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Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Floppy Socked Mopped Top

It has become a cliche to say that someone is ahead of his time but Pistol Pete Maravich really did come along just a bit too early to be fully appreciated--the same passes that earned Earvin Johnson the nickname "Magic" often bounced off of the hands of Maravich's teammates and led some misguided people to term Maravich a "hot dog." Magic Johnson proved that you can entertain the fans and be a winner but just a decade earlier critics carped that Maravich was all show and no substance.

Maravich never won an NBA championship and he retired before the league really became a fixture on national television but he was one of my favorite players when I was a kid and I was deeply saddened when he died of a heart attack on January 5, 1988 at just 40 years of age (barely two months after I turned 16). I had always been fascinated by the fact that Julius Erving--my all-time favorite player--and Pete Maravich were briefly teammates with the Atlanta Hawks during the 1972-73 preseason and in 2004 I had the privilege to speak with Erving about that special time and learn that he considered it "one of the joys of my life to play with Pete." That interview, which became the basis for a Basketball Digest article and was later quoted in the book Maravich, was--to borrow Erving's poetic, heartfelt words that poured from his lips the instant that I asked him the question about Maravich--definitely one of the joys of my life.

Maravich's premature death seemed even more tragic considering how misunderstood he was and after his passing I thought a lot about how to best pay tribute to his life and legend. On this date 22 years ago, I wrote this poem:

The Floppy Socked Mopped Top

Swift as Mercury,
Graceful as Baryshnikov,
Oh, how you handled the ball.

Smooth as a rolling river,
Quick as lightning,
Oh, how you shot the ball.

The Messiah from Aliquippa,
Transplanted to Creole Country,
Smashed the Big O's records,
But never got a shot at the Big One.
Soared with the Hawks,
Despite snipers and poachers,
And the blind cynics who tarnished your name.
Went back to Creole Country,
Messiah reborn.
Your mother died by her own hand, consumed by demons inside,
But you played sweet Jazz in '77,
And again in '78,
But lasting happiness was not your fate.
Kidnapped from Creole Country
To a faraway place
And rotted on the bench like deadwood (what a wasteful disgrace).
Landed in Beantown,
The tattered, cynical, disillusioned Messiah.
Your J was now rusty,
Your legs were jello,
And the scavengers had long since battered, broken and shattered your heart--
And you pumped firewater through what little was left of it.

Ten years flashed by
Like a behind the back pass
With not even one shot at the gold,
Nary a trip down the yellow brick road.
You retired, a broken and discarded scoring machine
And the Beantown Boys put another banner in the rafters,
A cruel and ironic reminder of what would never be.
A Herculean talent,
You were misunderstood by lesser men,
Who now, enlightened by you, cheer for the Magic Show.
Now, like Hercules, you have gone to the gods--
Perhaps they'll understand Showtime.

Pistol Pete--I miss you and wish you the peace, contentment and championship ring you found so elusive on Earth.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:44 AM



At Saturday, April 03, 2010 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Ilhan said...


I was utterly surprised by, and frankly never got over, that Oscar Robertson interview you did, where he just dressed down Pistol Pete's talent, uniqueness etc. and attributed this perception of him as a pioneer to race, as in many contemporary African-Americans having been able to do the same things on playgrounds, but not been allowed to in games. If I am not mistaken, you never really adressed that comment. What do you think about it? Was it just Big O being acrid* on account of the treatment he has been subjected to over the years from the league? Or was there some sort of bad blood between the two of them?

*I seem to remember reading that Robertson used to bad-mouth MJ too, before MJ collected all that hardware, whenever they were compared. Is there truth to this? If I had the statistical accomplishments of Big O, and were constantly pushed down or disregarded in all time best lists, every 10 years or so, when a new generation of stars come in, I would be pissed off, too. I am asking this in this context because he had been considered the greatest (guard), or the most complete player, until MJ came along, and now when people talk about Kobe, Lebron et al, his name doesn't seem to generate one tenths of the awe MJ's does.

