World's Greatest (and doubtless only) Freak Shot Expert Wilfred Hetzel, who was discharged from the Army in 1943 "for nervousness," is nervous now. In the assembly program at Ladysmith (Va.) High School this morning, the kids were a little restless, and his performance a little ragged. True, he hit over 70% of his gallimaufry of shots—with eyes shut, with legs crossed, with legs downright entwined, on the bounce off the floor, from one foot, from one knee, from both knees, from behind the backboard (frontward and backward), from up on his toes, from back on his heels (toes in the air) and in various combinations of the above. The kids responded with a gleeful shout, as he says they almost always do, to his "goofy series," in which he suddenly assumes a fey, exaggeratedly knock-kneed or bowlegged stance and then lets fly.
But the days of his 60-foot and 70-foot peg shots, which he used to make off ceilings or over rafters or simply from one end of the court to the other, are gone. Now, 58 years old and weakened by an operation for TB, the man who bills himself as "Thrice Featured in Believe It or Not and Twice in Strange as It Seems" can shoot the ball only underhanded (except on his bounce shots) and seldom from farther out than the foul line. And in 14 tries at Ladysmith, his 18-foot dropkick, his most spectacular remaining shot, was in and out once but never quite swished. The kids cheered frequently and came up for autographs afterward but, as Hetzel says, "If I can't impress them as the best—well, that's the point."
Now, sitting in the boys' dressing room of Louisa County High School in Mineral, Va., 30 miles from Ladysmith, he is shaking, and drinking his fifth cup of coffee to counteract "spots of fatigue." He got only four hours of sleep last night because the pills he has been taking for his sciatica since 1949 keep him awake in spite of Sominex. The principal of this just-integrated 580-pupil school has consented to move Mr. Hetzel's performance up from 2:30 to 1 o'clock so he won't have to sit around getting tenser.
"Nothing terrifies me more," Hetzel says, "than for the ball to be falling just short by inches—because these students don't know, they don't realize the handicaps. And then maybe some of the students start laughing, and I try harder. What some people can't understand is that I'm governed by averages, too."
April 20, 1970
With that he sheds his suit, revealing himself in the maroon shorts, the gold shirt lettered WILFRED HETZEL on the front and FREAK SHOT SPECIALIST on the back, the worn black-top shoes and the straggly strips of tape on his knees (kneepads shift too much when he kneels to shoot) that constitute his working uniform. He has worn this outfit underneath his clothes on the road since 1962; he had read that Esther Williams kept her bathing suit on underneath for quick changes during her appearance tours. Distractedly, Hetzel proceeds to the gym and takes a few practice shots as the kids file in. Then he presents himself and relates, in an absorbed, recitative voice, a brief history of his involvement in freak shooting.
Not the comprehensive history, because he hasn't the time. If he were to include all the material he is more than happy to bring forth in conversation, he would go back to 1924, when, in Melrose, Minn. at the age of 12, he nailed a barrel hoop to the side of the family woodshed and took his first shot. If you start counting then, Hetzel has said, "and if you include all the times with a baseball, a kittenball, a soccer ball, a rag ball, some socks tied together in the form of a ball, a tennis ball, a football—I had to learn to shoot the football end over end so that it would nose down at just the right moment and pass through that small hoop"—if you count all those shots, along with the 30,000 hours he estimates he has spent shooting a regulation basketball through a real basket, says Hetzel—"I have probably shot more goals than any man in history."
In his backyard there by the woodshed he shot them year-round, in rain, snow, in tricky gusts of wind ("It was a thrill to have the wind pick up the ball and blow it six or seven feet through the hoop") and in temperatures down to 20° below. He pretended he was the University of Minnesota and also its opponents, which meant, since he did his best for both sides, that Minnesota lost half the time. He would plan out a complete schedule in advance, but when the Gophers had lost too many games to hope for a Big Ten crown, he would start over. When he tells audiences this, Hetzel says, it gives the coaches present a good laugh "because they wish they could start a season over. Of course, it's so much easier the way I do it, all make-believe."
The first time young Wilfred tried shooting with a real basketball, "it went straight, three feet under the basket, like a pass."
"Gee whiz," remarked an unkind neighborhood boy who was watching, "if I couldn't do any better than that, I'd quit."
"He was one of those boys," recalls Hetzel, "who move away a few years later, and you don't know what happened to them." One of those boys, in other words, who do not go on to become the world's greatest anything.
