Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel

Basketball fans of a certain age — 50, say — can be divided into two groups: those who saw Pete Maravich play in person and those who didn’t.

Those in the latter group, sadly, were largely dependent on the written word or on word of mouth for accounts of “Pistol Pete’s” unfathomable exploits; college basketball was a relative stranger to television in those pre-ESPN days, and the novelty of his pro allure wore off rather quickly as Maravich spent the majority of his NBA career consigned to backwater league outposts.

But those who saw him live, those who bore witness to the incredible passes, the impossible shots, the otherworldly magic he worked with a basketball, might liken it to a religious experience. Wilt Chamberlain overpowered the game. Oscar Robertson mastered its every nuance. Michael Jordan soared above it. Pete Maravich is no less a transcendent figure for elevating it, for delivering basketball unto the realm of true entertainment.

The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry is most often cited as the impetus for that transformation, coming at a time when the NBA had been largely dismissed as a drug-troubled sideshow. Jordan took it from there, a one-man globalization effort who became the first basketball player recognized as the world’s most famous athlete.

But in Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, author Mark Kriegel makes a convincing case that the free-form, imagination-driven game played today started with Pistol Pete.

“He was a generation ahead of his time,” Kriegel said in an interview during a book-tour stop in Chicago. “The things that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant do, a lot of what’s sort of taken for granted today, it all started with Pistol Pete.”

Unearthing the bones of the Maravich legend was a labor of love for Kriegel, who first made a name for himself as a sports columnist with the New York Daily News. He had the sharp literary elbows and the distinctive, opinionated Noo Yawk voice needed to stand out in a hotly competitive environment, but he gradually grew disenchanted with the work. Reflection was hard to come by amid the increasingly limited access he had to the sports figures he was writing about, and Kriegel came to feel he was shouting to be heard above the din.

He found his writer’s voice with longer magazine pieces, most notably on boxing for Esquire. A first novel, Bless Me, Father, was a street-smart look at mobsters, boxing and tortured father-son relationships and a critically acclaimed moderate seller.

It is as a biographer, though, that Kriegel truly distinguishes himself. Namath, written in 2004, assigned a cultural/social context to the life and times of one of the most celebrated athletes of the 20th century while uncovering the achingly human side of Joe Namath within the glamorous persona of Broadway Joe.

The Maravich saga was less well-known, which heightened its appeal to Kriegel. He didn’t get past the high school level as a ballplayer, but he has an abiding appreciation of the game befitting one who grew up immersed in the discerning culture of New York hoops, which was accepting of a guy capable of putting up 44 points a game in college, as Maravich did in three amazing seasons at Louisiana State University (1967-70).

“Before the three-point line,” Kriegel notes.

Like Namath, the Maravich biography is meticulously researched, thoughtfully written and rich in detail. Who knew, for instance, that Mike Ditka played basketball for Pete’s father, Petar “Press” Maravich, at Aliquippa High School in Pennsylvania?

It’s a compelling read, with the careful character development and page-turning urgency of a good novel, but at the same time a very sad one. Though Maravich succeeded in fulfilling his and his father’s shared goal of becoming a basketball revolutionary, the accomplishment came at great personal cost. Pete Maravich was a tortured soul. He came from a family of them: obsessed father, deeply troubled mother, wild-hare half brother. His widow, Jackie, is the hero of the piece, a rare source of stability from the time they met until the day he died of a rare, undiscovered genetic heart defect.

He was 40, and did he live a life.

Even his two sons weren’t spared the peculiar Maravich pathos; their well-meaning attempts to uphold the family name as ballplayers produced nothing but frustration for them.

On the other hand, the Maravich name was practically impossible to live up to: Pistol Pete was a three-time All-American while scoring those 44 points a game at LSU and the college player of the year as a senior. NBA success came more grudgingly and was never as much fun; Maravich chafed at the great-white-hope role thrust upon him in Atlanta, his first pro stop, and his new teammates’ resentment of it pretty much tore up a proud, accomplished roster.

That turmoil took a disillusioning toll, as did a trade to the New Orleans/Utah Jazz and chronically bad knees. Still, Maravich managed to become a five-time All-Star who averaged 24.2 a game for his 10-season pro career and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame a year before his death.

Press Maravich, of course, was complicit in all this. Perhaps no coach in America would have green-lighted 44 points worth of shots per game unless that coach were also the shooter’s father. That was the case at LSU, and to Kriegel, the complex relationship between Petar “Press” Maravich and his gifted son makes their shared story so captivating and gives the book its dramatic wallop.

“Without Press there’s no Pete,” Kriegel said.

The son of Serbian immigrants and an indifferent, overlooked student, Press Maravich was ticketed for a joyless, hardscrabble life in the mills of Aliquippa when he discovered basketball as salvation. The game would be his ticket to college, to a brief run as a pro player in the barnstorming pre-NBA days and, finally, to a moderately comfortable, if nomadic, life as a coach.

Press Maravich was enthralled by the intricate dynamics of basketball — five parts operating as one — and gained respect as a strategist as he moved from the high schools of western Pennsylvania to Appalachian State University in North Carolina to the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference. All the while he was like John the Baptist preparing the world for the coming of Messiah Pete and the show they would put on at LSU. Basketball friends such as John Wooden viewed Press’ endorsement of Pete’s wildly unorthodox game as abandoning his principles, but as scoring records fell, turnaway crowds showed up at LSU games and Pistol Pete became a national celebrity, the end seemed to justify the means.

Did it? In one of the book’s most poignant scenes, Pete’s sons Jaeson and Joshua are invited to the 1997 NBA All-Star game, where the 50 greatest players in NBA history are to be feted in conjunction with the league’s 50th anniversary. The Maravich boys are there representing their father, and any doubts about his rightful place among the top 50 are erased as Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley and a succession of luminaries seek out the boys and pay homage to Pistol Pete.

The great ones always know.