Though it’s the middle of Football season and the warm evenings of summer have turned to the into the chilly mornings of fall I think fondly of the coming of basketball, my favorite sport, and of a boy, who became a man who thrilled all who saw him on the court. Of course I’m talking about Pete Maravich, The Pistol, who’s skills with a basketball delighted and amazed millions of fans in our country and around the world. His magic, and he was a magician, before Magic Johnson was Magic, stunned and delighted those who lived in a simpler time.
A fictionalized look at what may have happened in the life of a boy who loved basketball and loved music just as much.
But basketball was not the only skill that Pete Maravich claimed. As few knew, and I count myself among those who did, Pete was also gifted as a musician, specifically a percussionist. And as even fewer knew it was his love of percussion, not his love of basketball that gave him fulfillment in life.
Pete was my neighbor. He lived about three houses north of mine, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He moved to Raleigh when his father Petar became head basketball coach at North Carolina State University. Pete was about fifteen or sixteen years old then. Pete was an outgoing kid, but it was hard to get to know him. Because he had moved so much in his formative years he was cautious and didn’t like too many attachments. His dad spent hours away from home teaching and coaching, and Pete was left to quietly hang around the house with his four sisters.
We all liked Pete, and of course we were amazed at his prowess with a basketball, but one balmy summer evening we saw another side of Pete that instantly endured him to us forever.
Pete was a classmate and acquaintance of my brother Hyman. I would use the word friends, but I have already explained why that isn’t a description I would use yet.
Hyman, Roger Nash, Nels Belavich and Clete Stevenson had a band, a real garage band. They practiced in the garage every Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. They weren’t good, not playing the high school dance good, but they made pleasant sounds occasionally. Not the sounds that high school boys are often famous for, passing gas, popping the tab of a can of beer, or whistling at a passing coed. They made the sounds of an off key A chord on their used Fender guitars or their borrowed Rickenbacker bass. Clete had an old Fender Rhodes that used to belong to the church where is father was the music minister and when the church upgraded to a Roland, Clete bought the Fender.
It was a good time to have a garage band and there were scores of them across Raleigh. Rock & Roll was a communication style as well as a particular type of music. The Beatles, who had just broken up a couple years ago were popular, as were the individuals from the Beatles who were on their own. The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Guess Who, all of these put their musical stamp on our lives and of course on my brother and his bandmates. There were also the new bands, Led Zepplin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult. Their sound was a lot harder and the vibration their music caused in our stomachs and our chests was enticing.
The missing segment in the group was a noticeable lack of drums. Roger was the drummer, but Roger’s family was poor. His father owned a garage on Petrie street, but has passed away a couple of winters previous after a grueling battle with cancer. Roger would often have to miss practice because he was working part time at a local gas station. The family needed the money and as the oldest in the family it fell to Roger to help support them. Roger didn’t even question it.
When Roger was twelve his father bought him a beginners Pearl drum set. It had a snare, a tom tom, a bass drum, a high hat and a couple of crash cymbals. Roger had bought an old wooden office chair from the second hand furniture store in downtown Raleigh from which he commanded the drums. Lots of banging and crashing, and every once in a while, a rambling flamadiddle followed by a paradiddle. You know, cheddar to cheese, cheese to cheddar, that kind of thing.
One Wednesday night the band practiced without Roger, who as I mentioned previously was working late at the gas station. Hyman had invited Pete Maravich to drop by to hang out, maybe listen to records and to listen to the band. Roger’s drums, and all the other instruments stayed in our garage so the hassle of transportation wouldn’t be an issue. The garage was our domain, our space and we owned it. There were posters everywhere. When practice was over we would turn off the incandescent lights and turn on the black light which illuminated the entire wall covered in black light posters. There were political posters, peace signs, posters of musical groups. We had even made some of our own posters paying homage to Grand Funk Railroad and Pink Floyd. There was an old console hi-fi in the corner of the garage and an old couch and bean bags we sat on while we listened to our favorite records.
The band was about thirty minutes into practice, which meant they had played about five minutes of music, when Pete showed up. He was dressed in a pair of Levi’s, a t-shirt and a vest with tassels around the edges, ala Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, except Dennis Hopper’s tassels were on a really beautiful jacket. Pete’s hair was down to his shoulders, as were those of my brother and his friends. Mine too for that matter. They were a motley group of all American high school boys and it was about to get serious.
It was frustrating for the band not to have someone playing the skins, as all the cool kids call the drums. No drums, no beat. No cymbals, no emphasis, and if there was one thing about their music it was all about the emphasis.
Hyman asked Pete if he would sit in the old wooden office chair and hit the snare drum to help keep time. He showed Pete how to count, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, tapping the taped up drum stick to the beat of the song. Pete said he would try, he wasn’t too sure about this, but as he tap tap tapped on the snare and caught the sounds of the raspy spring he smiled, a closed mouth smile as kind of to say, hey that’s kind of cool.
Pete was an athlete of course, first and foremost, so the athletic side of the drum kit wasn’t threatening. Once he had the tap tap tap down, and he understood it wouldn’t be embarrassing or painful he actually became pretty proficient…at the tap tap tap. That first night ended listening to Pink Floyd’s Ummaguma album, and we all acted out “Careful with that Ax Eugene” screaming at the top or our lungs when Eugene hit whoever was telling him to be careful with that ax. We fell down laughing
Pete became kind of a regular on Wednesdays and Saturdays, after basketball practice of course, and he would sit down at the drum kit and by now he was even using a second drum stick to add some crash cymbal and tapping on the pedal to the bass drum. Sometimes he would add a little hi-hat too. It was crude but Pete put his athlete’s training into it and while it wasn’t good, it fit with the skills of the other musicians. Most of all we watched as Pete came out of his shell. He shared his frustration with his father never being around, always traveling and his need to hang out with the guys. His sisters were all great of course, most of us agreed with him about the Maravich sisters, particularly Hyman who married Gina Maravich a few years later.
Pete’s drumming was improving as were the skills of the rest of the band. That was a good thing because Roger, a year and a half older than Hyman, had been drafted into the Marines. He gave his drum set to the band, he really couldn’t take it with him, and besides, there was not much drumming for him to do in the jungles of Vietnam.
Sadly, Roger would die in the jungles of Vietnam and we would see him last in a coffin covered with an American flag placed in the National Cemetery in Virginia.
Al I mentioned the band was improving. Not that they were ready to tour with Bachman Turner Overdrive, but for sure they could hold their own at a high school dance. They played that dance in the fall of the following year. It was just an after game dance celebrating another football loss, but there they were, on stage, hair flying, music sounding similar to the records we listened to, and people dancing, dancing slow, dancing fast but dancing none the less.
Over the course of that school year Pete’s skills with the drums improved. The music of War influenced the band and Pete added congas and timbales to the set. Pete was never happier. It seemed the more he melded with the drums the more he came out of his shell. Did I mention that Pete was Hyman’s best man at his wedding?
Pete left Raleigh the year before college. His father had taken the head coaching job at LSU, in Louisiana and Pete would play for him. He would have a remarkable college career then a wonderful pro career cut short by injuries. Pete and Hyman remained fast friends, laughing about the days of the garage band, and every once in a while, taking out an acoustic guitar and a djembe and reliving the times when things were simpler and life was a little bit slower. Pete had a room in his house and in that room was a custom DW drum set he used to sit down and tap tap tap on. Pete died in 1988, of a diseased heart that should have killed him as a much younger man. Hyman, Clete and I like to think that his love of the drums made him happy, and kept him with us a little bit longer.
Yes, I love basketball, it’s grace it’s magic and because of Pete Maravich.