In my over forty years of playing and coaching, there was only one game I hoped to lose. It was on December 19, 1969. We were in a holiday tournament and playing Marietta High, an Ohio school that we really should have beaten. There was about as little at stake for us in that contest as there ever could be in a high-school game. We would never see any of these guys again and the result – win or lose – would have no effect on our conference standing. The tournament had really been organized just to keep the players engaged during the break and to give the teams a place to try out new people and tactics before the conference seasons began. And with the holidays so close at hand and nothing really at stake in terms of rivalry or standing, the Charleston Civic Center gym was almost empty.
If we had won, we’d have played in the tournament’s quarterfinals the next day, a Saturday. I was ready for that, and frankly expecting it, and I did all within my power to coach my boys to a win. But Marietta shot the lights out that night and our shooters were cold. My guys hustled, out- rebounding them and making fewer turnovers, but it was just one of those nights.
After the buzzer I handed my assistant a strict and exhaustive agenda I had written for the next day’s practice and told him that I had to take care of something out of town. I’d see him Monday, I said. He tried to hide his shock – I had never missed a varsity practice before – as if to tell me that of course he was equal to the task and that not a word would be said about me skipping out and doing whatever it was I had to do.
I had already packed my Beetle with a day’s worth of clothes, a sleeping bag, a carefully marked highway map, a coffee thermos and a cooler full of food. I did not even return home after the game. I pulled out of the Civic Center parking lot and headed east on US 60 and to the West Virginia Turnpike. I was heading for Charlotte, over 300 miles away, and almost all of that, back then before the Interstates, on two-lane mountain roads, including the turnpike. It was ten o’clock before I got out of Charleston and before I had gone the first 50 miles to Beckley I was already in a mountain snowstorm that I would follow all the way into the northwest corner of North Carolina. There were times that night when I literally could not see more than twenty yards ahead. I crept up and down the mountainsides, going for miles in that drifted silence without seeing another car going either way. There were semis stranded here and there on the berms of the highway with their lines of emergency flares marking glowing scarlet circles in the snow. Anybody with any sense had called it quits for the night. But I kept going. That Beetle was a tank. At one spot in Virginia I drove into a waist-high pack of snow left there by some snowplow operator who had given up for the night. Because my whole field of vision was white, I did not distinguish the snowpack and I hit it with my right front fender. I didn’t know a thing until I heard the crunch of the packed snow against the car. A splash of ice-crust sprayed up and clacked against my windshield and the car went into a spin on that icy road. As if I had been trained to do it, and without conscious thought,I dropped my hands from the wheel and pulled my foot from the gas and the little car did a full 360 and then straightened out just right and I kept pushing south, just like nothing had happened, just like I had meant to do that very thing.
When I dropped out of the mountains near Dobson, North Carolina, gray dawn was breaking and the snow had stopped. I recall seeing the mountains white behind me in my rear view mirror and the road before me clear and dry. The rest of the way in was a breeze, but I did not relax. I was standing by myself at the ticket counter of the Charlotte Coliseum when it opened at ten o’clock. There were good seats left, if you only needed one ticket. I got a seat ten rows from the floor at one corner of the gym. It cost me five bucks. I was the happiest man in the world.
I had been following Pete Maravich’s career since he started at LSU in 1967. It wasn’t hard to do. He was national news. He’d put LSU on the map single-handedly. Heck, he put college basketball on the map in a way that it had never been before. There had never been another player like him. He was averaging over 40 points a game and there were more than a few nights when he’d hit sixty. Basketball fans were all over it, of course, but people who knew nothing about basketball were entranced by him – this skinny kid who could handle a basketball like he had it on a string. Who, without looking, flipped passes the length of the court for assists and made moves that sent defenders tripping out of bounds while he laid the ball in. And I had a stake in this. Nobody knew it but me, but it was real, nonetheless. I had been looking for a way, some way, to see him play. But it had been impossible. My high-school schedule never allowed me more than 24 hours away from my team during the season and with Pete playing hundreds of miles away in the SEC, there was just no way I could find to get to any of his games. But Clemson had allowed their game with LSU to be moved to a larger arena in Charlotte and Charlotte was as close as Pete would ever be to me, and the loss to Marietta High School gave me as much of a time window as I could ever hope to have.
