Somewhere in deepest West Virginia, Hot Rod Hundley got up from a speakeasy bar. "It's been a little slice of heaven," Hot Rod said. He says that quite a bit. He picked it up from a bartender named Pat McGrath when he was a substitute beachboy one summer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Wait a minute," this West Virginia bartender said. "Aren't you Hot Rod Hundley?" Hot Rod still hears that quite a bit in West Virginia.
"No. 33 in your program, No. 1 in your heart," Hot Rod said, even throatier than usual. He has a very throaty voice that sounds something like Billy Eckstine's until he imitates Billy Eckstine.
"Rod Hundley!" the bartender exclaimed, marveling at the thought of it. "I saw you play at WVU. Have one on me."
November 29, 1965
"Cutty and water," Hot Rod said, settling back down naturally enough. "Take me, don't tease me." He picked that up from Pat McGrath, too. He says that Pat McGrath is "the greatest bartender in the world."
"It's Rod Hundley back," the man dealing blackjack told his constituents at the table.
"How sweet it is," murmured Hot Rod. What he speaks most of the time is sort of a vocal pop art.
He leaned back at the bar, and all these people in the place came over and reminisced about seeing him play. Hot Rod led the reminiscing. It had been a decade since he was clowning and, incidentally, playing All-America basketball at West Virginia University. Now he was back, a representative for a basketball-shoe firm, and going back can sometimes be a disillusioning confrontation for an old star. With Hundley, however, there was no such problem. The people back home consider him as much a personality as an All-America.
Still, they all said proudly that they had seen him play. This is possible, for Hot Rod Hundley has played West Virginia. Besides playing at the university in Morgantown, he played in high school in Charleston and in the summer leagues in Wheeling, where he performed for Spear's Oilers and Stobbs Parking. Spear's did not have a very good team. Whitey, the coach, used to mix gin and tonic on the bench. Whitey mixed the gin and tonic for the players. "We called a lot of time-outs," Hot Rod reminisced.
After he used up his college eligibility, Hundley turned down an offer from Abe Saperstein who, like Marques Haynes later, fancied Rod as sort of a white Globetrotter. Instead, Hot Rod toured all over the state—all over—with the Hundley All-Stars. They played 30 games in 30 nights: Mason, Ravens-wood, Logan, Moundsville, Iaeger, New Martinsville, Hundred, Sistersville and other, smaller towns in between. So it is possible that literally everybody in West Virginia saw Hot Rod Hundley play.
Hundley had been away from West Virginia for a long time, though. He had gone first to Minneapolis in 1957 and then to Hollywood to play with the Lakers in 1960. He lived in Malibu Beach, wore suits specially styled for Cesar Romero, dedicated baskets to, and twisted with, Doris Day, tried out for the lead TV role in No Time for Sergeants (lengthy portions of which he can still recite verbatim) and provided reams of copy for the L.A. journalists. He also sat on the bench a lot watching another Mountaineer, Jerry West, lead the Lakers. Soon it was time for Hot Rod to find honest employment.
He signed on with the Converse Rubber Company as one of 10 ex-ballplayers whose salesmanship and promotional finesse absolutely obliterate the competition in the basketball-shoe market. Hundley took over a territory that includes West Virginia—which is why he was back now, sipping a Cutty and water, playing blackjack and doubling down on 8s. "What if the joint is raided?" a stranger to the speakeasy asked Hot Rod. "Just make sure you get in the same cell as the dealer," Hot Rod said, taking a hit at 15. The people all around roared and said, "Yeah, Rod." ("Maybe you can end the story with that," Hot Rod suggested later.)
Driving out of Wayne toward Huntington the next day, Hundley negotiated a typical West Virginia curve. "Hey, listen to this," Hot Rod said. When he says, "Hey, listen to this," it means there is a punch line coming. "Hey, if they flattened this state out it would be bigger than Texas. And hey, listen to this. The roads here curve so much, most of the time you can see the back of your own head in the rearview mirror. But hey, I love it, the old Mountain State. It's a little slice of heaven."
(Later, in explaining why he makes Greensboro, N.C. his home now, Hot Rod said, "I couldn't live here. Hey, I just know too many people.")
Touring West Virginia or the rest of his territory—Virginia and North Carolina—Hundley sees sporting-goods dealers, coaches and other basketball officials, gives clinics and makes speeches for Converse, and particularly for the Converse 'Chuck' Taylor All Star basketball shoe. The All Star is basketball's Jell-O. It dominates its market the way the Louisville Slugger and the Northland hockey stick dominate theirs.
