on August 21, 2008
Along with countless other boys from the 1970s, I wore floppy hair and droopy socks as a nod to Pistol Pete Maravich. But even with my socks pulled down, Maravich was never my favorite basketball player. What he represented was coolness. Maravich was an unrepentant showboat and gunner whose teams generally lost. But he had a trump card to cover these sins that America accepted, Pistol Pete was never boring. Not once.
Washington Post movie critic Stephen Hunter has argued that Quentin Tarentino in his movies defines sin as boredom. Murder is acceptable as long as you are not boring. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, which came out when Maravich was at the height of his fame, manipulated the audience to embrace greed and corruption. William Holden and his despicable crew became the ones the audience rooted for because they were fun. Maravich wasn't evil on the court in the same manner, but he opened the way for new definitions that were contra Herm Edwards, "YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!" Maravich's desire was to be the show, and in what would be both his exaltation and damnation, he knew it. Like the culture around him, he wanted every eye on him, he needed every eye on him, and yet he couldn't handle every eye on him.
Mark Kriegel's great book, PISTOL, chronicles how Maravich was crashing off the floor while amazing people on it. Kriegel's genius, however, is weaving in the story of Pete's father and college basketball coach, Press. The story of the son can only be understood in relationship to the story of the father. As Kriegel puts it, "The father worshipped basketball; the son worshipped the father."
Petar "Press" Maravich was the only child of five that survived past six months born to Sara and Vajo Maravich. They were Serbians who lived in Aliquippa near Pittsburgh when steel mills and soot so dominated the area that it was depicted as "hell with the lid taken off." H.L. Mencken bluntly described Pittsburgh's surrounding cities as "unbroken and agonizing ugliness," which created the "most loathsome towns and villages ever seen by mortal eye."
The greater Pittsburgh area, however, was not only known for its steel mills; it also had the highest percentage of Presbyterians per capita in the world. Ernest Anderton, an insurance agent who lived in nearby Beaver Falls, was also a lay worker for the Presbytery of Beaver County who converted a deserted Lutheran church in Aliquippa into the Logstown Mission. Anderton had a standing deal: go to Sunday school and you could play on the Missions' basketball court. Teenager Press Maravich eagerly put forth what was needed in this exchange. He read his Bible, sang Psalms and attended Sunday School, but the ultimate prize Anderton sought, a confession of faith, was not recorded. There was also no push to join the Presbyterian Church. Press and his friends who played on the Mission's basketball team, The Daniel Boys, never left the Serbian Orthodox Church. Kriegel puts the impact of the Mission on Press simply, "A Savior he had found. But it wasn't Jesus Christ."
That basketball became Press's religion through the evangelistic efforts of a Presbyterian was somewhat ironic considering that basketball inventor James Naismith graduated from Montreal's Presbyterian Theological Seminary. (Who knew Naismith had Presbyterian roots? Who knew Montreal had a Presbyterian seminary?) The gospel of basketball has spread in the late 1920s to Aliquippa through Geneva College and its star player, Nate Lippe. Turned down by the Pitt Medical School because he was Jewish, Lippe settled for coaching the Aliquippa high school team, and his star player in the mid-30s was Press Maravich.
It appeared that Maravich would play in college for Geneva or Duke (almost assuredly the last recruit the two schools battled over) but eventually he attended Davis and Elkins in West Virginia. After college, he played professionally before and after WWII, but his life changed in 1946 when he married a young Serbian widow with a son. Within a year, Peter Press Maravich was born.
By the early 50s, Press was back in Aliquippa coaching. Young Pete always wanted to be around his father, but his father was always around basketball. Consequently, Pete became all basketball. When the Aliquippa team would leave in the afternoon for away games, the father would turn the lights on the home court and give the son the one word instruction, "play." When the team returned usually around mid-night, they would be greeted by the son still shooting.
