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An Interview With “Pistol Pete” Maravich Biographer Mark Kriegel

Posted By Paul Comstock On June 13, 2007 @ 4:33 pm In Non-Fiction Reviews,Sports | 10 Comments

Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel discusses his new book Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich

It seems impossible to separate Pete Maravich’s life from that of his father, Press. Tell us about Press’s life and his relationship to his son.
Press grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., next to the Jones & Laughlin steel mill. The fire from the Bessemer furnaces made it difficult to tell day from night. Press was not exactly the most-likely-to-succeed type. He was warehoused in what today would be called a special-ed class. He was told that his best hope would be to one day walk through the dark tunnel that led into the mill.
But in 1929, a missionary (really, now, a novelist couldn’t make it up this perfectly) gave him a basketball. His whole life changed as a result. The game brought out his considerable physical prowess, also his charisma. The glum-faced kid from the “Special Opportunity” class became the town hero.
From that point, Press associates basketball with salvation. It is this confusion that informs the story of both father and son.
The game becomes Press’s God. He gave everything he had to basketball – including his son.
Pete is an expression of his father’s vanity, ambition, his genius and his excesses.
Usually a player adopts an unorthodox style because he never had the opportunity to learn proper techniques. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Pete whose father was a basketball coach. How did Pete develop his unique style?
Press developed about 40 or so “Homework Basketball” exercises for his son. Most of them were dexterity drills to be performed with the ball. He would have Pete perform these routines – Showtime, they called it – blindfolded or with gloves to impair his touch. He even had Pete dribble from a moving car.
But most important was Pete’s natural genius – what Press would call “basketball genes.” One of the components of genius, I would argue, is an unnaturally high tolerance for practice. Pete could stay on the court longer than other kids. Much longer. The spectacular style you see on the old highlight reels isn’t just talent; it’s also a result of repetition, relentlessly hard work.
How was Pete treated by the players and coaches upon his entry into NBA?
The coach, Richie Guerin, tried his best to make Pete’s transition a harmonious one. There was, however, a limit to what the guy could do.
Pete was a rich, white rookie playing on a predominantly black team of underpaid veterans. There was a natural jealousy problem. But there was a basketball problem, too. The Hawks were a good squad whose players preferred a deliberate style. They liked to walk the ball up the floor. Pete, on the other hand, needed to run.
None of this was made any easier by the fact that they were playing in Atlanta, a college football town in the Deep South.
While reading your book I kept thinking of parallels to Eric Lindros, the hockey player currently with the Dallas Stars. They both often played as if they carried the weight of the world on their shoulders. Both reportedly grew up with domineering fathers. Their pro careers never consistently lived up to the hype and were interrupted with frequent injuries and illnesses. Is this a recurring story in sports? Are we starting to understand the negative effects that overwhelming pressure can have on athletes?
I don’t know if we are becoming more sensitive to this kind of pressure. It’s natural for fathers to look upon sons as extensions of themselves. That’s why every so often you get a Pete Maravich or a Todd Marinovich or an Eric Lindros or a Jimmy Piersall. And as women’s sports continue to grow, I think you’ll see more daughters go though what those guys endured.
Pete’s mother was a severely depressed woman whose life ended in suicide. Did you come away with any opinions on the degree to which Pete’s demons may have been genetic?
They very well may have been. Perhaps the combination of the right psychiatrist with the correct drugs could have provided some relief. Then again, Pete did achieve some real peace when he found God after his career was over. As one of his former teammates told me: “Whatever gets you through to the other side.”
How and when did Pete die and what has happened to his family since his death?
There are two artery systems that feed the heart. Pete was born without one of them. Most people born like this don’t live past 20. Pete was 40 when he dropped dead while playing a pickup game in a church in Pasadena.
It’s been tough for the family. Living in Louisiana, his two sons have had to grow up with a kind of ghost.
The affection people feel for Pete Maravich seems only to have grown long after his playing days. How do you explain that?
People who saw him play don’t forget. Kids who’ve heard about him want to know more.
There’s something about the things he could do with a basketball that continues to resonate with basketball fans. It cuts across generations. I mean, check out the clips on You Tube. Just look at the guy.

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