SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
December 15, 1975
Hank Luisetti shot the ball with one hand while he hung in midair. The Establishment smirked, but the sport has not been the same since HE CHANGED A GAME SINGLEHANDEDLY
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December 15, 1975

He Changed A Game Singlehandedly

Hank Luisetti shot the ball with one hand while he hung in midair. The Establishment smirked, but the sport has not been the same since HE CHANGED A GAME SINGLEHANDEDLY

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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."

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