The tall man with the gray streaked hair knelt alongside the small blond boy. He hefted the child-sized basketball in his large hands and, with a casual underhand flip, tossed it into the wastebasket across the room.
"No fair using two hands," said the boy. "You're supposed to shoot one-handed, the way you always did."
The man retrieved the ball, reassumed a kneeling position and, with his left hand under the ball and his right poised at eye level, flipped it into the basket again.
"Grandpa," the boy asked, "were you the greatest basketball player ever?"
December 15, 1975
"Some people say I was, Michael," Hank Luisetti answered.
"Well, you're not as good as Rick Barry."
"Maybe not," said Luisetti, flashing his U-shaped grin. "But what you don't know, Michael, what you can't know, is that the times are different. Very, very different."
Dr. Bill Northway, the Stanford basketball team's physician, was taping Hank Luisetti's ankles in the locker room at Madison Square Garden. Outside, it was windy and damp but warm for December. Inside the arena a crowd of 17,623, the largest of the year, was noisily lamenting Georgetown's 46-40 defeat of New York University in the first game of a big holiday doubleheader. But Georgetown-NYU was a mere preliminary to the event the crowd had really come to see, the match between Clair Bee's Long Island University Blackbirds, winners of 43 consecutive games, and the Stanford Indians, defending Pacific Coast Conference champions and 45-38 upset winners two days before over Temple, the second-best team in the East.
What the fans most wanted to see on Dec. 30, 1936 was Stanford's right forward, Luisetti, who had been setting scoring records by shooting the ball, in defiance of prevailing basketball dogma, with one hand.
After only a year of varsity play, Luisetti was a legend on the Pacific Coast. He had scored 32 points in 32 minutes in the opening game of the conference championship series the previous March against Washington. In another game Stanford had trailed Southern Cal by 15 points with 11 minutes left in a contest to determine the conference's Southern Division leader. Then Luisetti broke loose, scoring 24 of his 30 points, and Stanford won 51-47.
Teams rarely scored more than 45 points in a game then, and 20 points was considered extraordinary for an individual. It was an era when the clock was rarely stopped, when free throws were awarded sparingly and when a center jump following every basket was required in most sections of the country. A player who seemed able to score at will was the stuff of legend.
Still, the East had to be shown. Pacific Coast basketball was regarded in New York with mild contempt. On a similar holiday tour the year before, a University of California team was trounced 41-26 by NYU. That Cal team went on to split four games with Stanford during the conference season. Long Island University of Brooklyn, led by 6'8" Center Art Hillhouse and two-handed set shot artists Julie Bender and Ben Kramer, was the class of the East in the 1936-37 season, and the East was the class of the nation.
The Eastern teams played ball-control offense and man-to-man defense. They shot the ball in the traditional manner, and they rarely shot at all until the ball had been worked in with half a dozen passes or more.
Stanford's team was an enigma to Easterners. In their workouts Luisetti and his teammates seemed to be approaching the epochal conflict between Eastern orthodoxy and Western iconoclasm with an attitude bordering on the frivolous. At the West Philadelphia railroad station after the Temple win, they were observed rolling oranges into a cocked hat. They joked with New York reporters, laughing off suggestions that they would soon be sobered by their meeting with the Blackbirds. Their resolute amiability earned them the sobriquet "Laughing Boys." And those who watched them shooting one-handed during practice were moved to laughter—or derision. "I'll quit coaching if I have to teach one-handed shots to win," snapped Nat Holman, the City College of New York coach and the ranking savant of Eastern basketball. "They will have to show me plenty to convince me that a shot predicated on a prayer is smart basketball. There's only one way to shoot, the way we do it in the East—with two hands."
Stanford Coach John Bunn squirmed at intimations that he was some kind of radical. As a player at Kansas under Phog Allen and a former student of basketball's inventor, Dr. James Naismith, he protested that his credentials as a traditionalist were in order. But one look at young Luisetti swishing one-handers from 20 feet away had convinced him there was room for innovation.
