Pistol is more than the biography of a ballplayer. It's the stuff of classic novels: the story of a boy transformed by his father's dream — and the cost of that dream. Even as Pete Maravich became Pistol Pete — a basketball icon for baby boomers — all the Maraviches paid a price. Now acclaimed author Mark Kriegel has brilliantly captured the saga of an American family: its rise, its apparent ruin, and, finally, its redemption.
Almost four decades have passed since Maravich entered the national consciousness as basketball's boy wizard. No one had ever played the game like the kid with the floppy socks and shaggy hair. And all these years later, no one else ever has. The idea of Pistol Pete continues to resonate with young people today just as powerfully as it did with their fathers.
In averaging 44.2 points a game at Louisiana State University, he established records that will never be broken. But even more enduring than the numbers was the sense of ecstasy and artistry with which he played. With the ball in his hands, Maravich had a singular power to inspire awe, inflict embarrassment, or even tell a joke.
But he wasn't merely a mesmerizing showman. He was basketball's answer to Elvis, a white Southerner who sold Middle America on a black man's game. Like Elvis, he paid a terrible price, becoming a prisoner of his own fame.
Set largely in the South, Kriegel's Pistol, a tale of obsession and basketball, fathers and sons, merges several archetypal characters. Maravich was a child prodigy, a prodigal son, his father's ransom in a Faustian bargain, and a Great White Hope. But he was also a creature of contradictions: always the outsider but a virtuoso in a team sport, an exuberant showman who wouldn't look you in the eye, a vegetarian boozer, an athlete who lived like a rock star, a suicidal genius saved by Jesus Christ.
A renowned biographer — People magazine called him "a master" — Kriegel renders his subject with a style that is, by turns, heartbreaking, lyrical, and electric.
The narrative begins in 1929, the year a missionary gave Pete's father a basketball. Press Maravich had been a neglected child trapped in a hellish industrial town, but the game enabled him to blossom. It also caused him to confuse basketball with salvation. The intensity of Press's obsession initiates a journey across three generations of Maraviches. Pistol Pete, a ballplayer unlike any other, was a product of his father's vanity and vision. But that dream continues to exact a price on Pete's own sons. Now in their twenties — and fatherless for most of their lives — they have waged their own struggles with the game and its ghosts.
Pistol is an unforgettable biography. By telling one family's history, Kriegel has traced the history of the game and a large slice of the American narrative.
"Mark Kriegel has written the sport's bio equivalent of Maravich on a fast break: dazzling and smart, and, even at 381 pages, over before you knew it." -The Wall Street Journal
Table of Contents:
One: Special Opportunity
Two: Mr. Basketball
Three: Pro Ball
Four: The Cult of Press
Five: Country Gentlemen
Six: The Basketball Gene
Seven: The Devil in Ronnie Montini
Eight: "Pistol Pete"
Nine: Changing the Game
Ten: The Deep End
Eleven: King of the Cow Palace
Thirteen: One of Us
Fourteen: Marked Man
Fifteen: The Blackhawks
Sixteen: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Pete
Seventeen: Take Me
Nineteen: All That Jazz
Twenty: The Loser
Twenty-One: Take Me, Part 2
Twenty-Two: Amazing Grace
From the book
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...