The Dawning of Excellence
Terry and I were enjoying an unabridged, non-scripted evening together; our first in many months. Suzy has known him longer than me and likes to accompany me when I meet him for drinks. That isn’t true where my other friends are involved. Tom and Rick she could give a rat’s ass about seeing. My partner bristles at the idea that the “dynamics change” when she is present, but it’s true.
With Suzy in attendance the conversation is driven by her interests. Terry and I, on our own, drift among subjects like a rudderless sailboat. No direction, no fact finding, no censors. On this night, January Two, we had to first discuss the previous evening’s football game. His Buckeyes defeated my Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Later on, we landed on the subject of promised excellence.
I was transported back to February 7, 1969, and Memorial Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, to a college basketball game between LSU and Alabama. That night featured a thrilling 106-104 game won by Bama, a postgame fight involving LSU basketball players and Alabama freshman football players, and even the halftime introduction of Alabama’s new featured twirler, the first in a long time. But it mostly featured a basketball player who stood out amidst all the other craziness. His name was Pete Maravich.
No one needed to point Pistol Pete out to the spectators who had never seen him play before. When Maravich first strolled onto the hardwood; a skinny, pale kid with droopy socks, he radiated an aura of excellence that was powerful. Anyone paying the least attention could tell by how he walked around that he was different; better, much better than anyone else present.
As he warmed up during pregame drills, Pete did nothing special to demonstrate he was the greatest basketball player many of us would ever see. But he moved around the court differently, making basketball moves as naturally as the rest of the participants walked. The basketball seemed to be an extension of his fingers.
Pete dropped an over the shoulder, half-court shot through the net as the warmup clock expired. The instant electricity created in the filled auditorium was nearly visible, and lasted all night. He scored 69 points and passed to teammates as if he had 360 degrees of vision. This was before the three point shot rule and most of his shots were from deep. No telling what his total would have been in today’s world. He left everything he had in small droplets on the court and was not interested in his performance. His team lost.
I’ve lived five and a half decades inhabiting the nearby world. Most of those years were spent with my eyes open and my curiosity at max level. I’ve observed people closely and wondered at possibilities. One thing I can confidently say. Only twice have I seen potential excellence so powerful. That night in Coleman Coliseum, and a couple years earlier just down the street at Fort Brandon National Guard Armory, watching the Alabama debut of Duane and Gregg Allman.
I’ve witnessed established excellence since then, many times. I heard the great Guy Clark in a small auditorium. I’ve read Blood Meridian and watched Secretariat run. I even saw Bear Bryant up close one morning at the Jitney Jungle. But remembering Pete Maravich, and the feeling associated with seeing so much promise was special. Real special.
I’m still waiting on number three.
- Images: Pete Maravich photo from PeteMaravich.com