Bunn was God-fearing, high-minded and sobersided, but he also believed athletics should be fun, so he gave his spirited charges the freedom to develop their individual skills. On offense, the Stanford players roamed like prairie dogs, switching positions to meet changing situations. Luisetti, the most liberated free-lancer of them all, might play the post, bring the ball downcourt or switch from the left to the right side at will. On defense the Indians played a combination zone and man-to-man that Bunn called a "team defense." Here again, switching positions was perfectly acceptable. To Eastern audiences, it all smacked of anarchy.
It was hardly that. For all of their freewheeling, the Stanford players were highly disciplined and specialized. Left Forward Howell (Handsome Howie) Turner was Luisetti's height (6'2½") and a fine all-round player. The guards were 6'1" Bryan (Dinty) Moore, an inspirational player and a defensive demon, and 6'4" Jack Calderwood, an exceptional re-bounder who was nicknamed "Frankenstein" or "Spook" because of his lumbering gait and ominous mien. Art Stoefen, at 6'4½" the tallest man in the lineup, was the center.
Principally because of its East-West flavor, the LIU-Stanford game received surprisingly good advance publicity during a typically busy news week in the newspaper-rich New York of the 1930s. The Spanish Civil War was Page One material, as were the travails of the recently abdicated King Edward VIII. Business, as usual, was ready for a big comeback, and President Roosevelt was urging Congress to restore NRA reforms. You Can't Take It with You and Clare Boothe's The Women had just opened on Broadway, as had motion pictures starring Shirley Temple and the newest challenger to her supremacy as the cutest little thing around, Bobby Breen. The Daily News" crackerjack headline writers were in top form: BOY STOLEN BY MADMAN, AX MURDER IS CLIMAX OF YULE REVELRY, DAD DIES AS GIRL LOSES SPELLING BEE, NEEDY MOTHER ABANDONS BABY AT WRONG POORHOUSE.
As Dr. Northway finished the taping, Luisetti good-naturedly ruffled the doctor's hair and pulled the necktie from beneath his vest for good luck. Then he and his teammates trotted into the magical arena. The Stanford players were hardly bumpkins. Luisetti and Calderwood were from San Francisco, Turner was from the Bay Area community of Piedmont, and Moore and Stoefen were from Los Angeles. But the sight of the packed Garden flabbergasted them.
"The first thing I saw was a giant neon sign," recalls Stoefen. "Then I looked up and saw what seemed to be thousands of fireflies. They were cigarettes glowing in the darkness. And through the haze of smoke, I finally saw people, people as far and as high as I could see."
"We were terribly tense all of a sudden," says Turner. "I don't think any of us had been to New York before. Most of us had never been out of California. We needed something to loosen us up. Mostly, we needed what we always seemed to get—something incredible from Hank."
The Blackbirds controlled the opening tap, and after a series of deft passes worked the ball under the basket to Hill-house, who scored easily. On Stanford's first possession Turner was fed a pass in the right corner. The ball was slightly behind him and he started to tumble out of bounds as he reached for it. Instinctively, he threw the ball toward the basket anyway. He quickly scrambled to his feet to assume his position on defense when he noticed that a center jump had been called.
"Did that thing go in?" he asked Moore. Moore said it had, and the entire Stanford team burst into laughter. The Laughing Boys were now in the proper frame of mind to play their game.
The score was 11-11 midway in the first half, but already it was apparent that LIU was bewildered by the "team defense," the fast-break offense and Luisetti, who seemed to be everywhere, stealing the ball, rebounding over Hillhouse, passing with accuracy and lofting his one-handers from every angle.
"The first one came after a fake and a pivot near the foul line," Luisetti recalls. "It was over their big man. He looked at me and said, 'You lucky so-and-so.' He didn't say a word when the next one dropped in."
The crowd, which had pulled hard for Long Island University's team early in the game, was suddenly entranced by the black-haired dervish and his carefree companions. When the Indians left the court with a 22-14 halftime lead, the fans awarded them a standing ovation.
The second half was no contest. LIU went a full seven minutes without scoring, and Luisetti was in complete control of the tempo. He shot only when it was an inescapable obligation, preferring to dazzle the spectators with the baffling variety of his passes. Still, he led all scorers with 15 points as Stanford eased to a 45-31 victory. Later he would be named the outstanding athlete to perform in the Garden that year. The cheering New York fans, helpless Indian captives, sensed they had just witnessed a revolution.
