An extravaganza of sport to surfeit the most demanding fan annually highlights the holiday season—bringing football's Bowl games and basketball's Christmas tournaments. For football it is the end of a year; for basketball, the beginning.
Of the 60-odd major college basketball teams that played in the annual holiday tournaments across the country last week, the University of Pittsburgh may well have been the most inept. At the same time, it featured the skills of a chunky, cheerful young man who is easily one of the finest players on any campus in the nation—Don Leroy Hennon. Pitt split two games in New York's Madison Square Garden, losing to Temple (76-71) and beating Manhattan (71-63) as Hennon scored 35 points; without Hennon, the Pitt team would hardly have rated tickets to watch the games.
At the end of the first three weeks of the college season, Hennon was the country's leading scorer with a 31.2 average—ahead of such worthies as Kansas' Wilt Chamberlain, Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson and Mississippi State's Bailey Howell. To these three, he yields from nine to 16 inches in height; but neither to them nor to any other collegians this year does he yield savvy or schooling in the game of basketball.
When Hennon was 7 years old, his grandfather Ernie hammered a basket to the living-room door of their home in Wampum, Pa. Thereafter, little Don, his father, grandpa Ernie, several uncles and oldest sister Janice played basketball in the living room whenever they could get together. They ruined the living-room rug and almost ruined Mrs. Hennon's disposition, but they gave the boy's crackling reflexes and innate competitiveness some spirited workouts. Between that Wampum living-room "gym" and the Pitt Field-house, Hennon has undergone the kind of training which would have made a good athlete of almost any boy. For 24 years, his father has taught history and coached basketball at Wampum High. For 14 years, he has been principal as well. In a town of Wampum's size-considerably less than 2,000—the public-education system demands multipurpose pedagogues, so Butler Hennon has also supervised athletics in the elementary and junior high schools all that time. He starts boys in the third and fourth grades at basketball—on a regulation court but with volleyballs, which are somewhat smaller and lighter. There are varsity teams at all three levels of the school system and Don played for his father on each of these teams. In his senior year in high school, Wampum won the state championship in its class, and Don put the finishing touches on an alltime scoring record—2,376 points—that placed him ahead of such previous Pennsylvania products as Chamberlain and Tom Gola. Butler Hennon has records of his own: for eight years in a row now, Wampum has won its sectional title; over the past three years, its league won-lost figures are 113-3.
"Here's how Dad does it," Hennon explained the other day. "He takes ordinary sunglasses, knocks out the lenses and tapes them up so you can't see through them. A player wears them about halfway down his nose, so he can see over them but not downward, and he dribbles the ball through an obstacle course of chairs—something like a ski slalom run. First with his left hand, then with his right, and he's timed for each run so he can work on increasing his speed. Sometimes Dad would make us wear gloves at the same time, to develop control over the ball. What the exercise teaches is dribbling and maneuvering without watching the ball, so you can spot a free man and pass to him. Too many players look at the ball while dribbling and miss opportunities. In a squad scrimmage, Dad will make the defending team wear heavy galoshes—you know, the kind you have to buckle on. You really learn to slide with your man on defense that way, and when you take the galoshes off it's so much easier. He starts kids jumping rope every day in the early grades, to develop spring and balance, and throwing heavy medicine balls around to develop strength. He's got a lot of other tricks—in addition to coaching the fundamentals, of course—and they all help."
That his father's teaching and training methods helped Hennon is self-evident. "Doc" Carlson, Pitt's fiery, longtime basketball coach and present Director of Health Services for men, puts it this way: "Don Hennon is a triumph of pedagogy."
When Pitt's team comes out on the court, Hennon—at 5 foot 8—seems lost among the 6-footers. He might be the water boy, helping to warm up the varsity. But when he strips off his sweat suit to reveal a solid 185 pounds of smooth muscle, and when he starts throwing the ball at the basket from fantastic angles and with equally fantastic accuracy, it is clear that here indeed is a triumph of coordination and teaching. Every rival coach has testified that it is next to impossible to contain him. A consensus summary reads thus: "When Hennon brings the ball up-court, he'll take his shot right off the dribble without an instant's hesitation if you lay off him the least bit. If you go after him, he'll go around you so fast that you don't even have time to foul him. If you double-team him, he'll get the ball to a free teammate." Duquesne Coach Dudey Moore, the most astute judge of campus talent in the country, says: "If I had my pick of college players I've seen, I'd take Chamberlain first and Hennon second." If this statement, made just before Duquesne played Pitt, may be a shade overenthusiastic, what Moore said after the game is even more significant: "Hennon is as good a play-maker as Temple's All-America, Guy Rodgers, whom I used to consider the best, and he's much more of a scoring threat than Rodgers."
It is this phenomenal young man's fate to be playing with a group of collegians who simply do not have the talent to help him in any way. In fact, with the single exception of a forward named Julius Pegues, they hinder him. If he doesn't score when Pitt gets the ball, no one else will. If he doesn't handle the ball, someone else is almost sure to throw it away or lose it on a schoolboy-type rule violation. When he sets up his teammates by drawing two or three defending players to him, the free Pitt men seem to be wearing Butler Hennon's galoshes and taped sunglasses. In each game Hennon must score against impossible odds—and he succeeds often enough to keep the game interesting. On a team of reasonably tall men, he is the second-best rebounder. Worst of all is the fact that not a single Pitt player is either able or willing to set a simple screen for him. Shooting behind such elementary protection, Hennon would average 40 points a game, beyond argument.
FURMAN WAS TOO WEAK
Early this season, in a game against a weak Furman team, Hennon had 38 points in the first 33 minutes. The Pitt Fieldhouse record was 42 and he was a cinch to break it. With seven minutes to go, Hennon insisted on leaving the game. He told his coach, Bob Timmons, that he was certainly interested in setting a new record, but he wanted to do it against real opposition. And he refused to go back. Two weeks later, he was satisfied with the opposition—a strong Duke team. He scored 45 points on 20 field goals and five free throws. He will undoubtedly match his record of 573 points set as a sophomore last season.
Fortunately for Hennon, he has another abiding interest in life—in an area where he is on his own and does not have to function as a team player. He wants to be a doctor, one reason he accepted a scholarship at Pittsburgh, which has an excellent medical school. Toward that end, he made himself an A student in high school and thus far at Pitt he is a shade under A in his first two years.