THE BALL THAT changed the game sat in a drawer. Flat. For more than 50 years.
It last saw daylight in Piedmont, Calif., in the 1950s, and somehow avoided the dumpster in the years since.
But on Wednesday night, the ball came out of hiding. For the first time in more than 77 years, it absorbed the bright lights of a basketball arena.
On Dec. 30, 1936, the lights were from Madison Square Garden – the third version of the sports palace, on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th streets in midtown Manhattan. This time, it was Maples Pavilion, in a halftime ceremony honoring that game.
As history fused with the present, a loud applause could be heard from fans who appreciated its significance even while lacking a true understanding of it. On the floor, brothers Stuart and Carter Elliott, and Walter Vincenti represented that history. But the ball, the worn smudged piece of leather, cleaned as well as could be for the occasion, was the star.
In faded lettering, a score written with a black pen can still be seen. Mere markings cannot describe a revolution, but they can spark memories of it. For years, the Elliotts, unknowingly, were the caretakers of those memories.
A few blocks from Stuart Elliott’s home in Palo Alto, resides 96-year-old Vincenti, who may be the only man left in the world who lived that piece of history.
“Am I the only member of the team still around?” he asked. “Do you know?”
Vincenti paused for a moment, resigned at the probable answer.
“I may be the only one still around,” he said quietly.
THE STORY TRULY begins not at Stanford or in New York, but on San Francisco’s Russian Hill in the 1920s.
Angelo Giuseppi Luisetti, the son of Italian immigrants, lived three steep blocks up Broadway Avenue from Spring Valley Playground. According to “The Game Changer,” Philip Pallette’s 2005 biography of Luisetti, the little boy arrived at the playground transfixed with the game, but without knowledge of how to play it.
“Would you like to sign out a ball?”
Luisetti turned around to see playground director Rose McGreevy.
Unsure whether to run or stay, all he could manage to mutter was, “Yes, please.”
Over the next months and years, McGreevy taught the young Luisetti. Her method of shooting, a two-handed set shot at nearly eye level was different than the common practice of releasing from the chest. It also gave Luisetti the understanding that it was OK to experiment. There didn’t have to be a hard and fast way to play the game.
At first, the only way he could make the ball reach the hoop was to rear back and throw it with one hand. In time, he learned the conventional two-handed chest shot, but he kept practicing his one-handed shot, “eventually modifying it so he could shoot off the dribble facing the basket,” Pallette wrote. “Borrowing what he learned from McGreevy, he released the ball from just above his eyes, keeping it within the periphery of his vision while sighting the rim.”
"When I was a little kid, I was playing against high school kids," Luisetti told Malcolm Moran of the New York Times in 1987. "The only way I could shoot was to throw the ball up with one hand. I couldn't shoot with two hands. They'd block it."
The coach at Galileo High School, Tommy DeNike, tolerated Luisetti’s running one-hander, but the rest of his unique repertoire was regarded as “fancy shooting,” and was seen as unsportsmanlike. While Galileo won city championships, Luisetti, now known by his nickname of “Hank,” often limited his unusual shots to warmups or practice.
Luisetti did not invent the running one-hander, or the jump shot, but rather he created a style that was far ahead of his time. In an era of conservative play and two-handed, two-footed set shots, Luisetti derived a whirlybird, fast-paced, drive-to-the-hoop style. Consider today’s San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobli, put him in silk shorts and you have Luisetti.
Dribbling between his legs ... passing behind his back ... passing and shooting in midair ... these were the skills of Bob Cousy and Magic Johnson long before they first took the court.
It wasn’t until Luisetti arrived at Stanford in the fall of 1934 that he felt completely at ease with his game and, with the blessing of coach John Bunn, he flourished.
“When Luisetti came to Stanford, he was playing his kind of basketball,” said Vincenti, who played behind Luisetti as a forward on the Stanford freshman team. “John Bunn was smart enough to let him play his game. He didn’t try to tell him to play normal basketball. He was free to play the way he wanted.”
Shooting wasn’t the only attribute that the 6-foot-2 Luisetti excelled at. He was an outstanding ballhandler, a pinpoint passer, and was adept at tip-ins, perhaps due to the strong legs and great jumping ability he developed throughout childhood when Luisetti ran up and down the steep three blocks between his home on the hill and the playground each day.
Years later, Stanford publicist Don Liebendorfer in his book, “The Color of Life is Red,” mused that Luisetti could have been a world-record setting high jumper had he been guided toward track and field instead of basketball.
“A master of the feint and the change of pace, he could drive past a guard with bewildering moves, picking up a foul or field goal or both” wrote San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Dick Friendlich in the 1952 book, “Great Moments in Stanford Sports.” “He could hit driving shots with a guard literally on his shoulder.”