With my ticket in hand, I paid four bucks for a bed at a YMCA, showered, and slept till four o’clock. I bought dinner at the cafeteria and repacked the car and drove back to the Coliseum.
Even now, you could find the statistics for yourself. Maravich had 49 points on 22 for 30 shooting. Over seventy-three per cent. Nine assists. Six rebounds. Five steals. If the three-point rule had been in effect, he would have had at least 60. Some say that it was his finest night as a college player. But the statistics, as impressive as they are, tell you nothing of what really happened in that gym on that night. Reading Pete’s stat line for the night is like reading how far the Wright brothers’ plane had traveled from east to west. It was accurate, but simply not the point. There were no statistics to measure what he did in that game and almost no words to describe it.
You have heard the expression that winning at basketball is about being “bigger, faster and stronger” than the other guy. That’s true in most cases and at most levels of the game. It is certainly a part of the philosophy to which I subscribed for years and that I preached to the kids in my program.
But Maravich completely dominated the game that night. Nobody had the first idea how to stop him. At 6’5”, Pete was big, but there were at least five guys on the floor bigger than him. He was fast alright, but by no means the fastest of the ten guys out there. And he was slight in his upper body, far from what a major college coach would have considered strong. If you would have had a bench-press contest among the ten players on the floor, Pete would have finished at the bottom.
And to say that he dominated the game really does not do justice to what I saw. It wasn’t that he was just better than the others at what they were all doing; Maravich was doing something qualitatively different from everybody else. He saw lines and angles for shots and passes that no one else would have dared imagine. For him, every moment contained a thousand possibilities that no designer of defense had ever contemplated and that no coach would ever have allowed. He knew where the other man was going to put the ball before he put it there. I was so taken in that in the second half I never knew what the score was. I did not hear the crowd. At the end of the game I did not know who won. And I didn’t care. The score, who was ahead, who was winning, was secondary – and a distant second, at that – to what was happening before my eyes. Maravich had taken the game and all of the nine other players and the coaches into his imagination. He had absorbed it all; internalized it all. He knew what was coming before it happened.
There were moves he made that night that I did not even see, because I was not ready to see them. The limitations I had learned and the norms that I had come to accept were so deeply engrained in me, so completely accepted and unquestioned, that I missed some of Pete’s passes and shots because I could not imagine, could not visualize, that thing happening. I was not alone. At least twice that night Pete’s dead-perfect passes that should have ended in unguarded layups hit his teammates in the head. Once an official had to go to the table to tell the scorer that Pete had made a shot.
I am not a pure man, but I am not complicated. The language I speak is basketball and that night Pete spoke a message to me in that very tongue that told me in a way that not even I could deny that everything I had learned about the game – all that I had garnered through my years of effort and attention – was as filthy rags. There was more to the game than I had imagined – more freedom, more possibility. I wondered then how much of my efforts – my teaching and coaching – had actually worked to limit my players, to restrict the game into my own fearful ideas, to keep it within the banks when it could have flooded the whole valley. The deeper lesson, also undeniable to me in that moment and bitter to contemplate, was that if there was that much more to basketball that I, as an attentive student of the game, had completely missed, how much more might there have been to life itself, where I had been anything but attentive; where I had done little but impose my own will and my own definition of limits at every turn.
I was sorry to see the game end and stayed in my seat as the coliseum emptied out, aching for some encore, some return of the fever. I recovered from this reverie too late to consider the real possibility that I might have finagled my way into the visitor’s locker room; that I might actually have gotten a word with Pete. That he might even remember me.
Until then, I had been living under the delusion that what I really wanted was success as a coach. I thought I wanted winning records, promotions, a big salary and a legacy. I would continue to want those things and to pursue them. But now I knew that these were not my deepest desire. Then I knew that my deepest longing was one that I was long past ever being able to achieve. I wanted to play. Not so much to win as to be completely caught up in that sublime mental flow of the game that I had witnessed that night. I wanted to be a part of that, to be absorbed in that, to be lost in it. That was the depth of my soul. That was my heart’s desire and it was forever out of my reach.
I never breathed a word of it to anyone.