By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
January 22, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Despite the anguish he endured as an abandoned child growing up in Charleston, W.Va., Hot Rod Hundley will be the first one to admit he’s lived a charmed life.
||Hot Rod Hundley earned All-America honors in 1957 and was the first player taken in the NBA draft by the Minneapolis Lakers.
He’s the guy at the card table who always drew the inside straight or the upside-down cat that always landed on all fours.
Hundley once even walked away from a plane that had crash-landed in an Iowa cornfield when he was playing for the Minneapolis Lakers, and then celebrated his brush with mortality by having a snowball fight with his teammates.
Naturally, Hundley came out of that one smelling like a rose. He was up in the team poker game when the cabin lights flickered and the pilot barged in to deliver the good news, "Gentlemen, we've lost power and we're out of gas. Any suggestions?"
Yes, Hot Rod Hundley is Peter Pan and Ferris Bueller all wrapped into one.
“The things that have happened to me have been wonderful,” Hundley says.
Whenever one door was shut in Hundley’s life another door immediately opened. In 1951, Hundley went to Basketball, Inc. – North Carolina State – and his eligibility was nearly revoked when it was discovered that the Wolfpack were conducting illegal tryouts for their players.
“They brought me down there and I was a lifeguard at the pool and I couldn’t even swim,” laughed Hundley. “They gave out all these jobs and it was like the United Nations the way they were running guys in and out of there giving scholarships.”
That door closed and another door opened: West Virginia University.
Years later when Hundley’s pro career fizzled out because of two bad knees, Converse gave him a job pedaling sneakers in North Carolina. Hundley did that for a couple of years before growing bored of Southern living. He wanted back in Los Angeles (while living in North Carolina he kept using his Malibu address when sending out letters just to make sure everyone back home knew he was still doing OK).
“Bob Boyd, who had coached at Southern Cal and quit to work for Converse, went back into coaching and I went in and talked to the boss and I said, ‘Hey, I want that job in LA.' He said, ‘You get somebody to replace you and we’ll send you back to LA.’ So I got Bill Chambers, who played for William & Mary, and he loved it,” said Hundley.
By going back to Los Angeles, that opened yet another door for Hundley: broadcasting.
“While I was in LA the Lakers called me one night,” Hundley said. “They asked me if I was interested in going into broadcasting. They had Chick Hearn in there for a couple of years doing it and they wanted to add an analyst on there with him and they thought I would be the guy. I had always liked to be interviewed and they thought I would be a natural doing it.”
Forty two years later, Hundley in 2009 ended one of the most distinguished broadcasting careers in NBA history, calling more than 3,000 games for the Utah Jazz alone.
Off to West Virginia
Hundley remembers growing up in Charleston listening to West Virginia basketball games on the radio in a makeshift room underneath the stairs of the home he was living in at the time.
“There was a curtain for my room and I would go underneath there and listen to West Virginia games,” Hundley recalled. “Fred Schaus, Leland Byrd and all of those guys were playing. I would take a paper, line it off, and keep score of Jack Fleming’s descriptions. If Schaus hit a shot from the corner, I would put down a 2 next to his name.”
When Hundley went to West Virginia, thousands were keeping score of his games. The timing couldn’t have been better for someone like Hundley to be playing college basketball. It was the mid-1950s and there was a cultural change going on in the United States. That’s when Elvis Presley began shaking his hips and all those GI’s returning from the war now had a few extra bucks in their pockets and were looking for a little entertainment.
And Hot Rod Hundley was as much an entertainer as he was a basketball player. College basketball was just getting over a major gambling scandal that nearly brought the sport to its knees and characters such as Hundley were breathing new life into the game.
Hundley taught himself a bunch of tricks playing basketball at the Charleston YMCA and he would often perform them for laughs when he was in high school – things such as shooting the ball behind his back, rolling it up and down his long arms or bouncing it off his knees.
Then he started clowning during freshman games at West Virginia and that soon created great interest in the Mountaineer program.
Myron Cope, then a sportswriter in Pittsburgh, was curious enough to go watch the second game of Hundley’s varsity career at Carnegie Tech in 1954. Cope wrote afterward that it was the first time in his life that he had ever seen a player acknowledge applause.
