We’ll never watch another Pistol, but we have Red Panda

Since I can remember watching, on our family’s black & white Motorola TV, a mop-topped, shaggy-haired lanky kid wearing floppy socks doing optical illusions with a basketball on Saturday afternoons, I feel justified in saying this.

Not everything in basketball is better now.

Specifically, the ball-handling. Yes, it is unfair to the human race to compare anyone to Pistol Pete Maravich, the LSU phenom who would today, 50 years later, STILL be ahead of his time doing what he did with the rock.

“Boy, could he play basketball, and he could entertain you. The no-look passes, the pat-it and pass it with one hand, that’s where I saw all that, from Pistol Pete, and that’s where I got all that,” said Magic Johnson, who has had a bit of influence on the game.

If you haven’t seen for yourself, thank goodness for YouTube. It’s worth any amount of time you spend, and it costs as much as an e-mail subscription to the Shreveport-Bossier Journal.

But I’m not here to toast the Pistol. As the starting point guard on the Rundell Junior High School Tigers, 16-1 rulers of all the pine trees we surveyed in the middle of north Louisiana in 1973, I had to pay attention to ball-handling. I emulated Maravich like every other kid dribbler in those days, but to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, “a boy’s gotta know his limitations.”

I also knew coach Bill DeCou would sit my fanny next to him on the bench in a second if I turned it over too much, or if I turned it over at all trying something I’d seen Pete do.

So while I would sneak in a behind-the-back pass or a between-the-legs dribble once every semester or so, only when loosely guarded, I knew what looked good, and I knew what was prudent, and they were not the same.

Today, what looks good is paramount. That’s not totally terrible. Ballers grow up scoping out SportsCenter, and your basic layup, your solid skip pass and your turnover-light night never make the Top 10 package. Style is the standard. It’s fun to watch, even more fun to do.

Pete Maravich’s creative genius arrived just as college basketball found some footing on TV. It was perfect timing for an alien being to wear jersey 23 in purple and white, and then don No. 44 in various hues during his NBA career. You KNEW there were UFOs because you saw Pete play.

But he played with old-school rules. Watch him dribble with his hand on top of the ball, not halfway or less on the side of it. Pistol was cupping it and scooping to make a move, but he was not putting the rock back on the floor and continuing his dribble.

That’s routine nowadays. A player getting called for carrying is as rare as concurrence in Congress.

The Pistol’s panache is unmatched in today’s game. We may have greater shooters (Steph Curry leads the way), we may have greater talents (your pick, LeBron, Kobe, Durant, and of course, MJ) and we have epic dunkers of all sizes from all over.

But the rulemakers, and the stripes with whistles, have dumbed down ball-handling. Pistol Pete was certainly not The Last Boy Scout, he admitted when he found Christianity late in his career (and sadly, his life). But because the bar has been lowered, we’ll never encounter a modern baller who controls the rock remotely as well as he did, and that’s too bad.

There is a saving grace for today’s game, however. If you ever can, check out Red Panda. And if you don’t know, there’s YouTube.