Mark Kriegel on PISTOL

When Mark Kriegel's book PISTOL: The Life of Pete Maravich was excerpted in Sports Illustrated a couple of weeks ago, I pretty much went bananas and declared it the greatest thing ever--based solely on the excerpt. (I have a history of getting very excited about good basketball books. I'm excitable like that.)

Since then I have actually gotten my hands on a review copy of the book, and I have read much of it. My first impressions are confirmed. Great book. (Bill Simmons is all over it too.) Kriegel is about to tour all over this great nation promoting PISTOL (starting this afternoon at the NBA Store in Manhattan), and as he's packing up in L.A. he spent some time with me on the phone on Friday.

To me the big topic was Press Maravich. The book makes clear that Press Maravich was hardly an extension of Pete--the way celebrity parents tend to be viewed--but rather very much the other way around. As Kriegel explains, long before Pete was born, Press established a family dynamic that practically forced Pete to become a brilliant-but-depressed-hardwood-wizard, and the crazier that family got, the more Pete had to become a superstar at all costs. In many ways it's a book on how not to raise a happy kid. Here, slightly edited for length, is my conversation with Mark Kriegel:

Your book has a blurb from Pat Conroy, who wrote my favorite basketball book of all time, My Losing Season. [That book is about, in large part, Conroy's troubled relationship with his father, who was also a central figure in Conroy's book The Great Santini.] I'm thinking between your book and Conroy's you could write some kind of basketball anti-parenting guide.

When I started this project, I fully expected Press Maravich to be very much like the father in The Great Santini. I thought it was a story of a father with a demonic design for his son. But the more research I did, the more people I talked to, the more I liked Press. He was way more sympathetic than I ever imagined. He was motivated by love. Maybe misguided love, but love.

To my mind, the foundation of the whole Maravich family mystery is Press. Press informs every part of the story. You really can't understand Pistol without first understanding Press.

Press was born in Pittsburgh, when it really was like "hell with the lid taken off." When he was three-and-a-half his father was killed, so they move to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania where his stepfather was not close to him. Then he lived next to the J+L Steelworks, under the lights of the bessemer furnace. The poor kid literally doesn't know if it was day or night, with the lights from the furnace fires and all the soot snowing down on them.

This was not the kid you'd vote most likely to succeed. He was in the special ed class, which was for the kids who were slow learners or had some physical problems. He was going nowhere.

And then, at 14, a missionary--some do-gooder type--gives him a basketball. It's the first time Press does anything right. His whlle life changes. His charisma comes out. His physical ability. Basketball saved him from having to go under the tunnel into the mill. The way he was headed, working in the mill was the best he could hope for, and then suddenly he had a whole different life. Basketball was his salvation. It was his religion.

Press finds the game in its infancy. I'm looking at old box scores, from like the 1930s, and I'm seeing games where it's 30-28 and Press scored 20 points. And he was good looking! People were calling his name. In Aliquippa at that time there was not too much to cheer for except maybe Press Maravich. There were newspaper headlines about him. That's a big deal for a kid who was warehoused in the special ed. class.

The teams at that time were barnstorming teams. You had to sell the game. It was not like baseball and boxing. You had to get people into the tent. They'd pile into cars and play three or four games a day.

Then he went to tiny Davis and Elkins in West Virginia, and then played for pro teams in places like Clarksburg, Youngstown, and Detroit. In what is now regarded as the first season of the NBA, he played for the Pittsburgh Ironmen, and for the first time it seemed like he had something semi-permanent, but he was just out of the Navy and he had no legs anymore. And the franchise sucked, so it folded.

So he became a coach. And what he was looking to do--it's clear--was to build the perfect basketball machine. He was coaching at these small schools in West Virginia, and he enlisted this ex-pat Czech psychiatrist to develop a questionnaire, for profiling players. He wrote a masters thesis at West Virginia on basketball recruiting, but it was really about tendencies. He was looking to engineer the perfect basketball player.

In reading your book, it's clear that one thing that really didn't matter at all was Pete's own free will. When you see those highlights, it seems like it's a story of Pete imposing his will upon the game, but his will determined very little, it seems.

Those moments on the highlights are breathtaking. They are genius. But they are not spontaneous. Pete had an unbeleivable capacity for practice--like all the great ones. Magic Johnson had it. Michael Jordan had it. And Pete had it. Pete could practice longer than the other kids. A lot longer. And starting early in Pete's life, Press was clearly trying to create the perfect ball player. Those homework basketball videos that most people probably know about today--those are dexterity drills really. That was revolutionary at the time. No one was doing that, and Pete was doing it all the time. And he cultivates this genius. It's like a classical musician who has played scales so many times that suddenly he can improvise, and it's not b.s. improvisation. It has merit.

There's a lot of talk about that in the book. For instance Bud Johnson, the PR man at LSU, every once in a while he'd see Pete do something he had never seen before. He'd go up to Pete after the game and say Pete, I never saw you practice that. Pete would say oh yes, I have practiced that many times, in my head.

The other thing about those highlights--is that the game then was not the game of today. Today plenty of people do little bits of these kinds of things. When LSU played Tulane, after the game the Tulane players asked their coach to replay a certain play again and again, because they flat did not believe it had happened.

So, what was Pete's motivation to do all that practice? Was it a love of the father thing?

It was a love of the father, a love of the game, and a love of his family. Over time, as his family situation deteriorated, Pete became more and more responsible for his family's salvation. The more disfunctional his mother became, the more Press had to try to raise the family, the more he depended on Pete bail him out. It gets to the point where Pete is the only good thing in Press's life. The idea becomes that the kid he raised will set the records that will last forever, and that will become the only way that anyone will remember that Press was a hell of a basketball coach.

