For Caitlin Clark and Pete Maravich, a meeting across generations of basketball history

It has been destined for some time now that the two of them would meet here on the continuum of college basketball history. One, a slender young man, 6-foot-5 with floppy brown hair on top, and floppy grey socks at the bottom, moving across time not with urgency but with an almost musical rhythm, bouncing and stalking the sport’s matrix as if playing a different game from teammates and opponents. The other, a young woman, six feet tall with a headband and a high brown ponytail on top and low, scrunchy — but not floppy — socks at the bottom, racing across time not just with urgency, but with a controlled desperation, as if playing the same game as teammates and opponents, but playing it faster and better.

For Caitlin Clark and Pete Maravich, a meeting across generations of basketball history - NBC Sports

One, performing more than half a century ago in Louisiana. The other, playing today in Iowa. One, dead 36 years now (can it be that long?), gone far too soon, his legacy fading with each passing year, as legacies do, until they are just history. The other, 22 years old, in the middle of her time and her moment right here and right now, most of us watching rapt. Soon they will be in the same place. Briefly.

In her four seasons at Iowa, Caitlin Clark has scored 3,593 points, and last Thursday night sailed upcourt into a balletic 35-foot three-point basket barely two minutes into what would be a 17-point win over Michigan, that pushed her past former Washington player Kelsey Plum to become the all-time leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball history. Sometime in the next couple weeks, Clark will pass Lynette Woodard, who scored 3,649 points at Kansas from 1977-’81, before women’s basketball was under the NCAA banner, and was administered by the AIAW. That detail shouldn’t exclude Woodard from this discussion, nor should it disregard Pearl Moore, whose 4,061 career points came not only before the NCAA’s involvement but also at schools below the D1 level, Anderson Junior College and Francis Marion University. Clark is closing in on Woodard, and soon afterward, she will reach and surpass the 3,667 points Pete Maravich — Pistol Pete — scored in his career at LSU from 1967-’70, one of the most respected records in sports history. (Clark has four regular season games and at least one Big Ten Tournament game and one NCAA Tournament game, likely more, to score the 99 points needed to get past Maravich).

Caitlin Clark wins AP Player of the Year | who13.com

This is a rare and telling moment in sports: A venerable record held by a male athlete being broken by a female athlete, in a way that can supersede the physical differences between the sexes and find common (or common enough) ground. It does happen: Last winter U.S. ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin passed former Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark’s record for career World Cup victories when she won her 87th race (she now has 95), and the male-female component was a non-starter, partly because of immense respect for Shiffrin across generations of the sport, partly because of Stenmark’s generosity and praise; but also, because viewpoints evolve, however grudgingly. But that is ski racing, which is more egalitarian, and, just smaller, an Olympic sport contested largely abroad, mostly out of sight in non-Olympic years. This is basketball, an American-born sport where males have proven far more stubborn (kindly put) about ceding respect to women, despite women having earned it (delightfully obvious to anyone who watched last weekend’s three-point contest between Sabrina Ionescu and Steph Curry).

So another wait begins, for Clark to pass Maravich. But that wait comes with a question: Does Clark’s passing Maravich make her the real record holder, or an apples-to-oranges neighbor? It’s the wrong question, and it demeans both athletes. Clark proves her transcendence every time she plays and doesn’t need the manufactured approval provided by usurping a male player older than her parents; Maravich was sui generis and always will be. The right question is this one: What does this moment, this spiritual crossing of Clark’s and Maravich’s paths, tell us about basketball, the public appreciation of male and female athletes, and, indulge me here, ourselves?

Let’s get this one reality out of the way: Clark has accumulated her points in four seasons and 126 games, averaging 28.3 points per game. Because Maravich played at a time when freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition (and seasons were shorter), he played only 83 games and averaged 44.2 points per game for his career. There is no getting around this one: Maravich’s raw total will be broken by Clark, but that per-game average is unassailable.

After that, the comparisons get more murky, and through one lens, become a lesson in basketball evolution. First, Maravich played in an era before the shot clock and the three-point basket; in theory, with those rules in place, he would have scored more points. But hang on: Maravich’s LSU teams played fast, averaging more than 75 field goal attempts per game, whereas the 2023 NCAA men’s leader, Arizona, averages just over 66. Clark’s Iowa team averages 65 FGAs per game, so Pistol Pete’s team took consistently more shots than most modern men’s or women’s teams (and Pete himself averaged 38 shots per game, whereas Clark has averaged just under 20).

The three-point issue? Nearly half of Clark’s field goal attempts and 41.5 percent of her makes (487 baskets) have been from three. Maravich had plenty of shooting range, but was not strictly or even primarily a long-range shooter in college, scoring often on slashing mid-range attempts. But he played a game that did not incentivize deep shooting; the fundamental goal was to get closer to the basket before shooting. It’s fascinating to imagine Maravich in the modern, spaced-out game. But also pointless; we don’t know. Suffice it to say he would have scored more points, but how many more is a more complicated question than just studying ancient shot charts, which has been done. The game itself would have been different.