Luisetti’s defense was another understated part of his game. When other players posed for publicity photos in shooting positions, Luisetti instead crouched into a defensive stance because that was among the basketball skills he was most proud of.
“He was a great defensive player,” Vincenti said. “In practice, many times I would throw a pass and Hank would intercept it. He seemed to know ahead of time which way I was going to throw it.”
In his first varsity game, the sophomore Luisetti made all nine shots. In a 1936 game against defending Pacific Coast Conference champion USC, Luisetti led a second-half comeback from 15 points down with 11 minutes left by scoring 24 points thereafter to rally the Indians to a 51-47 victory.
Stanford had never won a PCC title until capturing all three during Luisetti’s varsity career -- the NCAA tournament would not begin until Luisetti had graduated. Otherwise, Stanford may have officially been crowned the best in the land.
“USC had an outstanding player who was a great admirer of Luisetti’s,” Vincenti recalled. “In those days, we’d go down there on a Thursday night by train and get off at the station in Glendale. And this USC player would meet us just to greet Hank. The best USC player would come and meet Stanford because he so admired Luisetti.”
Not only did Bunn allow Luisetti freedom on the court, but he asked his talented squad -- with captain Bryan “Dinty” Moore and Jack "Spook" Calderwood at guard, Art “Stork” Stoefen at center, and forward Howell Turner who teammates called, “Handsome Howie of the Hardwood” – to alter their style to accommodate Luisetti.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better five players,” Vincenti said. “That group was playing a fine game of basketball and they all picked up on Hank’s style quickly. Hank played a different style of game and the team followed his example. And John Bunn was smart enough to let them do their thing.”
AS THEY BECAME exposed to Stanford, other West Coast teams began to emulate the Indians’ style. However, the East Coast establishment was not so progressive.
In fact, such an authority City College of New York coach Ned Irish, an original Celtic known as “Mr. Basketball,” groused, “That’s not basketball. If my boys ever shot one-handed, I’d quit coaching.”
At first, there was no interest in bringing a West Coast team to Madison Square Garden. A year earlier, Cal came to play New York University and got clobbered, 41-26. Promoter Ned Irish was not eager for another West Coast beatdown.
However, during a qualifying tournament to represent the U.S. at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, University of Washington was third and the top collegiate team. Though many of the top New York schools boycotted in protest of Germany’s treatment of Jews, it was a notable achievement. Bunn persuaded Irish to give the West Coast another try, emphasizing that Stanford beat Washington for the 1935-36 PCC title.
Though still a junior, Vincenti was named senior manager of the basketball team when the student in line for the job flunked out. One of the 19-year-old’s first tasks was to arrange a three-week cross-country railroad trip that would include seven games, including two on the way to New York and four on the way back.
By then, word had filtered east about Stanford and its star, and an overflow crowd of 9,000 jammed Philadelphia Arena while hundreds more were turned away. Stanford bolted to a 16-4 lead against Temple before settling into a 45-38 victory.
Still, Long Island remained a heavy favorite for the Madison Square Garden showdown. Coach Clair Bee’s Blackbirds were regarded as the best in the country and carried a 43-game winning streak.
“They were slick ball handlers,” Les Woodcock wrote about LIU in a 1957 retrospective in Sports Illustrated. “They could shoot from the outside to open up their opponents' defenses, and when they had succeeded in doing that they could pass them dizzy under the basket. They were fiery, tenacious defenders.”
There were no Stanford fans in attendance that Vincenti could see, just a lot of fans who were curious about Stanford, yet sure of a Long Island victory – a notion quickly forgotten.
After Long Island scored the initial basket, Howell Turner tried to save a high pass from Luisetti, grabbed the ball while falling out of bounds and flung it over his head toward the basket. It went in.
“Everybody on the team broke out laughing,” Vincenti said. “That sort of set the tone for the game. We had a good time. LIU was never in the ballgame and Stanford just ran away with it. It was no contest.”
The huge crowd and the New York press were stunned. Mighty LIU had been throttled and Stanford turned basketball on its head. Not only was Stanford’s playing a new style of offense, but switched defenses at will and pressured the Blackbirds into a flurry of turnovers. Stanford even won over the fans.
It was a brand of basketball, “only rumored in the East but never seen,” Woodock wrote. “The style … was revolutionary.”
With 30 seconds left, Luisetti, who scored 15 points, left to an ovation, as nearly all the 17,623 fans who witnessed Stanford’s 45-31 victory rose from their seats in the smoke-filled arena.
“It seemed that Luisetti could do nothing wrong,” wrote the New York Times. “Some of his shots would have been foolhardy if attempted by another player, but with Luisetti doing the heaving, these were accepted by the crowd as a matter of course.”