Somewhat later, Wilfred started doing a little shooting in the local gym—but it wasn't easy. "There were some boys there, after school, who were good at clever fakery, dribbling, passing and that, and they would hog the ball. I might have to wait two hours, from 3:30 to 5:30, until they went home and I could get in five minutes of shooting before the janitor locked the ball up. Or maybe he would lock it up as soon as they quit. I'd think nothing later of shooting 5,000 times, because I'd been deprived of it for so long."
There was no question of Hetzel's going after one of those clever-faking boys one-on-one and taking the ball away, because ball handling has never been his forte. It has never been even a part of his portfolio. The truth is that Wilfred Hetzel, who has made 144 straight foul shots standing on one foot, who bills himself as "One of Basketball's Immortals," has never learned to dribble.
"I realized I would never be good at the game one day in PT class when I was a freshman in high school," he says now. "We were supposed to do what they called a figure-eight drill. I'd be a forward, and the center would pass it to me, and I would pass it to the other forward and then I wouldn't know where to go. They never explained it to me in detail, never diagramed it or anything. After I fouled it up twice, I knew I'd never play. I was too slow and kind of awkward in other ways."
Hetzel did serve the high school team briefly as a scrub, and "I made a few shots against the first team, and I'd pass it pretty well, but I never did dribble. And I'd be open for a shot and very seldom would anyone pass it to me. There were cliques on the team—they'd pass it to their friends."
He got into one unofficial game against a local telephone team, didn't shoot and committed two technical fouls by neglecting to check in with the timekeeper each time he went in. The year before, his uniform was stolen twice. He decided to quit organized basketball forever (except for a brief exhibition game appearance with Western Union College in Le Mars, Iowa many years later, when he was inserted to shoot two foul shots and hit one).
In fact, young Wilfred found that he had no great knack for any competitive sport. In baseball he could hit fungoes with precision and catch fly balls gloveless in his big, long-fingered hands, but he was too slow to play the outfield and couldn't get the bat around fast enough to hit pitching.
But that just meant more time for shooting basketballs by himself every day, including the day his father, a Bavarian immigrant and railroad man, was killed. The water tank for which the elder Hetzel was responsible was out of order, and evidently he went up to its rim to investigate. No one saw him fall in through the layer of ice, but when 16-year-old Wilfred came in for lunch, his father's hamburger was overcooking on the stove. Finally Mrs. Hetzel took it off. "The ice froze back over," as Hetzel tells it, "and they had to get special permission from division headquarters to go in and see if he was there. And he was."
It is easy enough to see a fateful symbolism in the mode of the father's death—the son doomed to act it out with a basketball over and over again—but Hetzel says he has never seen any irony in it. By the time his father died, at any rate, he had already devoted hundreds of hours to what was to become his vocation.
Pretty soon Hetzel was making 98 out of 100 from the free-throw line. But he never had any witnesses, "and people thought if I really had a talent like that I would be on the team." So one day as a high school senior, he put on an impromptu lunch-hour exhibition in the school gym. That was his first show, in 1929. "I've thought about writing Ed Sullivan," he says, "and saying they're all talking so much about the sports stars of the Golden '20s—Red Grange and so on—and here I am, out of the '20s and still performing."
But in those early days he had no tricks, just free throws, performed at no charge. Upon graduation from high school he moved with his mother, who had remarried, to nearby Sauk Centre, Minn., and began to do some sports-writing for local daily and weekly papers. In the line of duty, he would attend Sauk Centre games, and while the players were dressing he would seize the opportunity to take the floor in his street clothes and shoot before a crowd. He went so far as to write himself up in one of the papers, in the third person: "Wilfred Hetzel of Sauk Centre, in a recent practice session, hit 467 free throws out of 500."
Meanwhile, the local team was doing well to hit 40% from the foul line—and he reported that, too. "The fans in Sauk Centre were so hateful to me in those years," he says. "Maybe it was my fault because I slammed their team in the paper. Maybe I was like a prima donna. But once I made 120 of 122 before a game, 82 straight, and I walked off the floor, and there wasn't a single handclap. But you know, they've never had a bad team since? It kind of woke them up when I slammed them."
And then one night, in the visiting cheering section, someone woke up to Wilfred Hetzel. "This very beautiful girl came down and made such a fuss about me," he recalls. "The home people never made any fuss. The principal's son would take a couple of shots before throwing my ball back to me, and they would laugh at my embarrassment. But this beautiful girl raved about how good I was. Well, the next night Sauk Centre was to play at that girl's school, and I planned to ride with the team over there in hopes of seeing her again. But at the last minute they took only one car and didn't have room for me.
"So, rather than waste the day, I got in through the window of the gym in Melrose and practiced. I'd make 17 in a row several times, and then I'd miss. I got disgusted. 'I could do better than this with my eyes closed,' I told myself. So I just tried it that way. I shot 100 with my eyes closed and made 74. That was my first trick. I never did see that girl again."