"Selling All Stars really isn't hard," Hot Rod admitted, fighting a turn near Parkersburg. "Before I took over West Virginia this great old salesman named Pooch Curry had the state. Pooch wasn't a player. He's a fisherman. He would just storm into a store, throw his order pad on the counter and yell that he was rushed—so just hurry up and fill it out yourselves for the All Stars. Hey, nobody ever carries a sample."
Still, fashion fans, there is a minor revolution going on in the basketball-shoe world. For the first time low-cuts have begun to outsell high-top sneakers. Also black shoes are back in style, and the In thing to wear is the black low-cut. "It started in California," Hundley explains. "With the surfers. Hey, listen to this. Now the kids call them bossa novas." Moving down a stretch on Route 4 near Gassaway, which he calls the Gassaway Straightaway, Rod did a little bossa nova twitch at the wheel. "Bossa novas, how sweet it is," he said.
Hundley is enthusiastic about anything going on around him. He also laughs at nearly anything, with an almost sinister cackle that belies his little-boy look, and he is one of the last of the great leerers. However, although now 31, he still is occasionally asked in bars where he is not recognized for proof of his age.
Silence wears on him, particularly his own. To keep the dreaded thing away he will even babble on with his older daughter, Kimberly. Kimberly is just 3, and Hot Rod can hardly wait till Jacqueline, who is 8 months, is also capable of sustaining conversation. (Hundley's pretty brunette wife is named Florence. If they have a third daughter she will be named Stephanie. "When you hear about a broad named Kimberly or Jacqueline or Stephanie," Hot Rod says, "hey, you want to meet this broad. But Jane or Mary or something...")
To combat the quiet while driving alone on the job, Hot Rod will often deliver his favorite imitations. These include (more or less in their usual order of appearance) Dale Robertson's Pall Mall cigarette commercial, Walter Brennan, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Addie introducing the gentleman who is "counting for the knockdowns at the bell," Don Dunphy describing a fight that is always between Joey Giardello and Joe Giambra, and the P.A. announcer in Madison Square Garden. Other times Hot Rod will suddenly just cry out exuberantly, "How sweet it is!" or "It's a little slice of heaven!" or sing this refrain from a hillbilly song:
I've got a feeling
That I'll be stealing
Back to Wheeling, West V.A.
Hot Rod sings this when he is actually headed for Wheeling, but when the mood hits he will sing it anywhere. He sang it as he came past the State Pen in Moundsville, driving toward McMechen, where Johnny's Sport Center is. "Well," he said, turning off the air conditioning and picking up his stylish briefcase, "let's see if we can feel a pulse here."
Johnny's Sport Center occupies the basement of Johnny's house, and Johnny himself was wearing a pair of high-cut black All Stars. Bossa novas apparently have not hit McMechen yet. While Hot Rod was there some of Johnny's friends came by to shake the hand of No. 1 in their hearts and reminisce. Johnny complained that the big discount stores were cutting prices on All Stars. "Rod, there's a shaped-up mess in this valley," Johnny said. Hot Rod assured him that those stores weren't even allowed to carry All Stars. Johnny said they did, so Hot Rod agreed to look into things in Wheeling, where he would be staying that night. Friedrichs, a store up there, was sponsoring a Hot Rod Hundley clinic in the hills at Bethany. Rod moved back to the car, flipped on the air conditioning and tooled up the road, singing:
I've got a feeling
That I'll be stealing
Back to Wheeling...
After checking in at Friedrichs, where he autographed several scrapbooks that loyal fans brought in, Hot Rod got a good plug in for Converse on a TV appearance and then prepared for the trip to Bethany. Even in West Virginia this journey enjoys a special reputation. To all who offered transportation Hot Rod insisted he would drive himself to his own clinic. He said that on the Wheeling-to-Bethany route "it is easiest if you have a steering wheel to hang on to." This turned out to be very true. In Bethany he entertained a representative clinic crowd of about 200—students, high school coaches, players and old Hundley buddies. In addition to providing laughs, Hot Rod showed that he is a remarkably good teacher, much more effective than those instructors who approach the task with the technique of a catechism. Everyone stays awake and listens to Hundley; no one wants to miss anything. A typical Hot Rod clinic lesson, on dribbling, goes this way: "Don't bat the ball. [He bats it.] Treat it like [a leer]—like your girl friend. Easy. [Leer, bounces the ball gently.] And hey, don't ever watch the ball when you're dribbling. [He puts his eyeballs on the ball.] Why? Why not do that? Because if you're dribbling along [dribbling along, eyes wandering] and the ball goes down and doesn't come up again [it bounces away]. Hey, you can be sure that someone else has it. Right? You don't have to watch the ball to know that. That's why [leer]."