The funny thing is that Press was a great conceptual coach. His great strength was to take undertalented and overmatched players and to make them win with team defense. It was the opposite of flashy. But just with his own son, he violated every precept.

Older guys from the ACC will tell you that Press winning the 1965 ACC tournament with N.C. State was as good a coaching job as they had ever seen. They beat Duke, a team with a whole bunch of future professionals. N.C. State had no business winning that tournament. That ACC team had only two guys who could dunk. Press did it with defense and running.

So Pete comes, seemingly, out of nowhere.

Over the years, Pete takes a lot of heat for not being a different type of player. There was the expectation that he might magically morph into Bill Bradley.

But there was enormous pressure to be "Pistol." There was an economic imperative that he played a certain way at each stop. At LSU he opened the Assembly Center. In Baton Rouge livestock shows were more popular than basketball when Pete got there. But then with Pete there, the governor signed the Assembly Center bill, and everyone understood that it was Pete's job to fill that building, in a part of the country where basketball had never been popular.

In the NBA, in Atlanta, Pete was the lynch pin in a real estate deal. The guy who owned the Hawks owned the air rights downtown. He had a land-use study showing that he an arena with foot traffic downtown. In Atlanta at that time, Pete was the only guy who could fill an arena like that. They had to get the Pistol.

It was the same thing when they were trying to draw fans in New Orleans a little later. You want to fill a stadium where it's not basketball country? You get the Pistol.

It's the same story everywhere he goes. People want to see that flash.

In a lot of fields around this time, white people were doing things that black people had been doing before. Like the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley--who you could argue made it big at least at first, by essentially imitating what other less famous black people were doing. Is Pete another story like that?

That's subject to argument, and I think it's probably one of the things that helped to drive Pete a little crazy. There's a will to look at Pete not as a ballplayer, but as the recurring figure in American popular culture: the Great White Hope. He was almost like a pop singer or a musician in that regard. A guy like Chet Baker, Eminem, Elvis, or some others. Pete's story is in many ways another telling of the Elvis myth.

I would argue, however, that Pete was a different talent than any that came before. I have heard it argued well that black players had been doing that for years. But remember John Wooden has seen the Rens and the Globetrotters, and he makes clear that he has never seen anyone do the things that Pete can do with a ball. And Press took young Pete to see the Globetrotters, not for fun, but as part of his basketball education. Pete was nine, and in the locker room after the game, Press had Pete show the players his tricks, and even then the Globetrotters realized that Pete was special.

Black or white, I don't know of any other player with that beat. Everything, with Pete, was about the beat. You could set his highlights to rap music, even though he was playing before there was rap music. He was ahead of his time. Even if you include Michael Jordan--I don't know a single player except Pete who would be better today than he was when he came up. Today it's a much easier time to be a player like Pete. In many ways, he really anticipates what the guard would become.

Wooden, by the way, roomed with Press at the summer camp at Campbell College, and considered Press to be a great basketball mind. He says you can not understate Press's understanding of the game. Early on, Press had Pete do his ball-handling routine for Wooden, and Wooden said that's wonderful, but wouldn't it be better to have him work on his footwork for defense? Press said you don't understand, he's going to be the first million dollar player. And Wooden said maybe, but he'll never win a title.

And in a larger sense, they were both right.

When Wooden got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA (he still calls him Lew) he goes to Press to put in his high-low offense. That's how much Wooden respects Press Maravich, and how much Press was an enigma.

You did a ton of research for this book. For instance, you tell us that the nickname of Pete's mom's mailman, long before Pete was even born, was "Pickles." Do you ever feel like you have done too much research?

You never feel like that. I always feel sick that I haven't got enough. I did, however, go over the early years as hard as I could, because I was convinced that everything that happened to Pete was cut before he was born.

Most importanty: Pete's mother's first husband was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. She already had a kid, Pete's older brother Ronnie, and she was not right after that. Press comes back from the war and marries this woman. She's in the same situation he had grown up in with his mother. And he has the idea that he'll make it right. But it's a recipe for disaster, because in many senses he's already married to basketball, which is not going to ease her feelings of abandonment.

What was wrong with Pete? Off the court, it seems like he was almost never happy.

Well, he had good days and bad days. It really depended on his mood. I think there's no question that he suffered from depression throughout his career and life. Also, he was ahead of his time, which is hard. Today, he'd be an unquestioned superstar. And over time I think the losing really kicked his ass. Atlanta, for instance, couldn't have been a worse place for him. It was destined to be an absolute disaster.

It was a very very good team, but they couldn't get by the Lakers of West, Wilt, and Elgin. The Hawks were a largely black team in the deep south. They played at the Georgia Tech field house which only sat 7,200 and they still couldn't draw.

They needed a Great White Hope, so they got Pete, with his massive salary. The salary was an issue. Joe Caldwell was the team's best player, and he was upset about it, and bolted for the ABA.

Then there was a style of play issue. Pete needs to run, and the rest of the team needs it slow. The veterans all knew each other and knew how to play. Then they had the most expensive rookie of all time. It was no good for anybody--and he was only brought in as part of that real estate deal. And it cost them Joe Caldwell, who could have gone to the Hall of Fame. I'd be pissed off too.

It was a set up to fail.

It was a set up to make the owner money, but they never took the basketball part of it into proper consideration.