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A LITTLE SLICE OF HEAVEN
Frank Deford
November 29, 1965
Traveling familiar territory in West Virginia, selling sneakers and reminiscing about his All-America days, Hot Rod Hundley finds everything he does and every place he visits just great
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November 29, 1965

A Little Slice Of Heaven

Traveling familiar territory in West Virginia, selling sneakers and reminiscing about his All-America days, Hot Rod Hundley finds everything he does and every place he visits just great

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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 clich�s—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.

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