Gradually Hetzel's reputation spread, and he was able to talk several area schools into letting him put on a free-throw show before a game or at the half. The Depression bore down, and he couldn't find much work, so he lived at home and kept on practicing his shots. When he was 20 he tired of pretending he was the University of Minnesota and began to work more on variety. He practiced for seven or eight years. After a few fans complained that free throws tended to grow monotonous, and after he lost a free-throw contest to an expert named Bunny Levitt who was traveling with the Harlem Globetrotters, he introduced his eyes-shut trick and a couple of other "unorthodox shots" to the public.
In 1937 Hetzel enrolled in the University of Minnesota and was able to work out in the gym and book himself, occasionally for a $2 or $5 honorarium, into shows at high schools, colleges and military bases throughout the state and beyond. He hitchhiked from place to place, persuaded 60 businesses in Sauk Centre to chip in on a sweat suit with SAUK CENTRE, MINNESOTA on the front and WILFRED HETZEL, STUNT SHOT SPECIALIST on the back, and it was not long before he was popping up in Ripley's Believe It or Not and in Strange as It Seems. "Wilfred Hetzel, Minneapolis Basketball Star, Shot 92 Baskets Out of 100 Tries with One Hand, Standing On One Leg and Blindfolded!" right alongside "Mrs. M. J. Wellman, Oklahoma City, Has Worn the Same Set of False Teeth for 45 Years." "Wilfred Hetzel Shot 66 Straight Basketball Foul Shots From His Knees!" right alongside "Musical Teeth! For 4 Months After Having Dental Work Done, Mrs. Fred Stutz, Indianapolis, Could Hear Radio Programs Without Having the Radio Turned On! Her Teeth Formed a Receiving Set!"
Then, in the early '40s, after he mastered the long peg shot and the dropkick, Hetzel's career reached its fullest flower. In those years, aside from 10 months in the Army during which he experienced severe trouble with his teeth (though he heard no radio programs over them) as well as with his nerves, he spent September through May traveling the country, performing for around $25 a show, sometimes four or five times in a day. In 1941 he appeared at the Clair Bee Coaching Clinic at Manhattan Beach, N.Y. and was invited by Ned Irish to perform in a clown suit in Madison Square Garden, but that latter deal, to Hetzel's great regret, fell through. In the 1943-44 and '44-'45 seasons alone, he traveled 42,000 miles, passed through 47 states and performed over 150 times. He remembers all his best performances from this heyday in detail, especially the ones in Oklahoma. "I've done an extraordinary amount of spectacular things there," he says. "In Davis, Okla., on Feb. 29, 1944—which I remember because I thought at the time, 'This is an unusual day, it comes along once in four years, I wonder what feat I'll accomplish that will make me remember this day?'—I hit 40-foot, 50-foot and 70-foot shots, all on the first try. All straight through. In fact, I lost the thrill of the 70-footer because the netting moved so barely, I thought at first the ball had just brushed it underneath. In Okmulgee, Okla., on a 60-footer, the ball hit the inside of the rim, bounced way back up diagonally, hit the junction of a rafter and the ceiling, rebounded right back to the goal, bounced around the rim and went in. That was for a girl's gym class. It was funny, I had told them my superduper was coming up.
"In Miami, Okla. I made a shot over two girders at once that the coach remembered there 10 years later. In Jenks, Okla. there was just a narrow opening to throw the ball through to get it over two crossbeams. I tried it eight times before I even got the ball through, and then it missed the basket by a foot. But I've always thanked my lucky stars that I had guts. I kept at it, and on the very next try the ball went through the opening and right down into the basket. Fifty feet. Unbeknown to me, Mickey Mantle was in junior high school in Commerce, just a few miles away, that very year."
During these cross-country tours, Hetzel would book himself for three weeks in advance. As he traveled he would write to other schools, advising them to address their replies to him in care of the school where he would be performing at the end of that period, and when he reached the school he would check his mail and map out another three weeks.
It was a grueling routine, traveling by bus or train at night (he had no car, and anyway he finds that driving impairs his touch), often getting too little sleep, lugging around his two bags (one containing clothes and the other his ball and pump), casting about in each town for a room "in some respectable place," struggling through snowstorms so as not to miss a date.
