Tuesday, February 13, 2007

NY Times calls Maravich essential biography

By Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill in collaboration with Jackie
Illustrated. 422 pp. Sport Classic Books. $24.95.

Published: February 11, 2007

On May 3, 1989, I popped a VHS tape into my machine and recorded an
entire game of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan to save for
posterity. It was an ordinary first-round playoff game against the
Cleveland Cavaliers, admittedly a team Jordan often torched, but I had
no idea what would happen. Jordan ended with 44 points and delivered a
few signature moments — a steal and a breakaway dunk, a series of
fadeaway jumpers, an end-to-end rebound, sprint and layup. In an ESPN
world of quick-cut highlights where a player’s dunk dissolves into the
next clip before he hits the ground, I wanted to preserve what
snippet-sports often denies us: context. While the most sensational
exploits of our athlete gods become as luminescent in public
consciousness as stained glass (Julius Erving’s behind-the-backboard
layup, Willie Mays’s over-the-shoulder catch), the proof of greatness
often lies in their ability to amaze every day. Arguably, no basketball
player, not even Jordan, met that test as regularly as Pete Maravich,
whose between-the-legs assists and next-ZIP-code jumpers still defy
belief. Too bad he played mostly pre-VCR.

Even a casual fan may know of Maravich’s trademark floppy socks and
hair and his college scoring average of 44.2 points per game during his
three years at Louisiana State University, a record as seemingly
unassailable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. The more ardent
will know Maravichiana like his idiosyncratic ball-handling drills, an
obsessive practice ethic that found him sitting in aisle seats at movie
theaters so he could dribble while he watched, and a checkered pro
career marked by injury, coaching turmoil, frequent drinking and, most
of all, losing. After retiring from the pros, he embraced evangelical
Christianity and died unexpectedly in 1988 at the age of 40, owing to a
genetic heart ailment.

A pair of recent biographies — one by Mark Kriegel, the author of
“Namath,” and the other a team effort from the actor and comedian Wayne
Federman and the journalist Marshall Terrill, with an assist from
Maravich’s widow, Jackie Maravich — cover this material baseline to
baseline, with admirable thoroughness. In “Maravich,” Federman et al.
assay a more exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) approach,
dutifully summarizing statistics in parentheses, front-loading each
chapter with not one but two epigraphs and stacking up repetitive
encomiums. Once you’ve had the Hall of Famer and onetime Maravich coach
Elgin Baylor say, “Pete is the best I’ve ever seen,” do we really need
to hear the same from a dozen others? But its labor-of-love enthusiasm
is infectious, and it’s essential for Maravich completists, especially
for the reassessment of his pro career and for anecdotal feats of
basketball wizardry, like his delivering on a boast to hit 100 jumpers
from beyond 25 feet without missing two in a row. It also contains the
single most convincing statistical refutation of the charge that
Maravich was a selfish gunner: in the N.B.A., when he scored more than
40 points, his team won 82 percent of its games, compared with Jordan’s
69 percent and Allen Iverson’s 68.

Kriegel’s prose is flashier but often errant. A young Maravich is
described as having “a big head mounted on a wispy frame, dense as a
wafer”; the Maravich-as-Elvis theme is hammered ad nauseam; and one
chapter in “Pistol” has the truly awful title “The Unbearable Whiteness
of Being Pete.” But Kriegel does uncover some nuggets otherwise lost to
history, as when he traces one inspiration for Maravich’s dribbling
drills to a ball-handling sensation named Ah Chew Goo, whom Pete’s
father, Press, had seen when stationed in Hawaii in the service.

Kriegel also tries to situate Maravich in his times, particularly in
relation to the era’s racial dynamics. Despite the precedent of Bob
Cousy’s legerdemain, Maravich’s crowd-pleasing style was identified
with that of the urban playground and its black stars. Marvin Turner, a
black player from Baton Rouge who competed against Maravich in the
summer, tells Kriegel, “There had never been a white guy who played
like that — he had a soul game.” The growing National Basketball
Association was beginning to be dominated by African-Americans, and the
mantle of “great white hope” thrust upon Maravich, along with the
accompanying rich contract, didn’t help his transition to the league;
when he joined the Atlanta Hawks, black veterans like Lou Hudson and
Joe Caldwell, who’d toiled for years for a fraction of the money
Maravich commanded, were understandably annoyed. In time, the tempest
blew over, but over a 10-year career that saw enough success for him to
be named one of the N.B.A.’s 50 greatest players, a complementarity of
teammates and coach failed to materialize, and he never came close to
showcasing his skills in the service of a championship.

Over the 800 pages in these books, despite tales of drinking,
vegetarianism and interest in extraterrestrials, Pete Maravich the man
remains something of a mystery. Perhaps that’s because he was a mystery
to himself, constantly searching before his post-career embrace of
Christianity. His innate basketball talent was manifest so early in
life — he once said, “There isn’t anything I did at L.S.U. or in the
N.B.A. I couldn’t do at 13” — that the young man was the sum of his
basketball feats, which he all but admitted late in life when he
described that earlier self as “a basketball android.”

What may be a revelation here is the portrait that emerges of Press
Maravich, who might stereotypically be viewed as merely riding his
son’s remarkable skills to the L.S.U. head coaching job. Kriegel is
particularly good at offering a corrective, and the most successful
part of his book describes the elder Maravich’s hardscrabble upbringing
in the Serbian immigrant enclave of Aliquippa, Pa., a company town
where nearly everyone worked for the steel producer Jones & Laughlin.
These vivid pages follow Press as he masters basketball in a church
gym, stars in college and in the fledgling pro game, serves as a Navy
flier, and works his way up the high school and college coaching ranks
by forming teams of players as hard-nosed and hardheaded as he was.
“Press didn’t recruit ability,” Kriegel writes. “He recruited desire.
He wanted guys who loved the game as much as he did, who shared his
confusion of basketball with salvation.”

At basketball backwaters like Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia
and the football powerhouse Clemson, his undersize teams became so well
drilled in his theories of tenacious defense and meticulous execution
that the legendary U.C.L.A. coach John Wooden often sought him out for
advice. “They were an odd couple,” Kriegel writes, “Wooden measured and
modest while Press was loud and profane.” In both books, Press emerges
as a full, flawed but appealing man, driven and tender, boastful and
loving. “Press was one of the greatest, most entertaining guys I’ve
ever met,” an L.S.U. administrator says in “Maravich.” But Press’s
formidable basketball mind became mush when his son was involved. “He
had ... become obsessed with Pete’s numbers,” a former assistant coach
says in “Pistol.” “He had gone from being one of the greatest coaches
in the game to the coach of the greatest player in the game.”

In the end, reading about Maravich the son is like reading about Gale
Sayers, the incomparable Chicago Bears running back: it mostly makes
you want to watch those precious old films, to witness with your own
eyes the impossible moves. That’s why the most exciting part of either
of these books for me was in an appendix to “Maravich” under the
“Selected References” section, titled “Video”: “Games: 1967 L.S.U. at
Tennessee; 1968 L.S.U. at Georgia,” and so on. Out there somewhere is
Maravich in context.

Jay Jennings, a former college basketball reporter for Sports
Illustrated, is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

1 comment:

Myrna said...

People should read this.