The Pistol, Durant and basketball memories

So in most aspects of my life, I am very reluctant to spend money. I’m not necessarily cheap — for instance, when I do spend money, I seem to have pretty expensive tastes — but I guess I’m just not that into buying, well, stuff…

There are a couple of exceptions. And these include airports and gas stations.

Of course, these places seem to have one thing in common: I’m usually only at an airport or gas station when I’m traveling.

Perhaps this will sound strange, but when I go to an airport, or when I stop at a gas station on a road trip, I have to buy something.

It might be a magazine, or a bag of Doritos, or a Quik-Stop cappuccino. But I have to buy something. I just have to.

This phenomenon surfaced a couple of weeks ago when I was flying back to Kansas City after visiting my brother in Washington D.C.

I was flying out of Reagan airport, and there happened to be a Borders bookstore in the airport. Now this was a real treat. Usually, of course, there is one of those small magazine stands, and maybe it has a small rack of books — you know, the latest Danielle Steele and Dan Brown novels.

But this airport had an entire Borders, or at the very least, an “airport-sized version of a Borders”.

I had just finished reading “The Blind Side” a couple of days before, so I peaked around the store, looking for something interesting to read on the flight home.

I ended up settling on “Pistol”, Mark Kriegel’s brilliant biography on Pete Maravich*.

*The book came out a few years back, and I now remember that another Maravich biography, called “Maravich”, came out at about the same time. Yep, two biographies on Pete Maravich in the same year. I guess that’s kind of like the time the two volcano movies — “Volcano” and “Dante’s Peak” — came out at the same time, or the time “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” came out in the same summer.

Anyway, it took me about three weeks to slog through “Pistol” — it was essentially a father-son tale about the relationship between Pete and his father Press.

It detailed Press’s upbringing underneath the clouds of smog spewed by the mills of Pennsylvania. It detailed Pete’s career at LSU, when he averaged more than 40 points per game for three straight seasons. And it detailed Pete’s fall into alcoholism and depression.

It’s a great book, poetic and rhythmic, and it’s exquisitely researched.
I knew Pete Maravich’s basic story. I remembering watching a movie about Pete Maravich (a movie that came out in the late 1980s) when I was a young kid. And I knew some of the drills that Maravich made famous.

But perhaps people forget — especially people under the age of 40 — about Maravich’s greatness*.

*Pat Conroy isn’t one of those people. Conroy, as you probably know, is the best-selling author of the timeless book, “The Great Santini”. He also played basketball at The Citadel during Maravich’s era — and he would eventually write a best-selling memoir about his time at The Citadel entitled, “My Losing Season”.

“I grew up possessed by the legend of ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich,” Conroy once wrote. “I’ve marveled at the supernatural skills of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant—all of them were greater basketball players than the ‘Pistol’. Yet none of them could touch the magical, otherworldly qualities he brought to the court, the genius and wizardry and breathtaking creativity. He could light up a crowd like a match set to gasoline. His game was lordly, inimitable and he should have been the greatest player to ever play the game.”

*****

There’s something about Conroy’s words that I can’t stop thinking about. Something about the way Conroy viewed Maravich. Something about that fact that, 30 years after Maravich retired (and more than 40 years since he played in college), Conroy could still find joy in memories of Maravich. He could remember what it felt like to watch Pistol Pete, and those memories transported him to a different place.

I think this is one of the simplest and most concise explanations for why we love sports.

There’s something else in those words, too. You see, for a person that uses numbers to measure greatness, Maravich might as well be a saint. He was the kid who scored more points than anyone in NCAA history, the kid who averaged more than 44 points per game for a season… he was the Pistol.

But here’s the thing: For the people that saw Maravich play, the numbers were secondary. Instead, people remembered the moves, the artistry, the way he floated around a basketball floor.

There’s a great line from Bob Dylan (Kriegel uses it in the prologue of his book) about watching Maravich play.

“He was something to see,” Dylan said. “Mop of brown hair, floppy socks, the holy terror of the basketball world, high flyin’, magician of the court.

*****

So here’s the moment when I finally get to the point.

I think we may have found our Pistol.

He’s 21 years old… and he lives Oklahoma City… and he may be the most perfect offensive basketball player we’ve ever seen.

Of course, only time will tell.

But I do know this: I’ve seen some great basketball players play in person.

I saw Paul Pierce display his all-around versatility while playing at KU. I saw glimpses of Chauncey Billups’ competitive fire while he played at Colorado. I saw Ray Allen stroke the most gorgeous jumpshot I’ve ever seen. And I saw Derrick Rose nearly shoot down Kansas in the 2008 NCAA title game.

But I’ll say this with confidence: None of those guys could touch the sheer brilliance of Kevin Durant.

