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Porto: Remembering Pistol Pete

02/04/11 7:55AM By Brian Porto
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(HOST)  These days, commentator Brian Porto is thinking about basketball - and remembering one of the greats of the game.

(PORTO) Basketball season always reminds me of the late Pete Maravich.  New Englanders of a certain age will remember "Pistol Pete" because he ended his professional career playing for the Boston Celtics in 1980.

Maravich could neither run fast nor jump high, but he may have had the most adroit hands ever to hold a basketball.  Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who was a friend of Pete's father, said of the young Maravich, "I saw him do things - I didn't think anybody could do."  Years later, after watching Maravich play a college game, a New Orleans sportswriter remarked, "I've never seen a right-handed player throw a left-handed, behind-the-back pass going full speed on a two-on-one fast break - and hit the outside man in stride for a layup."   

That wizardry was the product of endless practice.  When Pete was in junior high school, his father, Press, then the basketball coach at Clemson University, would invite visiting coaches to his home after games to socialize and to display Pete's talent.  Young Pete dribbled a basketball on the basement floor, behind his back, while wearing gloves, and even blindfolded.  The elder Maravich promised his fellow coaches that Pete would be "the first million-dollar pro."

Indeed he was, in 1970, after finishing his college career as the leading scorer in the history of college basketball.  Ten years later, he would retire from the professional game as a superstar and be voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But according to biographer Mark Kriegel, Pete Maravich was "his father's ransom in a Faustian bargain."  Only on the court did Pete find relief from the emotional insecurities that tortured him and the hangers-on who pursued him.  Desperately seeking happiness, he tried on new identities the way a shopper tries on suits at a clothing store, alternately embracing karate, vegetarianism, Hinduism, and even a belief in UFO's.

Ironically, solace eluded him until two years after retiring from the game that had defined him since childhood.  After a religious conversion, Pete Maravich became an evangelist and a humanitarian.  Had he lived longer, he may have become as well known for humanitarian work as he had been for basketball.  But, in another irony, a congenital heart ailment that had not affected him earlier in life felled him at age 40, during a recreational basketball game with fellow evangelists.

Lessons abound from the life of Pete Maravich.  Coaches in Vermont and New Hampshire should impart the basketball lessons by showing their players an instructional video he made during his lifetime.  But they should emphasize the most important lesson of Maravich's life, namely, that happiness comes from caring about the welfare of others and acting to improve it, whether motivated by religious faith or a secular moral code.  Pete Maravich learned that lesson late in life, but perhaps his example can help today's young athletes learn it early.
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