At clinics Hot Rod tells a lot of stories about himself and Jerry West, aiming all the humor at himself, the way Joe Garagiola talks about Yogi Berra. Some of the stories are true. Throughout West Virginia, however, Hundley now laughs at anecdotes about himself and West that he made up for gags but which are passed back to him as gospel. He often uses youngsters from his audience at clinics and enjoys it when they try to show him up. Indeed, he encourages it. Recently, near the end of his instruction on defense in Williamson, his helper was doing a very good job of guarding Hundley. Too good. Suddenly Hot Rod stepped up the tempo to full speed, dribbled across court and came to a quick halt, catching the ball off the dribble between his knees. The local boy was faked halfway out of the Williamson gym and, therefore, halfway out of Williamson. A big grin on his face, Hot Rod then casually lifted up a 30-foot hook shot that swished right through the net. The crowd gaped. "That's what I call string music," Hot Rod announced. "That's it! Roll that Converse film!" Hot Rod was the toast of the Williamson Moose Club later. The beer flowed. "I haven't played Williamson since '57," Hot Rod said.
Those were the days of the Hundley tour. Hot Rod had rounded up some teammates and other spear carriers for his squad; the other team was the West Virginia Conference All-Stars. Hot Rod loves newspaper sports clichés—he has total recall of his favorite hackneyed headlines, all the way back to his high school days, i.e., SOPH SENSATION HUNDLEY TALLIES 42 AS MOUNTAIN LIONS ROMP—so he took charge of preparing the introductions himself. Every player was a "perennial All-State selection," or "rookie sensation," or "local favorite." The player-coach of the Hundley All-Stars, heretofore plain old Jim Sottile, became "Player-Coach Jumpin' Jim Sottile, the Bristol Bomber from Bristol, P.A." There was always one "two-time All-America from Villanova," Villanova being selected because Hot Rod liked the way it rolled off the announcer's tongue. Usually "the two-time All-America" turned out to be Moe Kruk, a fellow Hundley had picked up playing in the Charleston YMCA league.
"But hey, listen to this," Hot Rod says. "I would always be the last one introduced, and with me it would just be the name: 'And now...Hot...Rod!...Hunnndddllleyyy!' And hey, the place would go wild."
The All-Stars used a lot of Globetrotter tricks, with Hot Rod leading the fun, of course. He never could take the game seriously enough, which is one reason he never achieved what was expected of him. Part of the problem was that he became too good too soon. At 17 he was good enough to make the Philadelphia Warriors but was persuaded to go back to school. His own estimate is, "I really would have to say I was the greatest high school player ever. The greatest I ever saw, anyway." He may be right.
At the university in Morgantown, freshman basketball was a drag for Hundley from the start. The frosh Mountaineers were murdering everybody, outdrawing the varsity. To make things interesting, Hundley sometimes refused to take a shot for a whole game. And then it really happened. Against one outmanned team Hundley came down on a fast break. A chubby fellow, trying mightily to contend with Hundley's moves, finally collapsed and fell down, tumbling over his own feet. Instead of driving past him, Hundley found this very funny, tucked the ball under an arm and doubled up with laughter. Eventually he put the ball down and helped his confused opponent to his feet. "Hey, the place went wild," he says. "So the next time I came down the court I just did this sort of jitterbug dance step with the ball. You know. Hey, you could hear it. The place is buzzing. And that's when it happened. This little bell rang. I said, 'Rod, baby, what have you got here?' " Somebody named him Hot Rod shortly thereafter, and he never again played much serious basketball. He dribbled with his knees, spun the ball all over the place, mugged it up, hung on the baskets and shot hook shots for fouls. He did this once as a sophomore when he needed one point for a Southern Conference tournament record, and he missed both fouls. "If I make 'em," Hot Rod said later, "what have I got to shoot for next year?" Most public establishments in Morgantown have a picture of this episode prominently displayed on their walls. When Coach Fred Schaus would take Hot Rod out of a game, Hundley would get up at the end of the bench and lead cheers for himself. For his swan song he got the team to set up in a T formation, with himself as quarterback. But he was All-America, and he also won the school's three-cushion billiard championship—accomplishments that pleased him about equally.
