SCOTT SIMON, host:
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Even if you've grown up watching Michael Jordan, been dazzled by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, you still want to get a look at Pete Maravich, Pistol Pete.
(Soundbite of archived recording of NBA coverage)
Unidentified Man: Maravich, why he's got all kinds of moves. What move doesn't this guy have?
(Soundbite of cheering sports fans)
Unidentified Sports Announcer: Fifty-four and still counting. I'm going to run out of room on this scoresheet...
SIMON: Pistol Pete Maravich would go on to score 68 points against the New York Knicks that night, 30 years ago. He was a sports star in the Age of Aquarius. With a mop top of brown hair, white socks flopping over the ankles of his skinny legs, nobody dazzled like Pete Maravich.
He set scoring records at Louisiana States, became the youngest player inducted to the Pro Hall of Fame, after playing for the New Orleans, then Utah Jazz. He battled depression and drinking, became a seeker and a believer, still played basketball for fun, then collapsed on a court and died at the age of 40.
Mark Kriegel, former columnist for the New York Daily News, has written a new book, "Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich." He joins us from our studios in NPR West. Mr. Kriegel, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. MARK KRIEGEL (Columnist, New York Daily News): Thank you very much for having me.
SIMON: What was he like to watch as a player?
Mr. KRIEGEL: There was a quality with which he moved that has never been duplicated and it comes from practice. What he had as a kid was an unnatural capacity for repetition, for practice. He could stay in the gym longer than other kids. And what looks like improvisation is, in fact, the result of extraordinary dedication, a discipline that was almost scary.
SIMON: Do you have a favorite Pete-Maravich-on-the-court moment you can describe or something that would help us understand his characteristic artistry?
Mr. KRIEGEL: In Athens, Georgia, where there really hadn't been too many basketball fans before Pete came to the SBC. At the end of his junior year, last game, he scores 25 of the last 29 points in regulation time to put the game into an overtime period. He is magical in the first overtime. Then the game goes into a second overtime. He is even more magical in the second overtime.
What happens is something that has never happened before. The fans in Athens, Georgia, start booing the home team and cheering Pete as the final seconds wind down. And as they count off the seconds, he tosses up a 35-foot hook shot, without really looking at the basket. And of course, it splashes right through the net. And the Georgia fans carry him off the court. That was Pete Maravich.
SIMON: A lot of the book, of course, concerns the relationship with his father, Press Maravich, who was himself a basketball player in the day when the pro game was hardly, I think I can say this, important.
Mr. KRIEGEL: Well I don't think that you can understand Pete in the whole myth of Pistol Pete, without first understanding Press. And Press is the child of Serbian immigrants. His biological father is killed in a mill accident when Press is 3 and a half years old. When he's 14, a missionary gives him a basketball. From the time he gets the basketball, in 1929, his life changes. His natural charisma comes out. His extraordinary physical prowess becomes apparent and he becomes a hero of this town, Aliquippa, so much so that what he comes to early on is this equation in his mind where he equates basketball with salvation. It changes his life and he decides it becomes his obsession, his god, his religion, and he gives his son to the game.
SIMON: Pete Maravich played professional basketball for 10 years. But in the end, a knee injury essentially shortened his career.
Mr. KRIEGEL: There's a period from 1977-1978 where he is arguably the best player in the game. Nothing much was expected of the New Orleans Jazz. But they go on a nine-game winning streak. And in the final game of this winning streak, he throws the ball up court, whips the ball through his legs, really a spectacular pass. For an uncontested lay-up in the fourth quarter of a game that is already a blowout and his knee goes. And he's never the same.
Mr. KRIEGEL: And he's almost - he's like a thoroughbred. He could never adjust to real physical adversity. Everything had to be perfect. It's almost like he approached the game like an artist. He could not tolerate any sort of physical compromise in his skills. But from that point on, he's - he's done.
SIMON: Pete Maravich retires and he really - in your account - seems to find some peace when he becomes religious.
Mr. KRIEGEL: He spends about two years in a depression. He doesn't know what to do with himself. One night he hears the voice of God. And I think that, you know, whether you want to look at this psychologically or theologically, you can argue that for the first time, he does find some serenity.
SIMON: I wonder if I can get you, Mr. Kriegel, to tell us about that last, on that last game of Pete Maravich's life, January 5, 1988. Among the other players was Dr. James Dobson, the evangelist.
Mr. KRIEGEL: Yes. It was First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena and Dr. Dobson is a big basketball aficionado. He organizes this pickup game. When the game is over, they're shooting around. Some guys trudged off to the water fountain and Dr. Dobson turns to Pete and says, so how do you feel? And Pete says, I feel great. And then he dies. He drops dead.
He was - there are two artery systems that feed the heart. And Pete was born without one of them. Most people who have this don't live past 20. Pete was 40.
SIMON: And doctors didn't know about it until they did the autopsy?
Mr. KRIEGEL: That's correct.
SIMON: A pure basketball question. Was it his unparalleled artistry with a basketball, as great as it was to watch, that somehow prevented him from being the absolute team player that delivered the championship?
Mr. KRIEGEL: No, because he did not play with good enough teams, so that we would really know what he could have done. I think that he's the only player, the only one - and that includes Michael Jordan - who would be better today than when he was drafted. In other words, I think that it's taken the game, you know, two or three decades to catch up to him. I don't think we can say that about any other player. And that is why we're still talking about him.
SIMON: Mr. Kriegel, thanks so much.
Mr. KRIEGEL: You're very welcome.
SIMON: Mark Kriegel. His new book is "Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich."