My Son, the Pistol

The legacy of "Pistol" Pete Maravich lives on in a seven-year-old superfan.
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Young Isaac reps his hero, "Pistol" Pete Maravich.  Photo by Zac Crain.

A few weeks ago, my son Isaac was ejected from a basketball game. It was early in the fourth quarter, and a player from the other team broke free for what looked to be an easy layup. Isaac caught up to him near the basket, and brought his arm down over both the player's wrists before he could get the ball up—a standard-issue hard foul. No easy baskets, right? It was a smart play for a high school game, but Isaac’s not in high school. He's seven years old, and he was playing against a bunch of other seven- and eight-year-olds, and so they tossed him. After the game, I didn't even bother asking him where he’d learned a play like that, because I already knew: the 1988-’90 "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons.

Somehow, this all started with "Pistol" Pete Maravich.

Since Isaac began playing basketball almost three years ago, I've helped coach his teams (first: the Blue Star Wars; now: the less-awesomely-named Wildcats). The most frustrating part about that gig—and I realize I have expectations that are far out of line with reality—is that kids don't like to pass, especially when they are starting out. They just want to dribble (a lot) and shoot (from anywhere). It's one isolation play after another, run by whoever happens to rebound the ball at the other end. Essentially, it's like coaching the Sacramento Kings. You want the kids to learn and have fun, but you also want, you know,  basketball. It's ridiculous and hopeless, but it also can't be helped. They get on the court and want to run around and throw the ball in the general direction of the rim. You stand on the sidelines and wish you could institute Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell.

I couldn't change the other kids, but I was determined to try to change Isaac. So, a little over a year ago, after shooting around in our driveway for a bit, I took Isaac inside and showed him a couple of Pistol Pete highlight videos on YouTube. I wanted him to see that passing was every bit as exciting as shooting and scoring. I guess I could have shown him Magic Johnson or Larry Bird—and since they were actually more unselfish than Pistol, that might have been better—but for whatever reason I started with Maravich. 

It worked. Isaac was mesmerized by the blank-faced magician he saw, the lanky guy playing in 6/8 time in a 4/4 game. We went back outside and he started trying to throw no-look passes, flipping it over his shoulder and around his back and so on, a chaos of ideas without any clue as to how to execute them. Almost none of these worked on purpose, but he was hooked. I just didn't know how much. By the time I saw him again the next week, he'd exhausted YouTube's supply of Maravich videos. He'd made his mom rent (and watch with him) The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend on Netflix. He'd read whatever he could find (and I still don't know how he found what he could). 

It spiraled out from there. When he couldn't quench his Pistol Pete thirst, he extended the search to other players, happy enough watching current NBA games, but endlessly fascinated by what came before. I love basketball in general, and the NBA specifically, so I didn't mind this at all. I didn't force anything on him (not after those first Pistol Pete clips, at least), but I definitely enabled it. Every father and son have at least one thing, a common interest, a safe conversation topic when everything else is a frayed nerve, and so we had the NBA. Or, more to the point, the history of the NBA.

But honestly, I could, and can, barely keep up. More or less as a way to keep him occupied, I bought Isaac a copy of SLAM's Magazine's special issue devoted to the 500 greatest NBA players of all time. He's had it for well over a year now, and he's practically memorized the entire thing, from Michael Jordan to Pervis Ellison. Each entry leads to another YouTube search and/or an odd question. (For instance: "Was Bob Pettit a good dunker?") His unbiased reading of it has led to some drawn-out arguments (for some reason, he feels like Karl Malone is the best power forward ever, a point I refuse to concede) and the sheer breadth of the list has made me contemplate the career of Zelmo Beaty more than I ever thought I would. He now can pretty accurately mimic Elgin Baylor's hanging jump shot and, on his bedroom-door basketball hoop, the way James Worthy finished fast breaks. During a brief period just before his ejection, that issue of SLAM led him to a brief infatuation with Isiah Thomas and those "Bad Boys" Pistons teams.

But the entry he often (still) comes back to is No. 60: Pistol Pete Maravich. Isaac will never understand why he's ranked so low. He sees those YouTube clips and can't fathom that someone wouldn't think Pistol is one of the top ten NBA players ever. I don't feel like spraying graffiti over the portrait of Maravich he’s painted in his head. He’s a budding basketball scholar, but he’s still seven. He believes in Santa, and he believes in Pistol Pete.   

His obsession culminated at Halloween last year. Isaac, not surprisingly, went as Pistol Pete. It was his idea, of course. His mom found a blank jersey in Atlanta Hawks colors and finished it off with iron-ons: Hawks on the front, "Pistol" on the back, and No. 44 on both sides. He wore a matching pair of girls' running shorts, because those were the only ones that were 1970s-short enough. He was exacting on this detail. He decorated a pair of white Chuck Taylors to go along with it. With his floppy hair, he made a pretty believable Pistol Pete. Of course, no one knew who he was. Eventually, he gave up and reduced his explanation down to a resigned "a 1970s basketball player," and when even that drew nothing but confused shrugs, he went back to saying "I'm Pistol Pete!" and not giving a damn. 

I think that satisfied him, trying on the guise of his hero for one night. He's shifted focus lately, as he actually plays basketball as much as he reads about and watches the game. This season, his goal was to be a point guard in the vein of Magic Johnson; he even picked No. 32 for his jersey. But he's not over Pistol yet. For the last game of the year, he broke out those Pistol Pete costume Chuck Taylors. And he finally connected with a completely unnecessary no-look pass.

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