'PISTOL PETE" Maravich never got to wear that Sixers jersey, the one with 44 on the back. Never got to run the break with Julius Erving, ebony and ivory, Maravich flicking one of those behind-the-back passes that the Doc could catch in full stride, and then soar, up, up, up.

Slam dunk! The net shimmying, the Spectrum shimmying too, with noise and did-you-see-that joy.

Call it the fickle finger of fate. Or blame the luck of the shamrock.

Urban myth or a true story? It was 1980, and the frugal and unsentimental Utah Jazz had cut Maravich. Doug Collins was sidelined with a gimpy foot and the Sixers needed backcourt help. Boston, a cigar-breath behind in the standings, did too.

So Maravich came east, stopping in Philly first. He waltzed through the interviews. His mended knee passed Dr. Michael Clancy's test. A giddy news conference loomed. But then Pete bolted from Temple Hospital and caught a plane to Boston. Signed with the Celtics the next day.

There are two, count 'em, two books about Maravich in the stores right now. One is called "Pistol" by Mark Kriegel, who writes with a New York swagger and sizzle. There's a portrait of Maravich on the cover, sheepdog haircut nearly shielding those basset-sad eyes. The other is "Maravich" by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill. Black, low-cut sneakers on the cover, unlaced, stuffed with a pair of gray, floppy socks.

Both books very readable, very sad, all those painful details about a dysfunctional family, about a troubled child who almost grows into a troubled adult. Houdini on the court, nothing up his sleeves except rubbery arms that ended with hands fluttering like doves. Some Pagliacci too, clowning on the outside, crying on the inside.

And then, a few years before he died young, a spiritual awakening. Died at 40, playing basketball, what else. In a church gymnasium, where else. It is the saddest of stories, worth reading, because there had never been anyone like Pistol Pete Maravich before, and there has never been anyone like him since.

He could pull up on a sequin, which is smaller than a dime. He could look right and pass left to an open teammate, hammering the ball with his right wrist. He averaged 44 a game at LSU, which translates to 50, because there was no three-point line back then, and so many of his shots were rainbows from 25 feet and hit nothing but net.

Pat Williams was the general manager of the Phillies' farm club in Spartanburg, S.C., first time he saw Maravich. Same Pat Williams who was the GM of the Atlanta Hawks when he traded Maravich to the expansion New Orleans Jazz. Same Pat Williams who was the GM of the Sixers in '80 when Maravich grumbled out of Temple Hospital on the way to Boston.

"Two of the local writers said they were going to Athens, Ga., to see Maravich," Williams recalled. He has a Kodachrome memory and a gift for storytelling. "I remember the Georgia Fieldhouse. I remember one of the most unbelievable evenings of my life. It was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

"And that was it, a rite of winter for so many people in small SEC towns like Athens and Starkville, once a year, here comes the traveling show. Two years later, I'm the GM of the Chicago Bulls and my first draft is the Maravich draft. Pete, Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Calvin Murphy, Nate Archibald.

"My next stop, fall of '73, I move over to the Hawks, and there's Pete, as a human being, at the low point of his life. Alcohol issues, insecurity, family woes, a nightmare. We couldn't go on that way.

"New Orleans started running hard at me, asking 'What would it take to get Pete?' I kept asking for more and more and more. Finally, the Atlanta owner, Tom Cousins said, 'Don't ask for anything more, you'll break that franchise.'

"On May 3, 1974, it was my job to break the news to Pete. He asked, 'What did you get for me?' I told him [two players from the expansion draft, a first-round pick, two second-round picks, a swap of draft positions for 2 years] and he said, 'Is that all?' "

Let the record show the Hawks squandered the draft picks acquired in a trade so lopsided, it was called "The Louisiana Purchase."

"And then, in '80," Williams said, picking up the narrative, "Utah waived him and Philly needed help at guard. So did Boston. The only question mark was his knee, and we got the OK on that. And then Dr. Stan Lorber gave him a full physical, including a rectal exam, including the finger test. Pete was not happy with that. He left.

"I can't say that was the determining factor. I do remember hearing from the late Fitz Dixon [the team owner] the next day. He was not happy. I remember trying to explain why we didn't get Pete.

"He went to Boston, said he had always wanted to be a Celtic, so maybe we had no chance. And then [coach] Bill Fitch buried him. Hardly played him. And we went out and got Lionel Hollins and beat Boston in the playoffs."

And got hammered by the Lakers in the Finals, including the game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed with an ankle injury and Magic Johnson played center and scored 42.

Maravich walked away from the NBA after that season.

"And then I saw Pete after his spiritual conversion," Williams remembered. "He would conduct chapel services at the All-Star Game. I can't recall a human being with more dramatic change to his life. He became a wonderful, warm, compassionate, loving human being.

"He had found peace of mind, peach of soul, peace of heart. And it was a beautiful ending to his story."

It's all there, in both books. "Maravich" tells in glowing prose of the time Pete did play with Doctor J. Preseason, in Atlanta, because the Hawks had signed Erving illegally, even though the Virginia Cavaliers had a contract with him, and even though Milwuakee would get Erving's NBA draft rights.

They were great together. And maybe they could have recaptured that magic with the Sixers. And maybe a finger kept it from happening.

And maybe Maravich really wanted to be a Celtic, just one more stumble in a tangled string of bad decisions. *

Send e-mail to stanrhoch@verizon.net.