawl space in
his parents' basement. He brought it to the gym this morning to have it signed
or, in some way, sanctified. The 1970 rookie card of Pete Maravich, to whom the
Atlanta Hawks had just awarded the richest contract in professional sports,
takes note of the outstanding facts: that Maravich was coached by his father,
under whose tutelage he became "the most prolific scorer in the history of
college basketball." Other salient statistics are provided in agate type:
an average of 44.2 points a game, a total of 3,667 (this when nobody else had
scored 3,000). The records will never be broken. Still, they are woefully
inadequate in measuring the contours of the Maravich myth. �
an archetype; he was several: child prodigy, prodigal son, his father's payment
in a Faustian bargain. He was a creature of contradictions, ever alone: the
white hope of a black sport, a virtuoso stuck in an ensemble, an exuberant
showman who couldn't look you in the eye, a vegetarian boozer, the athlete who
lived like a rock star, a profligate, suicidal genius saved by Jesus
Still, it's his
caricature that evokes unqualified affection in men of a certain age. Pistol
Pete, they called him. The Pistol is another relic of the '70s, not unlike
bongs and Bruce Lee flicks: the skinny kid who mesmerized the basketball world
with Globetrotters moves, floppy socks and great hair.
But above all,
Pistol Pete was his father's vision, built to the old man's exacting
specifications. And the game now in progress is a dance in deference to that
patrimony. The squeak of sneakers against the floor produces an odd chirping
melody. Then there's another rhythm, the respiration of men well past their
prime, an assortment of white guys: the accountant, insurance salesmen,
financial planners, even a preacher. "Just a bunch of duffers," recalls
men," smirks another.
But they play as
if Pistol Pete, or what's left of him, could summon the boys they once were.
They acknowledge him with a superfluous flourish, an extra behind-the-back pass
or an unnecessary between-the-legs dribble. The preacher, a gentle-voiced man
of great renown in evangelical circles, reveals a feverishly competitive
nature. After hitting a shot, he bellows, "You get that on camera?"
Gymnasium at the First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena could pass for a good
high school gym--a clean, cavernous space with arching wooden rafters and large
windows. At dawn, its halogen lamps give off a glow to the outside world, a
beacon to spirits searching for a game. As a boy, Maravich would have
considered this a kind of heaven. Now it's a way station of sorts.
wearily. He hasn't played in a long time, and he moves at one-quarter speed, if
that. He does not jump; he shuffles. The ball seems like a shot-put shot in his
hands; on his second attempt at the basket it barely touches the front of the
rim. But gradually, as the pace of his breath melds with that of the others and
he starts to sweat, Pete Maravich recovers something in himself. "The
glimpse of greatness was in his ball handling," the accountant will recall.
"There would just be some kind of dribble or something. Just the quickness
of the beat." There was genius in that unexpected cadence, a measure of
music. The Pistol's talent, now as then, was musical. He was as fluent as
Mozart, but he was sold like Elvis, the white guy performing in a black idiom.
And for a time, he was mad like Elvis too.