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Q&A: Sports author Mike DeLucia on forgotten basketball pioneer Hank Luisetti

Hank Luisetti (right) is a three-time All-American basketball player who played at Stanford in the 1930s. He revolutionized the game with his one-handed shot and was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Few individuals know the storied history of Stanford basketball. For sports author Mike DeLucia, the pre-NBA era — marked by two-handed shots and jump balls after each score — became his primary focus when he learned of Stanford’s three-time All-American Angelo-Giuseppi “Hank” Luisetti. In his three years at Stanford in the 1930s, Luisetti captivated the nation with his running, one-handed shot and led the program to three consecutive Pacific Coast Championships. He was the NCAA Division I leading-scorer in 1936 and 1937 and became the first player to score 50 points in a game the following year.

In one of his most remembered performances, Hank Luisetti led Stanford to a stunning 45-31 victory against No. 1 Long Island University (LIU) in 1936. In front of a crowd of 17,623, Stanford broke LIU’s 43-game winning streak in a game that introduced Luisetti as one of basketball’s premier stars.

Luisetti is regarded as one of the best players of the first-half of the 20th century and was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959 and elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1979. Former Stanford basketball head coach Mike Montgomery said he considers Luisetti “one of the innovators of the modern game of basketball.”

Luisetti passed away in 2002 at the age of 86, but his legacy lives on in DeLucia’s book “Madness.” Ahead of DeLucia’s visit to Stanford on Friday, The Daily’s Alejandro Salinas sat down with the Bronx, New York native to talk about his book and the life of the Italian basketball hero.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did Hank Luisetti impact the game?

Mike DeLucia (MD): Before Hank Luisetti, total scores of basketball games were around 30-35 points. Some games were 20 points. It was a game based on defense. It was a stop, set, shoot mentality. And it was kind of boring. There was no NBA. Basketball had no fan base; it was not a professional sport. Hank Luisetti, with the creation of the one-handed shot and the jump shot, was doing fast breaks when people were hardly breaking. Everything before him was done with two hands. But with the one-handed shot, he injected fluidity into the game. It made it an offensive game, whereas before it was defensive game. And that’s the whole difference. That’s why Hank Luisetti changed the game. He was 15 years ahead of his time.

TSD: Where does Hank Luisetti stack up against the greatest basketball players of all time?

MD: Hank Luisetti is the greatest basketball player of all time. Why, you ask? It’s impossible actually to put one person from one era up against one person from another era. There are so many variables stacked into who the greatest is. You might be able to stack two people against each other who played on similar kinds of teams during the same era and played against themselves. You might be able to measure that way. But you can’t compare Kareem or Larry Bird or any of those guys against any people who didn’t play in the same era.

Nine out of 10 google searches will say Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. And I can say Hank Luisetti is the greatest basketball player of all time, and this is how I determine it. We can’t take somebody from the 1930s and put them up against somebody from the 1990s when basketball changed so much over those years. So all we can do is compare Michael Jordan against his contemporaries and Hank Luisetti against his.

First of all, was Michael Jordan a national celebrity? Yes, he was. So was Hank Luisetti. Did Michael Jordan eventually go on to make movies? Yes, he did. Hank Luisetti did too. As soon as he graduated Stanford, he was signed. He was given $10,000 to play himself in a movie starring Betty Grable. That’s how famous he was. There were comics made about him. I actually have one of them. And there are also other things. Like he was called the California comet, and he was in the sports magazines. He was a nationally known figure.

Did Michael Jordan lead his team to championships? Yes, he did. Did Hank Luisetti? Every year he played on Stanford. Did Michael Jordan break many records while he was basketball player? He obviously did. So did Hank Luisetti. He broke scoring records every year he played. In fact, he was the first person to score 50 points in one game.

Did Michael Jordan have some innovations during his during his time? Yeah, he did. The whole Air Jordans thing, the fact that he can jump and do the things that he did, he definitely added some innovations. Did Hank Luisetti? Absolutely. But his innovations were far superior to the game than Michael Jordan’s were. For example, Hank Luisetti is one of the first people know to have dribbled behind their back. People didn’t do that back then. But Hank Luisetti’s greatest contribution to the game was the one-handed shot.

TSD: What inspired you to write a story on Hank Luisetti?

MD: I was 23 or 24 years old when I was at Sunday dinner and my father said, “I have the perfect person for you to write a story about.” So I said, “Really, who’s that?” And he said, “This guy, Hank Luisetti,” he goes. “He went to Stanford University and he completely changed basketball. They used to score like 20 to 30 points in the game, and this guy scored like 50 points because he invented a layup.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s kind of interesting.” So I thought about that for a while, and I said, you know, that could be a pretty interesting story.

TSD: How did you begin researching someone that no one knew anything about?

MD: I took two weeks off from work. I actually had my own business at the time, but I hired somebody to take care of it for me. And I went downtown every day to Manhattan. You know, this was before there was anything. They had computers, but not personal computers. So I was looking through card catalogs, and I was looking through microfilm. It was an arduous task, trying to research this guy nobody knew anything about. And I was literally there from the time they opened up until the time they closed every day for two weeks. And I eventually started finding stuff about him. The more I found about him, the easier it was for me to track other stuff about it. After two weeks, I came home with the skeleton story of Hank Luisetti.

TSD: Where did you get your inspiration for the title of the book?

MD: The book was published in January of 2019. I decided nobody knows who Hank Luisetti is and to put his name on the cover is not really good for sales. It was the changes that he made that changed the genetic footprint of basketball that made it exciting, which led to March Madness. Stanford was arguably the first national champions, the unofficial national champions, when Stanford beat LIU at the Madison Square Garden in 1936. It was really taking the two best teams in the whole country and putting them up against each other on a main stage. And that’s really the night that changed basketball. Then after he graduated in 1938, March Madness officially began in 1939. So he laid the gasoline down to start that fire. That’s why the book is called “Madness: The man that changed basketball.”

TSD: Having published the book, what are you now focused on?

MD: I still have the screenplay; I’m actually editing it right now. Now that the book is out, I have two main focuses with this. Number one focus is to have it made into the film. Every writer wants their book to be made into a film. And that’s, of course, that reason. But the other reason, and it’s a pretty big one for me, is trying to put pictures out there that demonstrate Italians as people who are not connected to the mob in any way or that are actually educated people. We’re not just dummies, and we’re not just criminals killing people, blowing their brains out, you know, because that’s what the media likes when they see Italians.

The kind of stereotype that Hollywood is comfortable with, with Italians, is the F-bomb dropping, rough around the edges sort of guy until he eventually turns around and makes a great friendship. It’s the problem of a lot of Italian civil rights groups that are trying to fight for that, but just cannot break through. It’s amazing; they cannot break through. So, having the Hank Louis Eddie story out there, on the screen demonstrating or depicting Italians in a way that demonstrates who we are as people is an important thing for me. I’m on like a mission to try and portray Italians as every other American.

Contact Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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