*****

Kevin Durant Memory No. 1

Sports memories are a funny thing. They flicker somewhere in the back of the brain, ready to be recalled, ready to be triggered by the senses.

But with each passing day, those memories become a little grainier. And, of course, you can’t replace a memory.

You can try — and perhaps you can go back and look at an old picture, or watch an old game — but then the memory is no longer pure. It’s simply a memory of a memory, a copy of the original, or something like that.

And here’s the thing: I don’t want to forget the first time I saw Kevin Durant play.

I remember it was a Saturday.* I remember Kansas was playing Texas at Allen Fieldhouse with the Big 12 regular-season title on the line.

*I think it was the first week of March, but I may be wrong. It might have been the last week of February. See what I mean?

If KU won, then Bill Self and Jayhawks earned the title outright. If Texas won, then both teams would share the crown.

I remember it was an afternoon game. And I had to wake up around 10. And I had to borrow a ticket from one of my roommates, who had decided he’d rather sleep in.

I remember walking to the Fieldhouse, and I remember watching Durant glide on to the basketball floor for warm-ups*.

*Durant is still skinny. I imagine he will stay relatively thin forever. But when he was a freshman in college — and barely 18 — he seemed to be all knees and wrists and elbows.

I remember the first half, when Durant poured in 25 points and seemed to barely ripple the net on every shot*.

*His line in that first half will go down as one of the best halves of basketball in the history of Fieldhouse. 25 points. 10-of-14 shooting from the field. Five of five from the three-point line.

I remember the hopeless feeling in the Fieldhouse at halftime*.

*This guy is ridiculous. There’s no way he’s not scoring 50. We’re toast.

I remember thinking this: Well, if KU is going to lose. I hope he does score 50. Hell, I hope he scores 60. Bring on history.

Of course, he wouldn’t score 50. He wouldn’t even score 40.

He would finish with 32 points. He would snatch nine rebounds. He would make six of eight three-pointers.

Of course, Kansas would rally in the second half. Mario Chalmers would hit five three-pointers and score 21 points — and Kansas would win 90-86, clinching the Big 12 title.

But I will always remember the moment in the second half when Kevin Durant went down.

He turned his ankle in the final minutes, after KU had started its massive run and appeared to have the game in control.

And as he limped off the floor, the KU fans slowly came to their feet. It was like watching a young colt break down on the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby. And the Fieldhouse crowd recognized this.

So they stood for him. And they clapped for him. They had too. He was that good.

Three years later, the memory of that Saturday is still clear.

And now, we have an entirely new perspective.

At least 10 players from that game will play at least one game in the NBA. It could be more.

Texas had Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Damion James and a young and overweight Dexter Pittman.

Kansas had Julian Wright, Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson and Sherron Collins.

Sasha Kaun could also play in the League someday. So could Russell Robinson.

And yet, on a court filled with future pros, Durant made them all look like end-of-the-bench scrubs.

“I thought for a minute in the first half (Kevin) Durant could get 60,” Bill Self would say.

“He’s the best I’ve ever faced in my life,” Rush would say, “He’s the best by far.”

*****

Kevin Durant Memory No. 2

The voice at the podium was familiar. Deep — yet scratchy and southern.

Questions were flying at Mike Anderson, the head basketball coach at Missouri, and he was answering them in his own soulful way.

It was the fall of 2007 — six months after Kevin Durant had left school early, and just three months after he had been selected second overall by the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Draft.

Anderson was sitting in a full ballroom at the Plaza Marriot in Kansas City. The Big 12 basketball season was commencing with media day — and each Big 12 coach was taking his turn at the podium.

And somehow, Durant’s name kept coming up.

“Thank God he’s gone,” Anderson cried out. “Thank God.”

I’ll always remember the way Anderson said those words. Complete sincerity. Complete conviction. His eyes were opened wide. It was as if the memory of Durant had caused him to flashback to a nightmare.

Good lord, that kid could play. Don’t want ever see him again. Thank God.

That same day, somebody asked Kansas coach Bill Self how many points he thought Durant would average as an NBA rookie.

“This year?” Self asked, pausing a moment to think. “I’d say 17.”

Durant would average just a shade more than 20.

*****

These are just numbers, proof of what Kevin Durant is doing on a basketball court. We don’t need these to know Durant’s brilliance — but I think they help.

Kevin Durant has not turned 22 yet. He won’t until Sept. 29.

But here is what Kevin Durant is doing this season:

40.0 minutes / 29.8 points / 47.9 FG% / 37.6 3P% / 7.5 rebounds / 2.9 assists

The following is a list of players who have had comparable seasons before the age of 22.

