Basketball's virtuoso

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

On the fast break between yesterday and today, the ghost of Pistol Pete is still running with Jason Kidd, the shaggy hair and floppy socks casting the longest shadow. Here's how it goes with one of Kidd's most trusted illusions, a trick passed down to the New Jersey Nets star from those grainy old video tapes of Pete Maravich: The defender lunges for that behind-the-back pass that never comes, reaching for air as Kidd lays the ball into the net.

"That was one of Pistol's patented moves – fake behind the back and lay it up," said Kidd, who, through the years, has studied volumes of Maravich footage and slipped that Pistol move into his back pocket.

"He was way before his time," Kidd added. "He could play in today's game."

Go back, study his revolutionary game and see for yourself: In a lot of ways, Maravich does play in today's game. And rest assured, this February on The Strip would've belonged to him. Pistol would've been Elvis arriving in Las Vegas for the Feb. 18 NBA All-Star game, with the same kind of glittery stage and excessive scene manufactured to include Maravich as the headline act.

For now, the Maravich basketball genius and frailty, his historic American life, has returned in full body with author Mark Kriegel's transcendent new biography, "Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich" (Free Press).

Between his bestseller "Namath" and now "Pistol," Kriegel has elevated himself into the most elegant voice on epic American sporting lives. He gets it all with Maravich: the maniacal vision of his father Press and the dysfunctional family dynamic, as well as the burden of the Great White Hope trying to sell the deep south and later Middle America on a black man's game. Kriegel gets the boozing, tortured soul that becomes Pete until he finally finds salvation as a born-again Christian and preacher prior to death.

As much as anything, Maravich has grown in relevance and stature since his death at 40 years old in 1988. Perhaps those left behind hadn't truly comprehended his innovation until Maravich's shooting star flashed through the sky, until his basketball descendants kept swaying to his sound.

"It almost makes more sense to look at Pete as a musician than a ballplayer," Kriegel said. "With Pete, it all comes down to the beats. It all comes down to a spectacular sense of rhythm to his game. I don't mean to sound overblown, but he does make the ball talk. He gives the game some language. If you go back and look at films and you listen to the people who remember him, there's an authentic magic in the way that he moved. And it cuts across all the usual barriers – race, class, and most of all, time.

"There's a whole generation of people copying Pete's moves who weren't alive when he was playing. They're copying the same moves, the same beats, that their fathers did."

Joe Dumars wasn't growing up in Louisiana when Press and Pete Maravich brought big-time basketball to the south in the 1960s. In three varsity seasons at LSU, Pete scored 44 points per game to pop 3,667 for his career. It wasn't until Pistol was an All-NBA performer for the New Orleans Jazz in the 1970s that Dumars was a young player growing up in Natchitoches, La. Even if it wasn't in Dumars' disposition to be a spectacle, Pete Maravich stretched his mind.

"I think too often he was dismissed as simply a hot dog then, but I think his game would be more appreciated now," said Dumars, a fellow Hall of Famer. "It's more in line with what you see these days. Back then, he was the only one doing it."

Even to the educated eye, Dumars' dutiful game was much more substance than style, free of tangible traces of Maravich. He blended with Isiah Thomas on those Detroit Pistons championship teams, balancing a sure scoring touch with a tenacious defense. Maravich never blended, and he never won. Understand, though: It wasn't just the gunners and free spirits who incorporated a part of Pistol into their games, but those who would appear to be his basketball and social antithesis in every way.

"More than anything for me, in the open court, he taught me not to be afraid to try things," Dumars said.

It says something of Pistol's staying power, his broad reach, that such divergent sensibilities of those like Dumars and the Houston Rockets' Rafer Alston could have been so shaped by Maravich. Once, Alston was known as "Skip to My Lou," a New York streetball legend whose underground ball-handling tapes inspired the original And1 movement. Alston perfected his skill watching Pistol's ball-handling drill tapes, the same ones that Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the ultimate establishment, has recommended to his own recruits.

"I don't care what a guard's game looked like. There was so much stuff with Pete that everyone could take something from his game," Dumars said. "You'd try the between the leg and behind the back passes, the little one-handed runners in the lane, the scoop shots. You did it all, because Pistol showed us the way.

"There was enough stuff in there for everyone."

All these years later, there still is.

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