Indeed, they had, as the press acknowledged the following day. "Overnight, and with a suddenness as startling as Stanford's unorthodox tactics, it had become apparent today that New York's fundamental concept of basketball will have to be radically changed if the metropolitan district is to remain among the progressive centers of court culture in this country," Stanley Frank pontificated in the Post. "Every one of the amiable clean-cut Coast kids fired away with leaping one-handed shots which were impossible to stop."
Said The New York Times: "It seemed Luisetti could do nothing wrong. Some of his shots would have been deemed foolhardy if attempted by anybody else, but with Luisetti shooting, these were accepted by the enchanted crowd."
The Stanford-LIU game was no mere intersectional upset. It was a pivotal game in the sport's history, introducing the nation to modern basketball. Players throughout the country began shooting on the run and with one hand. The deliberate style of play would give way to the fast break, the man-to-man would yield to the zone and combination defenses, and the following season the center jump after goals would be abandoned forever. Scoring suddenly increased, and a game that had served, in many areas, merely to fill the gap between the baseball and football seasons abruptly began to enjoy widespread popularity of its own. For anything big to happen then, it had to happen in New York. Luisetti and the Laughing Boys happened there in the winter of 1936.
Despite its color and dash, Stanford may not have been the first modern basketball team, but there is no disputing that Luisetti was the first modern basketball player. What astonished Garden fans was not so much that he shot, rebounded, dribbled, passed and played defense better than anyone on the court, but that he performed almost all these things in unorthodox ways. He dribbled and passed behind his back, and he appeared to shoot without glancing at the basket. When he drove, he soared like a hawk, looking left and right before he released a mid-air shot.
"Hank could stay up so long he was like a ballet dancer," Turner says "He could fake while driving at a time when people just drove, period. Forty years ago he was making moves that still are considered exceptional today."
"It would be unfair to compare anyone who played then with the modern players," says Howie Dallmar, a former coach and player at Stanford. "But no one now—I mean no one—is as far ahead of his contemporaries as Hank was of his. He was at least 20 years ahead of his time. The guy revolutionized the game."
Luisetti is now 59 years old and his face has filled out, resulting in a startling resemblance to Jack Dempsey. He remains physically fit, although the only exercise he gets is walking. He has been a widower for the past three years, and between business trips he lives with either his 81-year-old mother in San Francisco or in the nearby homes of his son and daughter. His grandson Michael is a frequent companion.
Although unfailingly friendly, Luisetti is a private man. "Very few people ever got close to Hank," old teammate Calderwood says. "I hesitate to call him shy, but there is a reserve about him, a reserve that never showed on the basketball floor."
Luisetti has only recently begun going to basketball games again. He almost never watches Stanford but he has grown fond of the Golden State Warriors now that they are playing with championship verve.
"They can really shoot," says Luisetti. "It's a shooter's game today. When I was holding clinics, all I could interest the kids in was shooting. But look what's happened. If a team once shot 35% it was hot; now 50% seems average. And they're so big. At my height, I'd have to be a backcourt man today. I'd play about the way Jerry West did, moving the ball around, setting people up. That man played the game the way it should be played. Of course, it's harder to drive now—and I did a lot of that. The big men clutter up the area under the basket. It's worth your life to go in there. I think they're either going to have to widen the court or raise the basket."
When he attends Warrior games Luisetti often dresses in a red and black warmup jacket and gray slacks, quite a departure from the crisp suits he usually wears as president of the E. F. MacDonald travel company's West Coast region. Sitting among the fans in the arena he is neither business executive nor old hero. No one in the place seems to have the slightest idea who he is.
Angelo (Hank) Luisetti was born in San Francisco. His family lived on the northern slope of Russian Hill, a neighborhood of narrow wooden and stucco houses. From the top of the hill, the Bay can be seen blue-gray below, and in the distance are the orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is the quintessential San Francisco neighborhood, heavily Chinese now, but in Luisetti's time mostly Irish and Italian. His parents were of no-nonsense old-country stock, their children aggressively New World. Sports became part of their generation gap.