A personal aside here: As a kid, I worshipped Maravich; his games were seldom televised across the 1,500 miles from SEC gyms to my home in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, but when they were, I was locked in, charting the games in a scorebook bought at my uncle’s sporting goods store way down in Albany. Many years later, when I went to Baton Rouge for Newsday to report a feature on sophomore superstar Shaquille O’Neal, I asked for a sidebar tour of the old Parker Agricultural Coliseum, where Pistol Pete played his home games, and which was – and still is – used for livestock shows at the state fair. Former LSU coach Jay McCreary (who also coached the Muncie (Indiana) Central High School team that lost to Milan High in the 1954 state championship game on which the movie Hoosiers was based) showed me the building and also the old locker room, where cubicles slumped in weary disrepair amid the smell of fresh manure. Faded names were stenciled above the lockers, one of them Pete 23. If only smartphone cameras had existed.

But memories can embellish. In fact, it’s one of the things they do best. There is plenty of internet video of LSU-era Maravich, most of it highlights, like this. But there is a little raw game footage, too. Like the second half of this game against Kentucky in 1970, where Maravich score 64 points; or this one against Tennessee, a team that always double-teamed Maravich, from 1969. The film presents all of Maravich’s brilliance – not just the shooting, but the slick, Globetrotter-esque passing, bullets from otherwise unimagined angles. He was truly a magician. But something else: The games look old. They are old. Basketball was a different sport more than 50 years ago, and has evolved, strategically and athletically (as all sports do), to the point where LSU’s old games are barely recognizable as the same sport played in 2023 (and, for what it’s worth, where Caitlin Clark looks like she would fit right in, at the very least, and probably go for 18 points and five assists). Thus, the folly of comparing generations. Maravich was then. Clark is now.

Two final points on the sport itself. One, Maravich’s first two teams went 27-25; from a fans’ perspective, the Pistol Pete Show was nearly as a significant as a game’s outcome, especially in an era where only conference champions went to the NCAA Tournament. Pete’s senior team went 20-8 and reached the semifinals of the NIT, a more prestigious event in those days. Clark’s team, meanwhile, is playing for something bigger. Iowa reached the national championship game a year ago, and seeks a return early this coming spring. Clark is the star, but not the entire show.

And this: the Southeastern Conference was only very slowly integrating over the course of Maravich’s career. If you are going to argue that the lack of a three-point shot suppressed his scoring total, it’s important to also acknowledge that his conference competition did not represent the population of good basketball players in America at the time. (He did play many non-conference games against more integrated teams).

Their games outline the evolution of the sport itself. For all the strategic reasons here, Maravich played on a congested floor, defenses built to deny lay-ups. The court seemed bigger. Clark plays a game defined by open space, which she uses not just to shoot, but to pass, with an insouciance that is a near cousin to Maravich’s. More pointedly, she is a high-level prototype of the modern scorer, with a spring-loaded release on the way up to her jump’s apex and a scorer’s sense for when to attack overplays by driving. And range? Watch her record-breaking three: You’d be impressed if Steph Curry or Damian Lillard did exactly the same thing from the same distance. She not only dominates modern basketball, she explains it.

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But in all of this, the trees can obscure the forest. Basketball America is engaged in a discussion that seeks in some way to compare the legendary Pistol Pete Maravich to a woman. That will rankle some men, who stand with their heels dug in against an important and obvious societal reality. Get over it. The discourse matters, in part because it resurfaces Maravich’s name and perhaps sends a fresh generation to the videos above or to Mark Kriegel’s towering 2007 biography, Pistol: The Life Of Pete Maravich, which exhaustively expresses not only Maravich’s greatness, but the family desperation and personal sadness that accompanied it. But even more importantly, perhaps because it will guide more fans to Clark before her college career is over and she becomes, most likely, just a very good WNBA player (like Maravich was just a very good NBA player).

There is an important commonality: Both Maravich and Clark grew into a certain type of phenomenon that is often expressed by the phrase “folk hero.” In 1970, Maravich was the subject of a song, “The Ballad of Pete Maravich.” In 2023, Clark was the subject of a butter sculpture at the Iowa State Fair.

But that is all too cute and too limiting. Think of it this way: Both Maravich and Clark emerged into public view by word of mouth. Pistol Pete because there was no ESPN, no internet, and few nationally televised college basketball games; his fame was a stage whisper. Clark, because women’s basketball still climbs undeservedly uphill for universal respect and because her numbers do not fully capture her greatness – she needs to be seen. In both cases, you had to do a little work to understand the fuss.

And in many ways they are a subset of two in their sport. It’s likely that if they could sit in a room together, they would speak a language understood only by the two of them. Likewise, if they found an empty gym to get up some shots. Their connection is real only in that cross-generational way that is central to understanding the long arc of sports history. But it is real. And they are meant to be here. Not as competing forces, but as partners. Not separate, but linked.

https://www.nbcsports.com/college-basketball/news/for-caitlin-clark-and-pete-maravich-a-meeting-across-generations-of-basketball-history

 

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