January 5, 1988.
They cannot see him, this slouched, ashen-faced man in their midst. To their oblivious eyes, he remains what he had been, unblemished by the years, much as he appeared on his first bubblegum card: a Beatlesque halo of hair, the fresh-faced, sad-eyed wizard cradling a grainy, leather orb.
One of the regulars, a certified public accountant, had retrieved this very artifact the night before. He found it in a shoebox, tucked away with an old train set and a wooden fort in a crawlspace in his parents' basement. He brought it to the gym this morning to have it signed, or perhaps, in some way, sanctified. The 1970 rookie card of Pete Maravich, to whom the Atlanta Hawks had just awarded the richest contract in professional sport, notes the outstanding facts: that Maravich had been coached by his father, under whose tutelage he became "the most prolific scorer in the history of college basketball."
Other salient statistics are provided in agate type: an average of 44.2 points a game, a total of 3,667 (this when nobody had scored 3,000). The records will never be broken. Still, they are woefully inadequate in measuring the contours of the Maravich myth.
Even the CPA, for whom arithmetic is a vocation, understands the limitation in mere numbers. There is no integer denoting magic or memory. "He was important to us," the accountant would say.
Maravich wasn't an archetype; he was several: child prodigy, prodigal son, his father's ransom in a Faustian bargain. He was a creature of contradictions, ever alone: the white hope of a black sport, a virtuoso stuck in an ensemble, an exuberant showman who couldn't look you in the eye, a vegetarian boozer, the athlete who lived like a rock star, a profligate, suicidal genius saved by Jesus Christ.
Still, it's his caricature that evokes unqualified affection in men of a certain age. Pistol Pete, they called him. The Pistol is another relic of the seventies, not unlike bongs or Bruce Lee flicks: the skinny kid who mesmerized the basketball world with Globetrotter moves, floppy socks, and great hair.
Pistol Pete was, in fact, his father's vision, built to the old man's exacting specifications. Press Maravich was a Serb. Ideas and language occurred to him in the mother tongue, and so one imagines him speaking to Pistol (yes, that's what he called him, too) as a father addressing his son in an old Serbian song: Cuj me sine oci moje, Cuvaj ono sto je tvoje...Listen to me, eyes of mine, guard that which is thine...
The game in progress is a dance in deference to this patrimony. The Pistol is an inheritance, not just for the Maraviches, but for all the American sons who play this American game. The squeak of sneakers against the floor produces an oddly chirping melody. Then there's another rhythm, the respiration of men well past their prime, an assortment of white guys: the accountant, insurance salesmen, financial planners, even a preacher or two. "Just a bunch of duffers," recalls one. "Fat old men," smirks another.
But they play as if Pistol Pete, or what's left of him, could summon the boys they once were. They acknowledge him with a superfluous flourish, vestigial teenage vanity — an extra behind-the-back pass or an unnecessary between-the-legs dribble. The preacher, a gentle-voiced man of great renown in evangelical circles, reveals a feverishly competitive nature. After hitting a shot, he is heard to bellow, "You get that on camera?"
The Parker Gymnasium at Pasadena's First Church of the Nazarene could pass for a good high school gym — a clean, cavernous space with arching wooden rafters and large windows. At dawn, fully energized halogen lamps give off a glow to the outside world, a beacon to spirits searching for a game. As a boy, Maravich would have considered this a kind of heaven. Now, it's a way station of sorts.
Pete begins wearily. He hasn't played in a long time and moves at one-quarter speed, if that. He does not jump; he shuffles. The ball seems like a shotput in his hands, his second attempt at the basket barely touching the front of the rim.
But gradually, as the pace of his breath melds with the others' and he starts to sweat, Pete Maravich recovers something in himself. "The glimpse of greatness was in his ballhandling," recalls the accountant. "Every once in a while the hands would flicker. There would just be some kind of dribble or something. You could see a little of it in his hands, the greatness. Just the quickness of the beat."
There was genius in that odd beat, the unexpected cadence, a measure of music. The Pistol's talent, now as then, was musical. He was as fluent as Mozart — his game rising to the level of language — but he was sold like Elvis, the white guy performing in a black idiom. And for a time, he was mad like Elvis, too.
Once, in an attempt to establish contact with extraterrestrial life, he painted a message on his roof: "Take me."
Deliver me, he meant.
Now the accountant tries to blow past Pete with a nifty spin move. Pete tells him not to believe his own hype.
The Pistol wears an easy grin. The men in this game are avid readers of the Bible. But perhaps the truth of this morning is to be found in the Koran: "Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime."
Pete banks one in.
That smile again. What a goof.
The game ends. Guys trudge off to the water fountain. Pete continues to shoot around.
And now, you wonder what he sees. Was it as he used to imagine? "The space will open up," he once said. "Beyond that will be heaven and when you go inside, then the space closes again and you are there...definitely a wonderful place...everyone you ever knew will be there."
Back on earth, the preacher asks Pete Maravich how he feels.
"I feel great," he says.
Soon the phone will ring in Covington, Louisiana. A five-year-old boy hears the maid let out a sharp piercing howl. Then big old Irma quickly ushers the boy and his brother into another room. The boy closes the door behind him and considers himself in the mirror. He has his father's eyes. That's what everyone says. Eyes of mine, guard that which is thine. Guard that which fathers give to their sons to give to their sons.
The boy looks through himself, and he knows:
"My daddy's dead."
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Kriegel