Book review – Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich

The game’s over. Florida repeats as NCAA basketball champions and, what, “two-peats” as NCAA football and basketball champions in the same year. The odds of doing what Florida just did are off-the-charts-impossible, which is precisely the reason I love sports. (Sidenote: I attended one game the Gators lost this year, but obviously quickly put behind them.)

If you’re a college hoops fan and heading into withdrawal, you may want to pick up a copy of the biography Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel*. I read it a couple of weekends ago — I couldn’t put it down.

I’ll admit, Pistol Pete Maravich occupies a mythic corner of my psyche: some never-gotten-over Jr. High hero-worshipping on my part, no doubt. If you could see a photo of me in high school, you’d see how I tried to grow my hair (back when I could do that) to be like Pete’s. I gave up on ever being able to dribble or shoot like him, but the floopy socks and hair and sad-eyed look, I tried to perfect.

“It is impossible to distinguish what is remembered from what actually happend. Memory becomes fact,” Kriegle writes at the end of the book. That’s true for me — when it comes to Maravich. Frankly, before reading this book, I’ve really never known that much fact about Pete Maravich beyond my teenage following of his seasons at LSU. This was a time when SEC basketball was Kentucky, period. All the other schools were football schools (except, sorta, Vandy) that had huge stadiums for the fall sport and not very impressive facilities for hoops. Those facilities were clear indications that the sport was an afterthought — something to do between football season and football spring practice, the saying goes.

Maravich changed all that. (At least, he did in that “memory becomes fact” part of my mind.) The first college basketball game I ever saw live was at Auburn on Feburary 16, 1970, at the then, brand new Memorial Collesium. I was one of 12,468 fans who watched LSU defeat Auburn 70-64 that night. (I’ll confess, my memory of those stats was powered by Google.) My father and I sat way up in the nose-bleed section, but I still marveled at the way Maravich could make the ball disappear from view when he dribbled it at blurring speed.

Man, he could do stuff with a ball. Kriegle notes that Rafer Alston, who currently plays for the Houston Rockets but is, perhaps, best known for his amazing street-ball tricks and Skip to My Lou ball handling, has said his moves were inspired by watching Pete Maravich tapes. “I still watch (them) always,” Kriegle quotes Alston. “(Maravich) was so deceptive…that’s what I wanted to be: the guy that could fool you with the basketball.”

Kriegle’s book, however, goes beyond a typical sports biography. In some ways, it reminds me of a Michael Lewis sports book, in that it is told with the deftness of a great story-teller, not merely a chronicler. Kreigle is drawn to the complex father-son dynamics between Pete and his father-coach, Press Maravich. Frankly, it’s a part of the story that would fascinate any arm-chair shrink. The book is a thorough exploration of the demons Maravich — indeed, both father and son Maravich — fought throughout their lives. After being hauled through his dark journey, it is nice to learn that Maravich found a personal peace in his last few years. He died in 1988, way too young at 40. But like other great ones who are taken from us early, he will be forever the young Pete in our minds.

*While I haven’t yet, I also plan on reading another biography, Maravich, by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill, with “collaboration” by Pete’s wife, Jackie Maravich.

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