Long Island guard Leo Merson said in exasperation, “What can you do with a fellow like that? He goes a mile into the air, uses either hand equally well and breaks for a loose ball like the hammers of hell.”
In the basketball world, the wheels of change had begun.
“The long reign of LIU was over but, more significantly, so was eastern-style basketball,” Woodcock wrote. “Modern basketball had come to replace it.”
WHEN STUART ELLIOTT was 10 years old in 1941, he received a present from Howell Turner, a relative whose actual relation was uncertain. They just called him “cousin.”
Turner always had been close to the Elliott boys. Stuart has a photo of Turner holding him as an infant.
This gift was a basketball, with a date and a score printed on it. But the Elliotts didn’t quite grasp the significance. Rather than put the ball on a mantle, they played with it in the backyard. Their home in Piedmont has a grass backyard with a basketball hoop and backboard mounted in front of a tall hedge.
The Elliotts’ father, Wallace, created a good life for his family. He attended Stanford for a year before serving in the ambulance corps in France during World War I. He finished school at Michigan before a career in advertising.
Wallace knew how to make a buck and saw an opportunity with the number of Dust Bowl migrants working in the Oakland shipyards during World War II. They liked country music, so Wallace started the first country music program on Bay Area radio.
Wallace not only hosted the program under the handle of “Longhorn Joe,” on station KROW, but he brought in largely unknown and up-and-coming stars such as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash to play concerts in the shipyards.
Even then, Stuart Elliott was a Stanford fan. He still can recite the backfield of Stanford’s 1941 Rose Bowl team and recalls watching an unfinished Hoover Tower looming as a backdrop to a game at Stanford Stadium.
Stuart Elliott competed on the gymnastics team and would go on to earn his bachelor’s (class of ’49), master’s, and Ph.D. from Stanford in physics and became a professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, and then for 36 years at Occidental. Carter, who followed their father into advertising, graduated from Stanford in 1955.
But in the early ‘40s, they were just neighborhood kids with a basketball. Except their ball just happened to be used in one of the most significant games in history.
“It got well beat up,” Stuart said. “Gradually, the air got out of it and it shrank down. It was stored in a drawer or a closet in Piedmont. When we moved out after we got married, the ball came with some of the stuff.”
Did Stuart’s wife, Lyn, ever wonder why he kept it around?
“Probably on more than one occasion,” she said.
Three or four years ago, the brothers relaxed with cocktails with a Stanford fundraising friend at Carter’s condominium on Maui when the subject of the ball came up.
Stuart told Carter it still existed. The development office got word and it eventually led to Wednesday’s ceremony and a centerpiece for the new Stanford Hall of Fame, which will occupy Dallmar Court at the Arrillaga Family Sports Center when the building’s renovations are completed.
“It was on a shelf in a closet here,” Stuart said. “So, it wasn’t hard to give up. I have a long connection with Stanford. So, naturally, I feel happy to provide it.”
VINCENTI DESCRIBES HIS involvement in the LIU game as “being in the right place at the right time. That’s the story of my life.”
An engineering major at Stanford, Vincenti worked at Moffett Field for 16 years before helping form an aeronautical engineering department at Stanford.
“We had a chairman and I was his one faculty,” Vincenti said.
Just weeks into their first year, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. The Space Race was on and the Cold War had a new front, forcing the U.S. government to keep up.
“Washington started pushing money at us and saying, ‘How much can you use?’ “ Vincenti said. “We didn’t ask for money, they asked us how much we wanted and gave it to us. Our field exploded. Within a few years, we became one of the top schools in aeronautical engineering in the country. We couldn’t have planned anything any better than that.”
LUISETTI DIED ON Dec. 17, 2002, at age 86. He never played professionally, and his amateur playing career ended with a bout of spinal meningitis in 1944. But that hardly mattered when measuring his greatness.
Luisetti was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1959. He was a two-time college player of the year. He still holds the Stanford single-game scoring record, with 50 points from a 1938 game against Duquesne. And he graduated with more points than anyone in collegiate history.
During the 1936-37 cross-country saga, the team took a sidetrip to Lawrence, Kan., where the players met James Naismith, the inventor of the game. The meeting was meaningful in a different way – the inventor of basketball meeting the inventor of modern basketball.
For a few moments Wednesday, Stanford fans could sense what Luisetti and Stanford accomplished. They saw a ball in a glass case and applauded loudly. They knew this was special even if they couldn’t fully comprehend it.
And once again, the lights shined brightly on the basketball, just as they had years before on a night when the greatest player of his time created memories that Stanford and the game itself never will forget.