Luisetti's father immigrated to San Francisco from northern Italy a few months after the great earthquake of 1906. It was not a bad time to arrive in the city because of the opportunities awaiting those willing to rebuild a fallen city. Steven Luisetti learned to cook. He became a popular chef and he eventually bought his own restaurants, Louis' Fashion and the Sutter Grill.
The Luisettis had one child, a skinny boy with legs so bowed that he was obliged to wear painful braces to straighten them. The family home was only three blocks from the Spring Valley (now Helen Wills) playground, a tiny, lopsided asphalt pile next door to a bowling alley. The playing area was so limited that the tennis court bisected the basketball court, and the two games could not be played simultaneously. Nevertheless, Helen Jacobs learned to play tennis there and Hank Luisetti learned to play basketball.
On foggy mornings the playground director, a tall young woman in a blue middy blouse and gray skirt named Rose McGreevy (now Mrs. Clifton Fogarty) would open the gates to find a solitary youngster splashing through the puddles on the misshapen court, flinging a basketball one-handed at the hoop as if he were hurling a discus. It was the only way he could reach the basket.
"We called him Angelo then," says Mrs. Fogarty, now 75. "I can never call him anything but that. The Hank business came later. He was always there an hour before I got to the playground. He likes to say I taught him everything he knows. What a laugh! He was such a natural. There wasn't anything I could teach him except to be a good boy, which he already was."
"I still remember those days," says Ed Dougery, a reporter for the Son Francisco Chronicle who was a playmate of Luisetti's. "We wore dirty cords, tennis shoes and ragged sweaters. Sometimes we wore caps, the flannel kind you see in old movies. Our playground was too small for baseball, but sometimes we'd play the kids from North Beach in soft-ball. We'd lose the game, then they'd beat the hell out of us. But not Angelo. He was a gentleman. And so was the big kid from the beach who always wore a dark blue sweater, cords and his brother's San Francisco Seals cap. Joe DiMaggio. Baseball was his game. Basketball was Angelo's."
Luisetti was not so much a scorer at Galileo High as a master playmaker and defensive specialist, qualities that were much more admired in the days when championships were won by scores of 14-12. But as a freshman at Stanford in the 1934-35 season, he averaged better than 20 points a game. In his first varsity appearance he tried nine shots from the floor against College of the Pacific and sank them all. He set new scoring records each year he was on the varsity and as a senior he totaled 50 points in a game against Duquesne. His Pacific Coast Conference single-season record of 232 points survived for 12 years before being broken by Bill Sharman of USC and George Yardley of Stanford.
On March 5, 1938 he broke the national collegiate four-year scoring record in melodramatic fashion against California. With the historic point—No. 1,533—safely recorded, Luisetti leaped for a loose ball and collided with boyhood chum Dougery, who played forward for Cal. His head thumped against the floor and, as Harry Borba wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, "He was out as completely as Haile Selassie from Addis Ababa." He lay there unconscious as teammates and opponents formed a death watch around him.
Dougery stood off to one side, feeling "like the man who shot Lincoln. People kept asking me if I did it on purpose. 'Hell,' I kept saying, 'we went to grade school together.' "
Luisetti was helped from the floor as the partisan Cal crowd sat in silence. Had he broken the scoring record and ended his career on the same night? No. Minutes later he reappeared. The first time he touched the ball he scored. He finished the evening with 22 points, and he and Dougery double-dated afterward, dancing with their girls at the Mark Hopkins Hotel to the foot-tapping sounds of Orrin Tucker.
It was not the first time that season Luisetti had been resurrected. On Jan. 23, he collided with USC's Gail Goodrich, father of the Lakers' guard, and fell to the floor bleeding from a cut above the eye. He was stitched up in the locker room, returned to the court and scored immediately from 30 feet out.
