Author tells of basketball greats of yesteryear

Hank Luisetti -
Hank Luisetti
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Islander Ed Loverich is cited in Philip Pallette’s ‘Game Changer.’

It’s not much of a reach to say that Hank Luisetti was the Michael Jordan of the 1930s.

A two-time national player of the year while at Stanford, Luisetti revolutionized basketball by popularizing the running one-handed shot, the precursor to today’s jump shot.

Unquestionably the most popular hoopster of his era, Luisetti’s fame nearly jump-started the future National Basketball Association. Hollywood paid him the ultimate compliment, signing him to a starring role in a movie right after graduation.

Even some of the phraseology around the two men is similar.

The defining moment in Luisetti’s career came in 1936, when Stanford traveled to New York to play top-ranked Long Island. Behind Luisetti’s 15 points, Stanford demolished LIU 46-31 and snapped the hosts’ 43-game winning streak before a packed Madison Square Garden.

According to the New York Times, “It seemed that Luisetti could do nothing wrong. Some of his shots would have been deemed foolhardy if attempted by any other player, but with Luisetti doing the heaving, these were accepted by the crowd as a matter of course.”

The setting was ideal.

“When we got back to school after Christmas vacation, every kid had a one-handed shot,” recalled future New York Knicks standout Ray Lumpp. “We all wanted to be like Hank.”

Yet a Google search of “Hank Luisetti” turns up just 658 hits. By contrast, “Michael Jordan” generates nearly half a million, although some don’t refer to the basketball player.

Author Philip Pallette seeks to give long-overdue recognition to Luisetti in his recent book “The Game Changer” (Authorhouse paperback, $17.50).

The book has two Bainbridge Island connections.

One is island resident John Pennell, Pallette’s uncle. Pennell has arranged for Pallette to give a reading and book signing at the Bainbridge library on Aug. 10.

The other is its references to legendary Bainbridge hoopster Ed Loverich, who played for the University of Washington and faced Luisetti on a number of occasions. According to Pallette, Loverich had also developed an effective one-handed shot.

His hustle impressed then-UW coach Hec Edmundson. Known primarily for his basketball prowess, Edmundson took sixth in the 800 meters in the 1912 Olympics and emphasized running in his program.

“Fearless, dark-haired, granite jawed, a 6’1” version of Bill Laimbeer [a member of the Detroit Pistons’ NBA title teams in the late 1980s], Loverich was known as ‘Big Animal’ or ‘Ashcan’ due to his voracious and somewhat discriminate eating habits,” Pallette writes. “He was probably the most talented offensive player on the team.”

Angelo “Hank” Luisetti was born in San Francisco in 1916. He developed what became his signature shot on the playground.

His two-handed, chest-high set shot – used universally at the time – often couldn’t clear the arms of taller players he faced. He avoided the rejections by learning to launch his shots one-handed while running full bore.

Luisetti became an all-city hoopster in high school, averaging a then-impressive seven points a game. He almost certainly could have scored far more frequently, but he was a back-to-the-basket center on a team that emphasized defense.

He came into his own when he entered Stanford in 1934. After starring on the freshman team, he moved to varsity as a sophomore. He played in an up-tempo offense that ideally suited his talents, and Stanford games soon attracted turnaway crowds.

In 1938, Luisetti became the first college player to score 50 points in a game. The feat was especially impressive because entire teams rarely reached that plateau and both the jump shot and three-point arc were decades in the future. It remains the Stanford single-game high.

Yet Pallette makes it clear that Luisetti (like Jordan) was far from a one-dimensional player. Some observers considered Luisetti’s dribbling to be his strongest skill.

“His use of an array of offensive and defensive skills combined to make a floor game that opened eyes and helped to advance basketball to a new level of excitement and popularity,” Pallette says.

When Luisetti graduated in 1938, his 1,596 points established a national record, and Stanford went 68-12 during his career.

Promoter Ned Irish offered Luisetti the then-princely sum of $10,000 to become the cornerstone of a proposed New York franchise, which in turn would become the cornerstone of the National Basketball League, which in turn would become the modern-day NBA.

Luisetti turned Irish down, saying that playing professionally would “besmirch” Stanford’s reputation.

Pallette believes that Luisetti wasn’t true to himself.

“When it came to listing his priorities upon leaving college, he acted upon those set by other people, not those genuinely his own,” he notes. “By giving up organized basketball…he was doing what was expected of a Stanford man in 1938. He would seek a professional business career, and in so doing, would sacrifice his true métier and passion.”

Before his “professional business career” began, Luisetti headed for Tinseltown. Paramount Pictures wanted to capitalize on his nationwide fame.

The studio paid him $10,000 to appear as himself in “Campus Confessions,” which co-starred Betty Grable. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience for Luisetti, especially when the film proved to be a box-office flop

Luisetti had one final hurrah on the hardwood. He played on several powerhouse AAU teams during the early 1940s. One, the St. Mary’s Pre-Flight School, was considered the best team at any level in the country. Luisetti averaged 30 points a game.

In 1944, he was stricken with spinal meningitis. Though the disease was often fatal, he recovered. Doctors, however, told him that playing basketball would be far too risky. That ended any chance of playing in the NBL, which began operations in 1946.

He returned to the court in 1951, coaching an amateur team supported by the automobile dealership where he worked.

Paced by future professional star George Yardley, the team won the national championship. But Luisetti didn’t enjoy coaching. He turned his back on basketball. Basketball, however, didn’t turn its back on him.

The Associated Press named him the second-best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century, with only George Mikan ahead of him. He was a member of the first class admitted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959.

Hank Luisetti died in 2002.

* * * * *

In the game

“The Game Changer” author Philip Pallette will read from his book and answer questions at 7 p.m. Aug 10 at the Bainbridge public library. Admission is free. He will also sign books at that time. Copies of “The Game Changer,” which includes a discussion of island basketball great Ed Loverich, are available at Eagle Harbor Books and at the reading.

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