SI Vault
 
The Pistol
MARK KRIEGEL
January 08, 2007
Before Magic Johnson and Showtime, before Michael Jordan's scoring sprees, fans and players alike were dazzled by Pete Maravich. This excerpt from a revealing new biography traces the creation of a legend who shattered NCAA scoring records while at LSU and went on to star in the NBA with shooting and ballhandling wizardry worthy of the Globetrotters
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 08, 2007

The Pistol

Before Magic Johnson and Showtime, before Michael Jordan's scoring sprees, fans and players alike were dazzled by Pete Maravich. This excerpt from a revealing new biography traces the creation of a legend who shattered NCAA scoring records while at LSU and went on to star in the NBA with shooting and ballhandling wizardry worthy of the Globetrotters

View CoverRead All Articles

JANUARY 5, 1988

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. �

Maravich wasn't 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 Christ.

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 one.

"Fat old 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?"

The Parker 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.

Pete begins 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.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11