Later that year, when informed by the school’s Sports Information Director Rene Henry that he could set the Southern Conference tournament scoring record, Hundley went up to the free throw line and tried both shots from behind his back. Neither came close to going in.
By then, West Virginia already had the game in the bag and Hundley was simply having some fun.
He also once got Coach Fred Schaus to put him back into a game the Mountaineers were winning handily against Pitt.
“There was about four minutes left and I was determined to get him to put me back in so the fans could see the show,” said Hundley. “Well, he didn’t do a damned thing and I went down to the end of the bench.”
Hundley started encouraging the fans sitting next to him to chant WE-WANT-HUNDLEY! WE-WANT-HUNDLEY! Soon the whole place picked it up. Schaus was sitting at the other end with his program rolled up to cover his face. He was grinning.
Hundley knew then that he had him.
“I got up and walked down and sat right beside him," Hundley explained. "I said, ‘Coach, there are a lot of people here tonight, aren’t there?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What do you think they came to see, this game or the show?’ He said, ‘Go on in and don’t get hurt!’”
That’s not the end of the story. Hundley, already knowing that he was the team’s leading scorer, walked up to the scorer’s table and asked who the team’s next leading scorer was. He was told it was Clayce Kishbaugh.
“Well, I’m in for Kishbaugh!” Hundley said.
“Hot Rod had a way of controlling games,” said Kishbaugh.
Kishbaugh remembered having a real good first half during a freshman game that was being played in Clarksburg, his hometown. At halftime when the team went back into the locker room Hundley told Kishbaugh that he was done.
“I am wondering to myself, ‘What does he mean?’ Well, I scored only two points in the second half because he wouldn’t pass me the ball,” laughed Kishbaugh. “That’s how he controlled games.”
“He had to learn who was supposed to get the ball,” Hundley deadpanned.
Hundley said he never did anything to jeopardize a game. Schaus made sure of that.
“He said, ‘I don’t care if you kick it out of the building, but we better be 20 points ahead when you do it,’” Hundley recalled. “That’s what he told me. What he meant was, don’t jeopardize a victory.”
||Hot Rod Hundley pictured with the 1957 All-America team.
Deseret News photo
Pete White remembered playing against Rutgers and Hundley taking the first 12 shots of the game. Hot Rod had made up his mind to go for the school scoring record that night.
“I remember Schaus pulled me aside and asked, ‘What’s going on? What’s he doing?’ He said, “What is this, a shooting gallery?’” White chuckled. “It had to be tough for Fred because Rod was almost uncontrollable.”
Hundley did get the school scoring record on Jan. 5, 1957 when he made 54 points (a record that still exists to this day). What is lost from that performance is that it took Hundley 48 shots to get his 54 points.
“But I made 22 of them,” Hundley reasoned.
Hot Rod actually took more shots (2,218) than he scored points (2,180) during his college career. His junior year he tried 814 shots – nearly 600 more than the next closest guy (Kishbaugh) with 248.
It makes you wonder: how many of those shots did he try from behind his back or off the top of his head?
Basketball was tailor-made for Hundley’s clowning. Football and baseball were not. If a guy would have tried some of the stunts on the football field that Hundley pulled in basketball he would have been killed. In baseball there was Jimmy Piersall, who did some wacky things such as run the bases in reverse order after hitting a home run or shooting guys with a squirt gun during games. But eventually Piersall wound up spending some time in the Westborough (Massachusetts) State Mental Hospital.
“I knew Piersall,” said Hundley. “The Angels played in LA in those days when I was playing with the Lakers. Bo Belinsky was one of their pitchers and he threw a no-hitter. The next week Dean Chance had two outs left for a no-hitter and Piersall came in on a little pop up and then backed up and let it hit the ground.
“Chance said, ‘What the hell did you do that for? You just ruined my no-hitter!’ Piersall said, ‘Yeah, but you would have just been a spoiled brat, so this is better for you.”
Selling snow to Eskimos
One of Hundley’s great gifts was getting people to do things they normally wouldn’t do. One such instance came during Hot Rod’s freshman year in 1954 when Red Brown was still West Virginia’s basketball coach.