At Saturday, April 03, 2010 11:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You raised some complex issues. In the interview you mentioned, Robertson described Maravich this way: "Good offensive player, flashy player, probably really helped save the franchise down there in Atlanta, no doubt about it. He had a good shot. He was not a real skilled player per se." I asked him to elaborate and Robertson said that Maravich "didn't have the physique" to be a top level rebounder or defender. I then asked Robertson if Maravich's passing skills were ahead of his time and Robertson replied, "No. The thing about it is almost everyone could pass that way, but we were kept from doing it by our coaches. We could throw it behind our back or look one way and pass another but we only did it in the parks. I'll tell you why we couldn't do it (in games): our coach said that he didn't want people saying that we played like the Globetrotters. I played on an all-black high school team and we didn't want people saying that we were clowns. Pete could get away with it." As an interviewer, it is not my place to argue with the interview subject; it is my responsibility to ask good questions that elicit responses that are informative. Whether or not I agree with everything the interview subject says is not the point. If you read the entire interview you will note that I asked Robertson to offer specific examples and he did.

My opinion is that many NBA players of that era resented the money that Maravich made and the media adulation that he received before he had even established himself as a pro. Robertson was a member of the first all-black high school team to win a state championship. He had to endure a lot of prejudice throughout his life and career and I believe him when he says that he and his teammates were told to tone down certain flamboyant elements of their games. It is also true that defense was not Maravich's strong suit, though he was an above average rebounder. However, Maravich displayed unique passing skills at the major college and NBA levels; that is something that most of his peers--white and black--acknowledge now. I can both understand why Robertson said some of the things he said and yet not necessarily agree 100% with all of his remarks.

I would not say that Robertson "bad mouths" Jordan but Robertson has made it clear on many occasions that he truly does not believe that Michael Jordan is a greater player than he was. I can assure you that Robertson is not the only person who thinks that. For instance, Warren Jabali told me, "Oscar (Robertson) is certainly the greatest player who ever played. They want to give that to Jordan, but Jordan really did not have to play against the same type of players."

Robertson is certainly not out of line to suggest that he should at the very least be mentioned in the same breath with Jordan.

Interestingly, Robertson has always spoken very highly of LeBron James and has said that he thinks that James could possibly match his feat of averaging a triple double for a season (Robertson suggested that rebounds would be the toughest part of that equation for James, presumably because there are fewer missed shots available today because the pace is slower and the shooting percentages are higher).

At Sunday, April 04, 2010 3:13:00 AM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

Thanks for the very informative reply. Much appreciated.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't mean to say that you should have pushed Robertson on the point during the interview. You usually use your interviews when writing op-pieces about teams, players etc. (it's a shame that you produce less of both this year) and that part of the interview was not again mentioned. Hence I was curious.

You are right, "bad mouth" was not a good choice. If I am not mistaken, I have seen, at least as late as around 91, opinions in the mainstream publications that Robertson is the more complete, thus better, player. Then that view disappears, at least from the mainstream, and 'MJ as the GOAT' becomes gospel. Funny thing is, statistically speaking and taking completeness into account, the latter, post-91 MJ is not a better player, if not an inferior one. By the same logic, Kobe should be held in higher esteem than LeBron simply by virtue of winning championships. (I myself am not subscribing to the said logic)

One question about the triple double: You've quoted Rick Barry many times to the effect that the only objective stat is the FG percentage. You also commented on the very liberal assist keeping in today's NBA with regards to Chris Paul and others. Robertson himself has noted that he would have had many more assists if such had been the case in his day. So we should probably highlight his assist numbers more. Should we, on the other hand, downplay his rebounding prowess? Not due to pace (which, I guess, can be adjusted by taking rebound percentage in account), but due to changes in size, athleticism etc.? I am not sure about this but the league was (much?) smaller and (much?) less athletic back then, wasn't it? This is oft mentioned in discussions of Wilt's greatness. But it should apply equally to Oscar, if it holds in Wilt's case.

At Sunday, April 04, 2010 5:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Rick Barry said that the only pure basketball statistic is free throw percentage (not field goal percentage, which fails to take into account a player's shooting range and ability to create his own shot). Other statistics have limitations either in terms of how they are tracked and/or what specifically they measure/don't measure. When comparing Robertson's assist numbers to the assist numbers of recent players I have no doubt the numbers of the recent players should be "deflated" because assists are now awarded much more generously.