1. Magic Johnson – 1980-81 (second year)
37.1 minutes / 21.6 points / 53.2 FG% / 17.6 3P% (3 for 17) / 8.6 rebounds / 8.6 assists

2. Michael Jordan – 1984-85 (rookie)
38.3 minutes / 28.2 points / 51.5 FG% / 17.3 3P% (9 for 52) / 6.5 rebounds / 5.9 assists

3. LeBron James – 2005-06 (3rd year)
42.5 minutes / 31.4 points / 48.0 FG% / 33.5 3P% / 7.0 rebounds / 6.6 assists

4. Carmelo Anthony – 2005-06 (3rd year)
36.8 minutes / 26.5 points / 48.1 FG% / 24.3 3P% / 4.9 rebounds / 2.7 assists

5. Tracy McGrady – 2000-01 (fourth year)
40.1 minutes / 26.8 points / 45.7 FG% / 35.5 3P% / 7.5 rebounds / 4.6 assists

And just for reference, here are the seasons of a few others…

6. Kobe Bryant 1999-00 (4th year)
38.2 minutes / 22.5 points / 46.8 FG% / 31.9 3P% / 6.3 rebounds / 4.9 assists

7. Dwight Howard – 2006-07 (third year)
36.9 minutes / 17.6 points / 60.3 FG% / n/a 3P% / 12.3 rebounds / 1.9 assists

8. Chris Bosh – 2005-06 (3rd year)
39.3 minutes / 22.5 points / 50.5 FG% / N/A 3P% / 9.2 rebounds / 2.6 assists

9. Chris Paul 2006-07 (second year)
36.8 minutes / 17.3 points / 43.7 FG% / 35.0 3P% / 4.4 rebounds / 8.9 assists

10. Allen Iverson – 1996-97 (rookie year)
40.1 minutes / 23.5 points / 41.6 FG% / 34.1 3P% / 4.1 rebounds / 7.5 assists

*****

The story on Kevin Durant has yet to be written.

And this makes him even more interesting. He is in that rare moment in an athlete’s career. For the most part, his slate is clean.

Some people write that he is the most underrated player in the NBA. Others write that he is the third best player in the league behind LeBron and Kobe. Others question his defense. Some question whether he will be able to lead a team to a championship*.

*He can score, yes, they say, but will his skill set lead to championships?

Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard no doubt asked the same question when he selected Greg Oden over Durant in the 2007 NBA Draft.

Durant will score, people said. But you win titles with big men, and Oden will win you titles.

Of course, people write and say many other things. And it is too early to know what Kevin Durant will be.

“Kevin Durant is a more athletic Danny Manning,” Jay Bilas once said.

“He is kind of a cross between George Gervin and Bob McAdoo,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar once said.

So many comparisons, so many new expectations. People no longer wonder whether he’ll have a better career than Durant. Perhaps it’s premature — perhaps Oden’s young career will have a renaissance — but nowadays, people ask different questions. Some of those questions even involve a man named — gasp! — LeBron.

And yet, you can ask Nick Collison, the former Kansas great who has played with Durant for nearly three seasons, and he’ll tell you that Durant can rise above it all. He won’t be swallowed by the hype.

“There’s nothing fake about Kevin; he is who he is,” Collison told Sports Illustrated last month. “It’s kind of refreshing, someone with that much talent and ability, a guy who’s been on the cover of magazines since he was 18, but all he wants to do is play basketball and hang out. He’s not trying to rule the world or become a global marketing icon—he just wants to play ball.”

Yes, we’ve found our modern day Pistol.

He’s not a physical specimen like LeBron. And unlike King James, he doesn’t want to build an empire.

He’s not built like Kobe — so we’ll be spared from comparisons to Jordan. He’s not moody like Kobe either.

He’s still young. Still acts like a kid. Still watches cartoons. And still sends out funny tweets.

A few weeks ago, he participated in the NBA’s HORSE competition during All-Star weekend. Boston’s Rajon Rondo was in it. So was Sacramento rookie Omri Casspi. It really was brutal television. It seemed like all three guys had just been plucked off the street*.

*Hey, you want to be in this HORSE competition? OK, Great. We’re doing it right now.

Of course, Durant won. He stepped up on his first shot and casually drained a 35-footer.

And afterward, he said, “It felt like Game 7 of the NBA finals… not that I’ve been there.”

I didn’t hear Durant say these words. He might have said them in jest. He might have been having a little fun. But part of me thinks Durant was halfway serious.

Charles Barkley was present during the game of HORSE. So I was reminded of something Barkley said on TV a few weeks ago.

They were showing highlights of Durant on the postgame show on TNT — and once again, Durant had posted a 30-point night.

“He needs a nickname,” TNT’s Kenny Smith said.

“I like something like the “Total Weapon” because he can score from anywhere,” Barkley said. “He could score at a funeral.”

Yep, we may have found our new Pistol. And Kevin Durant just wants to ball.

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