Evening comes again and Sparks and Murphy appear and his shots again go one by one into the night air and bounce off of the crooked rim. Nothing new. I am still holding out some hope that my interaction with Kelso will do something to stop this merry-go-round I am on. I don’t believe that I can make much progress with him, really. Not in such a short time. But there must be something behind this limited permission I’ve been given to enter into the world again. Something’s got to come of it.
But I forget Kelso and my frustration with him for the moment and focus on the scene in front of me. Repetitious, yes, but both Sparks and Murphy were much better players than Kelso ever was.
These two would never have suspected it, but their idol, Pistol Pete, had West Virginia connections. His dad, Press Maravich, played four years at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, not 150 miles from this spot. He coached there after that and also did short coaching stints at West Virginia University and West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. Pete Maravich lived in West Virginia for a few years, when he was just a kid. Knowledge of that fact would only have made matters worse for me – made that bunch even harder to control, so I never breathed a word of it to them.
I didn’t tell them this, either: I actually knew Pistol Pete, although it was long before he got the nickname. Press Maravich left the job at Davis and Elkins to take the head coaching job at what was then Clemson College in South Carolina. Moving from the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to the ACC sounds like a real step up, but in those days Clemson was a football school with little interest in basketball and a record to prove it. They had never beaten a ranked opponent when he took the job. Recruiting locally for Clemson against Duke and North Carolina and Wake Forest and NC State was almost impossible, so Press continued to use his West Virginia connections to bring players to his program there, and he recruited me. I was on the team for his first year there, 1956-57, and over my head in just about every way. We went 7-17 for the year and the team’s long-range prospects and my own within the team looked bleak to me, so I returned home to West Virginia to play Division II ball at Glenville State College.
In those days basketball was a new sport and it still had about it something of a barnstorming or carnival atmosphere. Even though the game itself was then rudimentary, slow and prosaic compared to today’s game, warm-ups were kind of a show. We did the three-man weave and tip drills and other globetrotter-like exercises as the meager crowds came in to watch the games. At that point, this kind of thing was the strongest part of my game. I could spin the ball on my fingertips until the cows came home. I was not sure how coach Maravich felt about that. He was a retired Navy fighter pilot with combat missions under his belt and he enforced a strict military discipline in his program. If any one of us had tried any of the stuff that his son later became famous for in a game, they’d have been out the door. On the other hand, coach himself had done some barnstorming in fledgling pro leagues and knew that the game was evolving and that it had to be entertaining if it was going to thrive.
One day, near the end of practice Coach Maravich looked at me and told me to stay after the session was over. I was sure I was in trouble for something and I imagined everything from a loss of my scholarship to being told to run the gym stairs until morning. But when the team headed for the showers I walked tentatively toward the coach and he nodded at me and then looked up into the stands and blew his whistle and motioned for this little spider of a boy to come down to the floor.
He came banging down the bleachers, all knees and elbows, dribbling his basketball one time on the top of each bleacher he descended, his racket echoing in the now empty gym. Once on the floor he bounced around as if not in complete control of his limbs. He kept dribbling.
“Campbell, this is my son, Peter.” He said. “I’ve seen that trick you do with spinning the ball on your fingers. Pete wants to learn how. Can you spend a few minutes with him?”
Relieved, I led the little guy to the corner of the gym and took the ball from him and spun it into the air and caught it on the tip of my right index finger and watched it spin there, steady as the Earth on its axis. Little Peter stared. I slapped the ball a couple of times with my left hand to accelerate the rotation and then bumped it into the air again, then caught it and tossed it back to the youngster.
“Your turn.” I said
He cocked his head and, eyes on me, spun the ball into the air and tried to catch it on his fingertip. The ball fell to the floor and bounced away with the direction of the spin. He bent at the knees in a gesture of disappointment and frustration and looked all the more directly at me.
“What were you thinking about?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. Trying to get the ball on my finger.”
“No, you weren’t. You were thinking about me. I saw you. You were looking at me and thinking, maybe even worrying, about what I would think about you as you did it. Weren’t you?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.”
“You’ll never get it that way. You can’t worry about me. You can’t be thinking about what I’m thinking about you. You have to pay attention to the ball and your finger. That’s all. Will you admit that you were thinking about me?”
“Yeah. I was.”
“Well, don’t. I’m not important. What anybody else thinks about what you’re trying to do is not important. It can only distract you. Keep you from succeeding. You have to learn that before you can learn anything.”
“You have to believe that you will get to where you want to go. And you have to forget about getting mad or embarrassed or disappointed. That stuff just slows you down. Try it again.”
“This time he fails again, but not so spectacularly. And he does not wince when he fails and he doesn’t look at me. I am encouraged.”
“There’s only one more step now, I tell him.”
“You just have to do it a million times. It’s the way your body learns. There’s no short cut.”
“I believe you. Here’s another secret.”
I take the ball and slap my hand against it. “You know what the best thing about a basketball is?”
“It’s round?” He is really trying and completely bewildered by the question.
“Round is good. But there is something better about it.”
“It’ll bounce? Go through the hoop?”
“That’s all good,” I say, “but the best thing about a basketball is that it never changes. That means that it’s something that you can completely control. When you try it – each time you do – your movements will be just a little different. You’ll be off a little one way the first time and off a little the other way your next time. It’s tempting to blame it on the ball. But the ball doesn’t change. Everything else in the world does, but you can be sure that tomorrow the ball will be exactly the same as it was today and the day before. If you learn what the ball does, how it reacts to your movements, you can learn to get it to do whatever you want it to do. You just have to be patient and remember that bad results are not the ball’s fault. It’s all in your control. Okay?”
“I think that’s about all we can do for today. You keep at it. Be patient. Remember, the ball doesn’t change. It doesn’t have a will of its own. If you learn how to control your own motions, you can master the ball. You can make it do anything.”
From that day on, at the end of every practice, little Pete would run onto the floor, spinning the ball on his finger, and yell at me. “Hey, Carl. Look at this.”
By the end of the season he could keep the ball spinning until his fingertip was raw. He could do it better than me. He was nine years old.
There are arguments to be made for other players, but I agree with those – and there are plenty of them – who hold that that kid became the best ball handler the game has ever seen. You could not describe the things he could do with the ball. Some of them you could not even catch on film. There was no one like him before; there’s been no one like him since. He changed the game.
In one sense, then, teaching him the spinning- ball trick may have been my single most important contribution to basketball. My most meaningful bit of coaching.
It was certainly the most unselfish and the most joyous.
But I would not have shared this story with the boys on my team in 1979 because it would have encouraged wild, undisciplined play. And I would not have told it because my year at Clemson was a year of failure in every other way. And I did not want these guys to know that I had ever failed at anything.