Reviewed by Josh Wilker
If you could have the skills for one day of any athlete from any time in history, which athlete would you choose? Nolan Ryan and his 100-MPH heat? Lawrence Taylor and his ability to search and destroy? Muhammad Ali and his fast feet, faster jab, fastest mind?
Me, I’d go with Pistol Pete Maravich.
I can’t be alone in this choice, even though Maravich has, twenty years after his untimely death at age 40, receded somewhat in the collective memory. Throughout his basketball life, which from his days as a reed-thin high school sensation never strayed from the white-hot spotlight of intense public attention, Maravich captured the imagination of fans as few ever have before or since.
People flocked to see him create a kind of spontaneous magic that in the mad forward rush of a game made him seem like Houdini and Edison and Charlie Parker all at once, escaping trouble with sleight of hand dribbling, inventing seemingly impossible pathways with his contortionist passes, stretching the music of the game by playing so many notes so fast that the game itself, if not the scoreboard under his bucket-filling barrage, must have seemed at times as if it might break. Indeed, the defining moment of the Pistol’s career may have been just one such moment, when his setting of the all-time career college scoring record stopped the game in progress. Reporters flooded the floor, demanding comment from Maravich, who was uncomfortable with this stoppage of play. He kept darting looks up at the scoreboard while making his statement. It was the story of his life: He just wanted to get back inside the game.
Mark Kriegel, in his gripping biography of the Hall of Fame guard, Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, makes clear that the game itself was for most of Maravich’s life his only means of transcending the abundant pain in his life. Kriegel also details the price Maravich paid for this transcendence. Like other child prodigies, Maravich built a life entirely around his art, from early childhood practicing his dribbling, shooting, and passing with intense concentration for several hours each day. Under his obsessive father’s direction, this life quickly became one pointed beyond merely becoming a good basketball player or even a basketball star. Father and son conspired to bring to the world a basketball player who would change the way the game was played. The effort to attain such a stratospherically lofty goal eventually took a harrowing toll, not only isolating Maravich from most everyone in the world—even in many cases from his own teammates—but contributing to a strain on the Maravich family that most tragically resulted in Maravich’s mother succumbing first to rampant alcoholism and then to suicide. Maravich himself seemed for most of his days to lead a deeply unhappy life, one that often devolved into ferociously self-destructive habits such as drinking himself into fits of raving, flailing idiocy and driving like a suicidal maniac. Maravich overtly contemplated following the awful lead of his mother on more than one occasion, and in perhaps his most definitive off-the-court moment his fascination with UFOs and the pain he felt in his life here on earth led him to paint a message on his roof to any visiting extra-terrestrials: “TAKE ME.”
Interestingly, it was only after his basketball career came to an end that Maravich finally found a sturdy sense of peace in his life, through a touchingly deep love for his wife and young sons and through an embrace (of typically Maravichian intensity) of a spiritual life. Reading in Kriegel’s book of this happy ending, and of all the pain that preceded it, ultimately made me take stock of my own life. You can seem to have everything in the world and still be miserable. So look around, find love, give thanks, hold tight. But Kriegel’s book also got me dreaming, as any worthwhile book on Pete Maravich would have to do. I’m glad for the life I’ve got, for the love that surrounds me. But for just one day I’d like to know what it felt like to be Pistol Pete in his prime, to levitate all sadness and loss, to make the whole world tilt and reel and gasp and laugh, to create with nothing but sparks from my fingertips a strange new carnival dazzling the night.