The Southern Conference was questioning Hundley’s eligibility because of his brief time playing at NC State, and the league commissioner requested that Hundley and Brown meet with him in Richmond to render a decision on his playing status. Brown, his dress attire strictly white shirts and dark suits, looked like he could have come straight from IBM’s board room.
Well, somehow Hundley was able to convince Red that he needed a different look for their big presentation, so he suggested that his coach wear a pink shirt to the meeting.
“I said, ‘Come on coach, get with it! You need to relax or we’ve got no chance!’” laughed Hundley. “Well he did it. He wore a pink shirt and somehow found a tie that matched.”
It worked. Hundley was eligible for his sophomore year.
A year later when Schaus was the head coach, a bored Hundley decided to drop out of school before the start of the fall term to try out for the Harlem Globetrotters. Shortly after he arrived he injured his knee and was forced to return to WVU.
"That was a helluva way to begin your coaching career," said Schaus.
||Hundley signing autographs on the floor after a game at the Field House.
WVU Sports Communications photo
Jack Fleming also fell under Hundley’s spell. Fleming had moved to Chicago in 1970 to announce Chicago Bulls games and began running around with Hundley whenever the Phoenix Suns (the team Hundley was working for then) came to town.
One of the first things Hot Rod did when he got there was to encourage Fleming, then a bachelor, to replace his entire wardrobe. Soon Fleming’s closet was full of wild-looking Quiana and Dacron shirts with the concentric circles and other far-out patterns that were popular in the seventies.
When Fleming eventually returned to Pittsburgh in 1974 he became the second coming of Frenchy Fuqua.
Famous sports writer Frank Deford was also one of Hundley’s pals and during his bachelor days Deford would often tag along with Hundley for a night out on the town. Deford admitted that whenever he hooked up with Hundley he was after two things: quotes and ladies, although not necessarily in that particular order.
Hundley was once somehow able to negotiate the NBA's largest fine ever handed out at the time down to probationary status. It was early in his career and a long night of partying in New York with teammate Bob Leonard caused them to miss the team flight back to Minneapolis the next morning.
“We lied and told them we went to a party in Philadelphia and we couldn’t get back,” Hundley said. “We had to pay our way back to Minneapolis and when we got to the airport there was a message for both of us to get down to the Laker office immediately.
“So Bob and I went down to the office, Bob Short owned the Lakers then, and he called me into his office first,” Hundley said. “We didn’t know if he was going to fine us or what – we had no idea. So I go in there and he sees right through all of my lies and he said, ‘I have no choice but to fine you $1,000.’ I said, ‘A thousand dollars? Oh my God, I only make 10 (thousand)!”
When Hundley walked out of the office, his face three different shades of white, Leonard asked if he got fined.
“Yeah, a thousand dollars!”
Leonard couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Short said he would give the players the money back if they behaved themselves.
“We were on probation for the rest of the year and we were sneaking around thinking, ‘If they catch us again it’s going to cost us $2,000,’” Hundley said. “Could you imagine LeBron (James) or Kobe (Bryant) giving up 10% of their salary?”
Hundley says one of his biggest thrills as a pro player came in 1960 when he teamed with Elgin Baylor to score 73 points in a single basketball game.
“Yeah, he scored 71 and I scored two,” Hot Rod joked.
By 1963, Hundley’s pro career was finished.
Hall of Fame broadcaster
Hundley’s best assets were his shooting and ball handling. After that, it was his mouth. He grew up in Charleston listening to Waite Hoyt call Cincinnati Reds games and it was then that he first learned how to entertain listeners.
“(Hoyt) recreated plays,” said Hundley. “He would say, ‘The ball is hit to leftfield, Andy Pafko picks it up and rifles it to second base and the runner is out!’ Well the guy didn’t even hit the ball. I learned a little bit from that.”
Hundley also picked up things from Fleming and Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Bob Prince.
“When I got to Morgantown Bob Prince was a marvelous baseball broadcaster,” said Hundley. “He had a great voice. Jack was doing our games but I never heard him because I was playing. But he was a big influence on me. I always appreciated his love of the game. He was a tremendous college basketball announcer.”
