Credit Screenshots from YouTube
When I was 12, shortly after I joined a youth-basketball team, my father summoned me to the living room. He was holding a set of VHS tapes called “Pistol Pete’s Homework Basketball,” which he thought might help me get ready for the coming season. Naturally, I was dubious. In what sense could basketball be considered homework? And who was Pistol Pete Maravich anyway? With the solemnity that other fathers adopt when passing down heirloom rifles, Dad handed me the tapes and said, “Just watch.”
I popped the first one into the VCR, but Maravich’s appearance did little to curb my skepticism. Gawky and bird-thin, he wore a Chicago-cop mustache and spoke in the gentle exhortations of a youth pastor. “Practice, practice, practice,” he said, shaking a finger at the camera. “Remember: Don’t forget to do your homework.” What I didn’t know at the time was that Maravich was a legend; he set the scoring record in the N.C.A.A. and made five trips to the N.B.A. All-Star Game throughout the 1970s. But he was most famous for his on-court wizardry, for his nimble behind-the-back passes and persuasive head-fakes that made even the most adroit defenders look ornamental and weak.
“Homework Basketball,” which was released in 1987, started with lessons on the fundamentals, like shooting and dribbling. But as the videos went on, Maravich began to initiate his young viewers into a more esoteric set of skills. “I’m also going to teach you today how to do the creative — the more advanced — type of pass, the artistic type of pass.” The video then furnished a bevy of drills whose names sounded like dance moves that you would execute only at a wedding: “Different Strokes,” “Scrambled Eggs,” “The Laid-Back.” Alone in the penumbral glow of the gym, Maravich pirouetted across the hardwood, schooling invisible foes with breakneck sleights of hand. Again and again, I rewound the trick-shot sequence, watching as Maravich leapt into the air and looped the ball between his legs before completing a reverse layup.
Throughout that basketball season, I rose before dawn to begin my regimen. In the gloom of the driveway, I followed the Pistol’s workout, lassoing the ball between my legs (sometimes wearing a blindfold). Then I rehearsed behind-the-back passes, first with my right arm, then with my left, aiming for a bull’s-eye I had painted on the wall of our garage. My efforts were downright monastic — asceticism in the service of its opposite.
Yet whenever I applied Maravich’s instructions to actual games, my coaches grimaced at the theatrics. Occasionally it would work out: I still recall faking a behind-the-back pass and juking my opponent, only to retract the ball and flip it against the backboard for an uncontested layup. But just as often my glitzy passes veered into the hands of waiting defenders. So enamored was I with the aesthetic possibilities of the sport, I overlooked the simple urgency of competition. Eventually, my flashiness earned me a spot on the bench and, once I got to high school, a berth on the J.V. squad.
Now in my early 30s, I rarely play basketball anymore, fearful as I am of shredding an ankle or mangling a knee. These days, if Pistol Pete’s videos remain “instructional” for me, it’s because they insist that glimmers of artistry can live, however briefly, in activities we might otherwise regard as brute and mechanistic. A friend of mine claims that he cannot watch sports because their simplistic teleology — putting a ball in a basket, lobbing a puck into a goal — distills “the futility of the whole human experience.” Sports, for him, expose the extent to which all of us are obsessively zeroed in on the next mark, the next burst of glory, all of which will be swiftly and inexorably forgotten. But it’s not the primal exigencies of winning that compel my attention. Rather, it’s those moments when something unexpected, something artful, flashes out of the roil of bodies in space.