The son's ball handling skills amazed everyone. He was a prodigy and the father knew it. At the same time that he was spreading the gospel of Pete to close friends like UCLA coach John Wooden, Press also began climbing the coaching ladder. Clemson called, and then NC State which Press led to an improbable ACC championship in 1965. Meanwhile, Pete was creating his own legend dazzling everyone with his scoring feats and playmaking ability. The problem was that Press would only allow Pete to play for him in college, but Pete didn't have the board exam scores to enter NC State.
One school that didn't see that fact as problematic was LSU. Father and son were taken as a package in 1966 and the cult of Pistol Pete was born. Playing with teammates that were limited in talent, the Pistol started firing as soon as he walked on the court. He led the nation in scoring three consecutive years and walked away from LSU as the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history. John McPhee's 1965 A SENSE OF WHERE YOU ARE extolling Bill Bradley as the model student-athlete had been replaced by Curry Kirkpatrick's 1968 Sport Illustrated cover story on Maravich, "The Coed Boppers' Top Cat." Kirkpatrick wrote, "Everybody in the world, the world that really counts, will know Pistol Pete Maravich. He will make a million dollars playing the game of basketball." The difference to basketball purists, however, was that Bradley made everyone around him better and lifted his Princeton squad to the Final Four. Maravich teammates watched Pete shoot as LSU barely won fifty percent of its games during his tenure.
The Pistol got his million dollars from the Atlanta Hawks, but the superstar who lit up the college game stopped smiling. Turnover prone and often injured, Maravich struggled mightily with both the pro game and his teammates. The worst blow, however, was personal. His mother, who was perpetually drunk the last decade of her life, committed suicide during this time.
After four disappointing and disillusioned years in Atlanta, Pete was traded to the New Orleans Jazz where he blossomed into an NBA superstar. Natives wouldn't say, "Are you going to see the Jazz?" Rather, they would say "Are you going to see Pete?" But, despite otherworldly adoration, Pete never smiled. Finally making his signature between the legs pass late in a game the Jazz was winning, he blew out his knee. He would never be the same and within two years he retired from the game.
The year that followed he rarely left his home, became obsessive about pills and drugs, and played with his two infant sons. He also considered suicide. Then, in the midst of his despair, he accepted Christ. Pete believed Christ died for his sins and had set him free from guilt and shame. He joined a Baptist Church and started holding a summer basketball camp at Clearwater Christian College. He also started to smile for the first time in years.
His wife, Jackie, at first was skeptical about Pete's conversion to Christianity. He had collected many "isms" -vegetarianism, Hinduism, and extraterrestrialism. What she found was that her husband was a changed man, that this was not a fad. She commented, "He was a different person. I saw how happy he was, how he was at peace with everything."
One person that Pete had to tell was his father Press. After Helen Maravich's death, Press had stopped coaching and devoted himself to caring for Diana, the daughter that his stepson Ronnie had abandoned. The confession that Press did not make at the Logstown Mission occurred when he joined the First Baptist Church and was baptized.
Two years later Press learned that he had inoperative cancer. Father and son once more were inseparable, only this time the bond was Christ. They would read the Bible and pray together. Pete would carry his father up and down the stairs and stay with him in his bedroom until he fell asleep. Press died with Pete at his side.
By this time, Pete was garnering attention again, but now it was for his devotion to Christ. Just as his playing basketball had an event, now his testimony was an event. He joined Billy Graham in his evangelistic campaigns. He appeared on television. On the day that he was going to conduct an interview with Focus on the Family's James Dobson, Pete accepted an invitation from Dobson to join in a morning basketball game, something that he hadn't done in years. Talking to Dobson during a break when the other players were getting a drink, Pete collapsed on the court. Dobson and former UCLA player Ralph Drollinger were able to revive him.
The autopsy determined that Pete was born without a complete artery system, a condition that almost universally causes sudden death in young athletes. Of Pete's legacy, Kriegel writes, "Whatever doubts still lingered about Pete's standing in the game or even his place in popular culture ended with his death. His image would be eternally consigned--along with the likes of James Dean, Elvis, and at least a couple of Kennedys--to a celebrity purgatory reserved for the young dead." It could be argued, however, that the more powerful legacy was the joy and peace that marked Pete Maravich as a Christian living in obscurity and quietly serving others.