Albuquerque; Dodge City, Kans.; Forest Grove, Ore.; Homer, N.Y.; Ferndale, Mich.; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Augusta, Ga.; Manassas, Va.; Muncie, Ind.; Louisville; Leechburg, Pa.; Ogden, Utah; Akron; Morgantown, W. Va.; Hagerstown, Md.; Maywood, Ill.; Tombstone, Ariz. It was a thorough way of seeing the country, but it paid Hetzel only about enough to keep him going, and the travel took its toll on his health. Not until years later did he realize that he had contracted tuberculosis, which lingered until his operation—the removal of a rib and part of a lung in 1968—but he knew he did not feel up to any more full-time barnstorming, so when he found himself in Washington in the spring of 1945, he decided it was time he got a regular job. In 1942 he had applied for a defense-plant job in Chicago but "they watched me for awhile and then they rejected me. I asked why and they said I didn't have no coordination. Well, if they'd known that coordination was one of the things I was famous for! I've always attributed my success to the three Cs—confidence, coordination and concentration. But then, you can be coordinated in one thing and not in another. I never did learn to dance." This time, in '45, his touch qualified him as a civilian typist for the Marine Corps, a job he holds to this day.
Settling down in Arlington, Va., where he lives now as a roomer in a private home, Hetzel kept up his shooting career through the '50s and '60s by spacing out his leave time in bits and pieces of two or three days. His job has not paid enough to support a wife—or so he concluded after meeting the girl of his life, a toe dancer, on a bus. He confessed to her in a letter, "I kissed you when you were asleep on the bus," and she confessed in reply, "I wasn't asleep." They saw each other for some time and still exchange letters, but she married someone else. "I guess that's why I've never married," Hetzel says. "I didn't want anyone to replace her."
It was not until 1947 that he started taking off his sweat jacket to shoot—"before, on account I was so slender, I was afraid there would be more people laughing at me, and the jacket made me feel a little fleshier." The greater freedom of movement helped him to keep up his distance shots; but he made his last 70-footer in '54, his last 30-footer four years ago. In the '50s he began to find it hard "to get my pep up," and sometimes when that happened he got "snotty" receptions and reviews. "Those few times when maybe I wasn't in form, no one asked for autographs," he says. "They looked on me as a fake or a cheat or a has-been. I get emotional when I think about the time, in Jeffersonville, Ind., some people were saying, 'He's not much,' and the coach there stood up and fairly exploded and said, 'I wish I could shoot half as good as that man.' "
In recent years he found that small, out-of-the-way black schools in the South were a fertile field, though once "they were envious—one of the boys came up and asked if I could spin the ball in my hands. I said if I could do those things, I'd have been a Globetrotter. But usually there's no resentment of me because I'm white. Without my saying it, the Negro kids come up to me and say, 'You're better than Alcindor.' Now that don't take no glory from him. He's still one of the greatest centers that ever lived. It's not the same competitive field."
In 1936 Hetzel heard Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, make a speech. "He said if you're doing something for humanity, don't think about getting a reward now, you'll get it later. I thought then, 'If I don't get a million dollars for it, I'll just enjoy it.' I do envy those football players. You know that commercial: 'Remember, Charley Conerly, such and such a day when you threw three TD passes,' and then they show the replay? I wish that on my best days they'd had TV cameras running. And I wish the people back in Minnesota that hated me and made fun of me and said, 'If there was money in it, somebody would be better at it'—I'd like to get all those people together in one gym and do all the greatest tricks I ever did."
But now, at Louisa County High School in Virginia, his audience is some 500 rural kids who have been charged 25¢ apiece by their student council for the benefit of a Korean orphan. And what Mr. Hetzel is saying now to the kids, in reference to all those doubters back in Minnesota, is "if they'd believed me back there in the beginning, when I tried to tell them I had made 98 out of 100, I might not be here now."
And he is advancing, in his gangly yet almost formal walk, to the foul line, where he begins to hit his underhanded shots, blim, blim, blim, coolly, crisply, now cross-legged, now on his toes, now on his heels, missing one occasionally but in command, running through his repertoire, down on his knees, up on one foot, and the kids are paying him mind. Mr. Hetzel's manner of shooting is memorable in many respects, but its most noteworthy feature is that when he releases the ball—even routinely in practice but especially when he knows he is going well—his face is lit by a proud and affectionate smile. The first time Wilfred Hetzel has ever tried a shot from behind a Louisa County backboard, over the crossed wires that raise and lower it, he scores. On his second try at that same shot backward, over his head, he scores. He scores on one more backspin bounce shot from his knees. And now, in closing: the dropkick.
Short. Short. Off to the right. Short. Off to the right. Short. Short. Off the rim. Off the rim. Off to the left. Off the rim. No, way short. A pause before the 13th try and then it is up, off the backboard, swish.
"Yaay! Aw-right Sign him up!"