Hundley remembered the Bulls fans really taking a liking to Fleming during his brief time in Chicago.
“They would introduce him, ‘Tonight’s game will be heard on WIND right here with Jack Fleming – the Voice of the Bulls!’ Everybody would stand up and cheer,” said Hundley.
But it was Chick Hearn that had the biggest influence on Hundley’s career. Hundley readily admits that he copied Hearn’s style right down to stealing his best lines. Once when Hearn saw Hundley in New Orleans, Chick asked him if it was true that he took some of his lines.
Hundley replied, “No Chick that’s not true, I stole all of them.” Chick just laughed and gave Hot Rod a high-five.
“I could have gone to 10 schools and never learned more than I did by just sitting beside him with the headset on doing the game,” Hundley said. “He was fast with the mic and the location of the ball was very important.”
Although Hundley was an ex-player and possessed an expertise for the game, he was more Johnny Carson than John Madden. When he took the play-by-play job with the Phoenix Suns and was paired with ex-coach Johnny Kerr, the two became instant hits.
Once when the Suns were trailing the Milwaukee Bucks by one point with seven seconds left in the game, Hundley asked Kerr what he would do if he were the Suns’ coach.
“Hell, Rod, if I knew what to do I’d still be coaching,” Kerr quipped.
When Hundley was doing TV games for the New Orleans Jazz in the late 1970s, team owner Larry Miller was known to watch the games with the volume turned down on his television set. He was too afraid to hear what Hundley might say.
“I was more of a tell-it-like-it-is guy back then and he said, ‘You’re getting on our team too much.’ And he was right,” Hundley said. “What I was doing was wrong because I had become a cheerleader of the team instead of calling it straight down the line. I learned from that and I would tell people that would come up to me interested in becoming a broadcaster, ‘Learn to be a fan of basketball, not a fan of your team.’ People will respect you for that. There is nothing that sounds worse than an announcer complaining about the referees.”
In 1979, Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated about the time Jazz forward Truck Robinson failed to show up for his post-game television interview with Hot Rod. So Hundley did the interview anyway, playing both parts – Hundley and Robinson. Hot Rod even presented Robinson with a gift certificate for doing the interview.
“Thanks for joining us, Truck,” Hundley said.
||Hundley being recognized by the Los Angeles Lakers as a fill-in announcer earlier this year. Hundley is now living in Peoria, Ariz.
In 1993, Hundley received the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – the only former player to ever be honored.
On Saturday, Hot Rod will officially have his West Virginia uniform number 33 retired at halftime of the Ohio State game, joining only Jerry West’s number 44 to reside above the rafters (a week later, the Utah Jazz will also celebrate Hundley’s fabulous career by renaming the press room in his honor).
“It’s amazing to me that over 50 years have gone by and people still remember me and they’re going to honor me,” said Hundley. “I’m flabbergasted by it. This doesn’t happen every day.”
For the record, Hundley’s number 33 is also retired by the Los Angeles Lakers, although Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just happened to wear that number, too.
“I would say, ‘Big fella, you did the number justice.’ He would look at me and just laugh his butt off,” said Hundley.
Hundley, now 75 and enjoying retired life in Peoria, Ariz., has come a long way from the days when he used to hang out in the Charleston pool halls, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a can of beer in his hand.
“It was all wrong,” he said. “I just didn’t have anybody to take care of me as a child. It was like, ‘Can you watch my kid for a couple of months?’ I was tossed around like that,” Hundley said.
Perhaps it was a sixth sense that steered him clear of the wrong alley or the wrong party. Or maybe it was just a matter of him always landing on all fours. Whatever the case, he survived.
Hundley can still vividly remember being introduced during his first NBA all-star game in 1960. The lights were out and the spotlight was on him as he jogged out to the foul line.
“When I got there I looked up and I said to myself, ‘I did it.’ I made it all the way. I’m one of the best!’”
On Saturday, the WVU Coliseum lights will be turned out one more time for Hot Rod Hundley.
Once again he’s made it. He’s one of the best.