A look at the Maraviches, nearly two decades later

Posted: March 17, 2007

It's a fascinating look at one of the most entertaining but tortured performers in sports. Pistol, the Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel explores the life of Maravich, named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1997.

More than 19 years after Maravich died at 40 from a heart defect, there remains tremendous interest in his exploits. Kriegel's book is No. 14 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Kriegel also tells the story of Maravich's father, Press, a renowned coach who raised his son to be a basketball star.

Press Maravich would open a door of his car and have Pete dribble a ball as he drove.

"I found Press to be a lot more sympathetic than I thought coming in," Kriegel said this week. "I thought it was a tale of a supremely driving, demonic father, and I really got to like him and found him to be much more sympathetic."

Press Maravich died in 1987, nine months before his son, so Kriegel had to rely on interviews with people who knew both.

The book portrays Pete Maravich as an unhappy man who went on drinking binges.

"What I see is him drinking as an escape," Kriegel said. "He was certainly a binge drinker and didn't have an off switch. It was like his fascination with UFOs, and he was looking for a way out, looking for somebody to deliver him from the pressure of having to be Pistol."

Maravich, possibly because of the attention and money he received and also because he was known as a gunner, did not endear himself to many teammates. He averaged 44.2 points per game playing for his father at Louisiana State (with no three-pointers) and was a five-time NBA all-star. Maravich played on bad NBA teams in Atlanta and New Orleans before finishing his career with a brief stay in Boston.

"For him, being a great white hope in the early '70s in Atlanta was a thankless task," Kriegel said. "He never had the luxury of being Pete Maravich. There was always an economic imperative for him to be the Pistol."

Maravich was a drawing card, even though he never played in basketball meccas in college or the NBA.

"The people weren't going to see basketball. They were going to see Pistol," Kriegel said. "He couldn't wake up one day and say, 'I want to be Bill Bradley' because he had to entertain."

Of interest to local fans is that Maravich almost became a 76er. During the 1979-80 season, the Utah Jazz bought out his contract. Kriegel says the Sixers were the front-runners to get Maravich, but Boston ended up signing him.

Kriegel writes that Sixers owner Fitz Dixon was irate when Maravich signed with Boston.

Maravich fell out of favor with Celtics coach Bill Fitch and never played after the 1980 season, when he appeared in 26 regular-season and nine playoff games.

After his playing days, Maravich found religion and eventually spoke in front of tens of thousands of people at Billy Graham crusades.

Bud Johnson, a longtime family friend, said after hearing Maravich speak at a church: "The kid I knew was shy, sullen, moody, given to temper tantrums. But he went for 45 minutes without stammering or stuttering. He was in complete control. For the first time since I'd known him, I thought he was happy."

Maravich's experience ran the gamut of emotions. Kriegel did a thorough job chronicling the life of a complex person who never truly seemed to embrace or enjoy his celebrity status.

Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225 or mnarducci@phillynews.com.

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