By Ryan McNeill
I was fortunate to be sent a copy of Mark Kriegel’s book “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich” to review on HoopsAddict.com and after picking it up Sunday afternoon and I wasn’t able to put the book down until I had devoured all 323 pages of this epic biography. Since I’m in my mid-20’s I wasn’t able to witness the genius of Pistol Pete firsthand so this book provided me some great insight into what shaped and transformed Pete into the basketball player he was and the amazing transformation that occurred in his personal life shortly after he retired from the NBA.
While reading through this biography it became painfully clear that being a celebrity and playing in the NBA isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Often while I’m watching an NBA game on television I’ll sit back and daydream about what it would be like to play in the NBA and the fame and money that comes along with that. However, after reading through this biography on Pistol Pete it seems that I’m grossly misinformed. Kriegel did a brilliant job of showing how Pete had a rough time during his first few years in the NBA while breaking colour barriers and living with the hype that came with being a rookie while being paid one of the highest contracts in the league. While reading about all the pressures he faced in balancing between entertaining fans with flashy passes and making the right choices on the court to earn playing time from his coaches or dishing out enough dimes to keep his teammates happy it’s no wonder that Pete struggled to find peace with the game of basketball. Instead of being able to enjoy his time while playing in the NBA it seems like Pistol Pete was always dealing with “ghost” that were sucking the fun out of the game and forcing him into bouts of depression.
One of the themes that sticks out from reading this book is the immense pressure to perform and how it began at a young age for Pete. His father, Press, placed an incredible amount of pressure on him when he was a grade eight student playing on the varsity team of his local high school. This pressure only increased when he was a high school senior when the media blitz first took hold and then increased when he grudgingly agreed to play for LSU when his dad forced him to play for the program after he signed on to be their coach. Instead of being able to get away from the pressures his dad placed on him as a teenager Pete was now forced to work day-to-day with the man who was his toughest critic but would tell anyone who would listen that Pete would make a million dollars playing in the NBA.
While Press was Pete’s biggest fan he was also his sons biggest hurdle. Kriegel talked about countless times when Pete turned in an awe-inspiring game but would be ripped by his father on the ride home for a handful of small mistakes that he made during the game. While his father was trying to help him improve it was these interactions that would make Pete become a perfectionist and force him to be unable to enjoy success at the college or pro level. Kriegel explained how the pressure was crashing in on Pete when he wrote:
To be sure, he drank because he was a college kid who liked to get high on beer. But he also drank for his father; Press’s hopes and expectations formed a cruel yoke around his thin neck. He drank for his mother, too, as they shared a burden in their blood. He drank because no matter how many points her scored, it would never be enough. Amid all this record-setting triumph, all that apparent joy, there was an undertow of grief. To watch Pete hoist a beer was to see a college kid having a good time. But too look in his eyes was to see the sadness in his soul.
Something else that stuck out while reading this book was the fact that Pete was always searching for something that would serve as his redemption. For most of his teens basketball served as his redemption but once politics and money began to corrupt and taint the game he loved it forced him into a downward spiral he couldn’t dig himself out of. When he joined the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks he was faced with a new dilemma – teammates that disliked him and a coach that tried to break his spirit. Having never had to deal with obstacles on the hardwood this only escalated Pete’s desire to find something to give his life meaning. He openly claimed a belief in aliens to any reporter or teammate that would listen, he looked for peace at the bottom of a beer bottle and he tried countless “isms” to find peace with the world and his role in it. Just when it looked like his world was going to crumble in on him Pete woke up one night in a cold sweat to hear what he believed was the voice of God urging him to “be strong and lift thine own heart.” It was at that moment that Pete finally found peace with the world. The change that resulted in his turn and the subsequent changes in his personality and mannerisms after becoming a Christian awed everyone that surrounded him as friends and family would remark that the sadness in his eyes was removed, he was finally able to be a great father to his sons rand he seemed genuinely content with being alive for the first time since his youth.
Kriegel did a masterful job of making Pete into someone that was human and not just a basketball player that people idolized. Between documenting how Pete dealt with a mother who committed suicide, countless injury issues and the stress of playing college ball for his father, Kriegel did a great job of providing me with priceless insight into what life was like for Pete Maravich.
If you are looking at the definitive look at a player who changed the way that basketball is played then you need to read Mark Kriegel’s book “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich.”