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