NBA teams in the 1960s played at a faster pace than NBA teams do now, so some 1960s stars averaged more points and rebounds than some contemporary stars do (interestingly, assist totals from that era do not look inflated by comparison to modern assist totals). Some "stat gurus" try to "normalize" the 1960s numbers in order to "prove" that--to cite just one example--Michael Jordan's 37.1 ppg scoring average in 1986-87 is actually more productive/impressive than Wilt Chamberlain's 50.4 ppg scoring average in 1961-62. Similarly, Oscar Robertson's triple double average in that same season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) has been "normalized" to lesser numbers. While I certainly understand the mathematics behind such assertions, I disagree with any suggestion that this is the optimal way to compare Chamberlain's scoring prowess with Jordan's or Robertson's all-around game with his successors. My perspective is that even if Jordan's 37.1 ppg in a 1980's milieu is proportionately greater than Chamberlain's 50.4 ppg in a 1960's milieu there is no way to prove that Jordan really would have had the stamina to average 50.4 ppg in the 1960s, nor is there any way to prove how much Chamberlain would have scored in the 1980s (keep in mind that--due to his great conditioning and the dearth of top flight big men--teams were still actively pursuing Chamberlain's services when he was in his late 40s, so one could argue that a young Chamberlain could have averaged more than 50 ppg in a season in the 1980s).

Regarding the evolution of talent level/athleticism/size, there is little question that on average players are larger and more athletic now than they were 40 years ago. However, that does not really tell us how well or how poorly the best players of that generation could do now. One would think that a 6-3 player who did not leap exceptionally well could not average 9 rpg but Fat Lever did. One would think that in a slower paced league no one--let alone a 6-6 player who started his career as a small forward--could average over 18 rpg for an entire season, but Dennis Rodman did so twice. If Steve Nash can be a top flight point guard now then why wouldn't a young Bob Cousy also excel in today's game? If Jason Kidd can be a great rebounding point guard at 6-4 then why are some people so sure that a 6-5 Robertson could not average over 10 rpg in today's game? I believe that great players would be great in any era but that some of the average players from previous eras may struggle a bit against their successors.

Training methods, diet, easier schedules (in terms of fewer back to back games) and other modern advances all give current players advantages over their predecessors, so how can anyone know for sure what numbers Robertson would put up if he grew up in today's milieu or what numbers Jordan would have put up if he grew up in the 1960's milieu? The reality is that the NBA has existed for over 60 years, the pace has gone up and then gone down but Chamberlain and Robertson did things that no one has matched before or since--and in their respective areas of dominance they led their contemporaries by substantial margins.

At Monday, April 05, 2010 2:12:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I think Oscar Robertson has always been somewhat bitter over the lack of recognition he has received. Even during his playing days, he didn't enjoy much time in the spotlight. He played for two of the least glamorous franchises. His best Royals teams were probably as good as the Baylor-West Lakers, but Robertson wasn't playing in the finals every year because the Royals played in the same conference as the Celtics and 76ers. After he retired, he didn't get a front office position like some other great players. Nowadays he's routinely overlooked when people discuss the greatest players. I can see why he might be a little upset. If I were Oscar Robertson and interviewers always wanted to talk to me about how great Michael Jordan is, I'd probably be offended too.

I think one reason why Robertson has always spoken highly of LeBron is that with LeBron, people always talk about triple-doubles, so they often make Robertson (as opposed to MJ or Magic) the measuring stick. When LeBron is praised and compared to Robertson, Robertson is also recognized, and I'm sure that makes him feel good. (I haven't heard what Robertson thinks of LeBron's recent suggestion that number 23 should be retired by the league. Robertson might not appreciate that a whole lot.)

I think you make good points about players from different eras. Great players would be great in any era. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career is a great example. People look at the beginning of his career (1969) as the stone age, when the league was populated with unskilled stiffs. Yet, an old Kareem was still demanding double teams in the mid and late 80s (a time period that most fans accept as sufficiently modern, perhaps due to MJ's presence in the league).


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