from World War II, Press Maravich spent a season playing for the Pittsburgh
Ironmen in what would be regarded as the inaugural year of the NBA. It was
1947, and the league wanted young men fresh out of college. There wasn't much
of a market for a 33-year-old guard who had spent his best years as a Navy
fighter pilot. Press's preposterous idea that one could make a living playing
basketball had run its course.
But in the death
of that dream lay the genesis of another. A friend would recall the night Press
barged in at halftime of a semipro game--"one of those games where you're
lucky to get a chipped-ham sandwich and a fishbowl of beer"--and announced,
"My wife had a boy." This boy would do what his father could not; his
body language would articulate the old man's vanity, genius, ambition.
Eventually he would surpass even his father's imagination. On June 24, 1947, a
Serbian Orthodox priest from St. Elijah the Prophet came to the Maravich home
on Beech Wood Avenue in Aliquippa, Pa. The baby was baptized Peter Press.
By 1950 Press was
coaching basketball and teaching phys ed at Aliquippa High School, where he
himself had been a hoops legend. A new sheriff had come to the blackboard
jungle, confiscating 300 switchblades and paddling students who violated his
vaunted rules. "It was a piece of wood, three or four inches wide--[Press]
was pretty loose with that paddle," recalls Nick Lackovich, then a student
Press had become
a hard-ass. The dashing pilot with movie-star looks now wore his hair shorn to
bristles. Detesting the duck's ass haircut, Press formed the Crewcut Club.
"If you didn't belong, you couldn't play ball for him," says Pete
Suder, one of his players.
run us like crazy, up and down the steps, around the gymnasium," said Mike
Ditka, then an underclassman, who'd go on to fame as an NFL tight end and the
coach of the Chicago Bears. "He'd put that steely look on you, and you knew
he meant business."
Not every player
saw Press as a mere authority figure. Joe Lee, his star point guard, recalls
him with deep affection. Lee was black, as was half the Aliquippa team by then.
His mother had passed away, and even by Aliquippa standards Joe Lee was poor.
Press would often slip him lunch tickets. More than that, though, Press showed
a level of concern Lee had not seen in other adults.
Press took his
team all the way to Madison Square Garden in New York City because he wanted
the boys to see firsthand that their game had a capital and, within it, a
cathedral. On Sundays during the season he would drive them to Duquesne
University to watch the varsity practice. On the way he would listen to the
black radio station. Press knew all the words to the spirituals.
heritage," he told Lee, who found Press to be a surprisingly good listener.
Once, Lee asked his coach why Aliquippa had no black cheerleaders. Press
thought about it for a while. "You're right," he said. "There
teams also had their own mascot. He had sad, soft eyes and a big head mounted
on a wispy frame. He was tiny but ubiquitous. If you saw Press, you saw Pete.
He attended practices. He'd wiggle his way into team huddles. At home games,
Suder recalls, "he'd sit on the bench right next to his dad."
wanted to be around Press," says Joe Pukach, then Press's assistant,
"but Press was always around basketball."