Stanford defeated Oregon 59-51 for its third consecutive Pacific Coast Conference championship in Luisetti's last collegiate game. He scored 26 points in a virtuoso performance that brought the Stanford Pavilion crowd to its feet long before he left the game. Roy Cummings of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin was so moved by the experience that he rhapsodized, "When future fans start talking about the basketball stars of their days, those who witnessed Hank Luisetti and the Stanford teams of 1936-37-38 will shake their heads and say, 'My lad, you never saw Luisetti.' "
No one saw Luisetti on a basketball court the next season. A wretched patchwork movie, Campus Confessions, earned him $10,000 from Paramount Pictures and, presumably because basketball was played in the film, a year's suspension from the Amateur Athletic Union. Betty Grable, then in the perennial co-ed period of her otherwise lustrous career, was his co-star. She might as well have been the Queen of England.
"She didn't know I existed," Luisetti acknowledges. "She was married to Jackie Coogan then and he was always on the set. I never talked to her, and when I was supposed to kiss her I couldn't bring myself to do it. It was horrible."
Luisetti's suspension was lifted for the 1940-41 season, and he led the San Francisco Olympic Club to the finals of the National AAU tournament in Denver. With Luisetti hobbling on an infected foot, the Olympians lost but he was the high scorer and most valuable player of the tournament. He played the following year with the Phillips Oilers, although a knee injury curtailed his usefulness.
Luisetti enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and was sent to the St. Mary's Pre-Flight school in Moraga, a town across the Bay from San Francisco. He may have played his finest basketball there. In 1943-44, his last season as a player, St. Mary's Pre-Flight went undefeated and Luisetti consistently out-scored the other service stars, including Stanford All-America Jim Pollard, later a professional star with the Minneapolis Lakers. Howie Dallmar is among those who are convinced Luisetti was never better.
"We played St. Mary's Pre-Flight when I was a sophomore at Stanford," he says. "In the first game I got something like 23 points and Hank got 19. The papers started building up a rivalry between the old Stanford star and the new one. It scared me to death. I'd seen Hank play enough to know what he could do if he had to. I knew there was no way I could stop him. The next time we played them, Hank got 29 points. I got six."
In November 1944 Luisetti was marking time on a Navy base in Norfolk, Va., while awaiting sea duty aboard a carrier. On a cold, wet night he and several fellow officers decided to go to a movie in town. During the drive to the theater Luisetti complained of dizziness and nausea. He was dropped off at the dispensary, and that was the last thing he remembered for a week. He had spinal meningitis, a disease that until the introduction of sulfa drugs in the 1930s had been invariably fatal. He was in the hospital for four months, and when he emerged he was 40 pounds under his playing weight of 185. He was told by the doctors that he could never play basketball again. He was 28 years old.
Despite his medical history, Luisetti received professional basketball offers after the war but dutifully rejected them all. He went to work as a salesman for the Stewart Chevrolet Company in San Francisco and reluctantly agreed to coach the company-sponsored basketball team. In 1951 it won the AAU championship, the title that had eluded Luisetti and the Olympic Club a decade earlier. He quit coaching after that and never returned to the game.
Although there were "new Luisettis" popping up all over the map during the late '30s and '40s, his fame ended almost as abruptly as his coaching career. Tom Gola, the do-everything player for La Salle in the '50s, was the last man frequently likened to Luisetti. There are no "new Luisettis" today.
Jack Calderwood is white-haired and, because he stoops a little, probably shorter than he was when he was the rebounding "Spook" of the Luisetti era. Calderwood is a writer, and in researching a book on the young people of Sausalito, the hip little community across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, he spent hours each day in a waterfront hangout called Zack's. "They thought I was a narcotics agent at first, or at the very least a dirty old man. But after a while, they got used to me," he says. "I became a good rock dancer and was in some demand as a dancing partner. One day I learned that a member of the band playing there was a Stanford dropout, a former football player. I sought him out and explained that I had been an athlete at Stanford long ago. He was not really interested. Finally I asked him if he'd ever heard of Hank Luisetti. He just shook his head irritably.
" 'Well,' I told the boy, 'if you haven't heard of him, I'd better tell you.' And I did, at length. When I had finished, it was the strangest thing. This boy, this rock musician, this college dropout, this modern person, was genuinely interested. I couldn't have been happier."