So they have hardly forgotten Hot Rod in Morgantown. He came down Route 19 from Wheeling through Star City on his recent tour, and there, over the next mountain, was his motel, its billboard announcing: WELCOME HOT ROD HUNDLEY. The West Virginia football team came by in its bus on the way to practice and spotted Rod there, admiring his sign. "Hey, Hot Rod," they screamed out of the windows. "How sweet it is," he said. ("Maybe you can end the story with that," Hot Rod suggested.) Later men hanging around outside United Miners Lodge 589 saw him and came shuffling over just to shake his hand. Everywhere a lot of Cutty and water was on the house.
Hot Rod dropped into Freddie's, his favorite hangout. "Hang out, hang in, hang up," Freddie Cavallaro said. "He was here every night." Pickles Hines said, "The four years he was here I never saw my wife. Got a dime, Freddie? I've got to call home. Jane will never believe who is here."
Freddie fished for the dime. "He got through four years on one pack of cigarettes," Pickles said at the phone. "Hello, honey. You'll never believe who's here. [Pause] Rod Hundley. [Quickly.] No, really. [Quickly again.] No, no. I won't be too long." Hot Rod leered. "Hey, he's exaggerating about the cigarettes," Rod said. "They always kid me about that."
Pickles sat down, and the group that had gathered started reminiscing about Hot Rod. Hot Rod led the reminiscing. As it does among West Virginians, talk soon shifted to the rest of the state. Hot Rod brought the news from all over. He said he was going down to Charleston the next night, with sporting goods stops along the way in Fairmont and Clarksburg. That reminded Pickles: "Remember the time you brought the All-Stars into Clarksburg?"
"Hey," Hot Rod said, "listen to this."
"A guy is hurt," Pickles went on, "and they need an extra. Hell, I haven't played in five years, but Rod insists. So now I'm all dressed up in this uniform—and remember, this is just down the road in Clarksburg—and all of a sudden—"
("Hey, listen to this," Hot Rod said.)
"—here are the introductions, and the announcer says: 'And now for the Hundley All-Stars. At forward, a two-time All-America from Villanova, the fabulous Pickles Hines.' The place went wild!" ("Maybe you can end the story with that," Hot Rod said.) Hundley bummed a cigarette from Pickles. The house picked up the check. "Home away from home," Hot Rod said.
Home itself was Charleston or, as Hundley identifies it offhand, "The chemical capital of the world, where the Kanaiwha River meets the muddy Elk." Rod grew up there, an only child, virtually orphaned by his parents' separation. Mostly he played basketball and pool—at the YMCA and The Strand. As he walked into The Strand the old-timers saw him and put their cues down and came over to say hello, POSITIVELY NO DRINKING OF ANY INTOXICANTS ALLOWED ON PREMISES was stenciled on most of the walls. Hot Rod had on a one-button Cesar Romero suit without pockets. It did not have cuffs, of course. "Once you go without cuffs, you can never wear them again," Hot Rod says, as if it is a matter of war and peace. The shirt was white-on-white, without pockets but with extra-long points and French cuffs, though Hot Rod says he understands French cuffs are on the way out. Obviously everyone in The Strand was enthralled by the sight.
"My father worked here," Hot Rod said, fondling a cue. "Butch Hundley. Everyone called him Butch. I mean, even I called him Butch. A lot of people thought he was the best pool player in West Virginia, and this was tough pool territory. Remember Butch, Mose?"
Mose, the owner of The Strand now, said, "Sure, Rod."
"He was a good one, wasn't he?" Hot Rod asked. "One of the best?"
"Sure he was," Mose said.
"They had some big games here in Charleston," Rod went on. "Butch was the houseman here—and over at The Arcade, too, when he worked there—on all the razzle-dazzle games. I can see him now. He'd come in wearing a new white shirt, and the first thing he'd do was turn the cuffs back. Hey, right away, roll 'em back—one, two, three times. Then put a cigarette in his mouth.
"I played pool long before I played any basketball. Hey, listen to this. I gave a speech the other night, and I started off telling them how I had a pool table in my house. I told them I wanted my children to have the same advantages that I did. Hey, the place went wild."
Hot Rod said good night to Mose, waved to the oldtimers and headed up the street to Babe's place. There all the other people from the Chemical City greeted him at the bar; he said, "Take me, don't tease me," and he got a Cutty and water on the house; he told all the people about Converse and West Virginia; he picked up a cue so he could play Buzz some skill pool, and hey, listen to this, it looked altogether like a little slice of heaven.
You can always end a Hot Rod Hundley story that way.