by Z. Shuff

You will score 135 points in your next high school basketball game. January 26, 1960, is the night it will happen. Hello, hoops history. Guinness Book of World Records, here you come. Your name is Danny Heater, and your record, 135 points, will last. But this does not come as a straight victory. It does not come without problems. And which problem is worse: that your mother missed the game or that you didn’t even get to enjoy your record? Your world record, the one that congeals and permanently attaches itself to you. It’s basketball. It’s a game. But your record makes you proud and embarrassed. It makes you happy and sad.

Burnsville, West Virginia. Your hometown. Population 700. There are fewer than eighty-five boys in your school, and the high school, junior high, and grade school all operate under the same roof. The Bruins’ basketball gym where you play home games is small, twenty feet shorter than a regulation gym. There is no scoreboard in it. You broke your wrists once running into the wall in the tiny gym. You are rangy and tall by comparison when gangling alongside the rows of lockers. Your spiked-up, blond flat top adds an inch or so to your height. You dribble your basketball in the hallways between classes. You are shy, but you smile the best you can at your fellow students.

On January 25, 1960, the night before you set the record, you are practicing your hook shot on your do-it-yourself goal outside your house. Swish. Boom. Two. The weather is typical for the dead of West Virginia winter. Irregular platy scales of the bark of the hardwood trees sheen with frost; trees’ branches bow with snow. But you are outside practicing your hook shots anyway, one after another. Someone alerts Coach Stalnaker, your coach, what you’re doing. Coach Stalnaker drives over and tells you out his car window, don’t be out shooting hook shots in eight inches of snow. He was worried about his skinny superstar.

The next night, in the historic 135-point-run, you will drain six hook shots—three right and three left. These hooks will be 12 of your 135 points.

Before the home game against Widen High School on January 26, your dad, John Curry Heater, an out-of-work coal miner, is sick. You were with your dad the day the doctor told him he had a spot on his lung and his lung might go down. He worked his whole life in the coal mine until this past year.

Your mom, Beaulah, is your biggest fan. She keeps a scrapbook on you and cuts out the parts of articles that she doesn’t like. She never misses one of your basketball games before or since, but she misses this one. On this night, she knows the home game against the Widen team will be a blowout.  She is right about that. “They probably won’t even need to put you in,” she says before you go to your game. With your dad being sick, she stays home with him.

Your sister is at a nearby hangout at tip-off. They put you in the game, all right. You are going to be in the papers. “Hotter than your last name Heater,” the Charleston Daily Mail will imply, a couple of days down the road.

In the locker room right before the warm-up, Coach Stalnaker tells you and your teammates Luther and Harold and Charlie and Donnie the game plan. The reason for the plan is to get you publicity, maybe even to get you a scholarship, because the Jerry West–famous WVU Mountaineers basketball program has not even given you a look see. And you are the poorest kid on the team, and a scholarship is your only chance at college. This will make them notice.

You and the other boys listen, lined up and matching in your Bruins uniforms. Tight orange jerseys and short shorts trimmed in black. Tube socks à la Jerry West reach your knees. The game plan is this: feed the ball to Danny (that’s you) every time. “I’ll never ask you boys to do this again,” says coach.

You could go for the state scoring record of seventy-four points in a game. Maybe you can break it. You don’t want to do it, but your teammates and the coach want you to. You say no. “No, no,” you say. Pick someone else, you say. You ask every guy on the team, “Will you get mad?”

“Go for it,” they say. They had to convince you to do it.

The first couple minutes of the first quarter, you don’t even shoot.

“Shoot, shoot,” say the guys.

“Time out,” calls your coach, forming a “T” with his hands. So you go back out there after the timeout, and you shoot. You shoot again and again. The basket slurps the ball. Up climbs the score, and your points total by unmarqueed ones and twos in the scoreboard-less gym. For a moment, the other team (Widen—whose school is smaller than your own) can’t even get the ball in-bounds because you steal it over and over and score rapid layups, bang-bang-bang at almost automatic rifle–like pace.

At halftime, some fans go up to the score table to ask how many points you have. You have fifty-five. The state record is seventy-four. Someone gets your sister from the hangout, and she comes to the game. Early in the second half, you break the state record. Coach calls a timeout to pull you off the wood rectangle where tonight, you could do no wrong. Your teammates say leave you in to go for the national record of 120. You do.

The other team’s cheerleaders included, the spectators shout out your points total each time you ace another basket in the no-scoreboard gym. “100! 105!”   You score 120 and points above; points above as useful as swords in a gunfight.

Burnsville 173 to Widen 43 is the final score. Your stats: 135 points, 32 rebounds, and 7 assists.

The fans swarm the court after the game. Your sister hugs you.

“Congratulations,” the fans say. “Congratulations,” say players from Widen. You shake hands. You go to a local hangout with the gang and have Cokes. Your 135 points goes into the Guinness Book. “Danny Heater,” the book heralds. You top Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points scored in an NBA game in 1962, and your record holds for points scored in a high school basketball game for over fifty years and counting. You are it, the record holder. 135 points—that is you.

You go home and tell your mom that night, but she already knows. The coach calls in the score to the newspaper. “Goddammit,” the sports editor tells the coach. He didn’t believe him. Danny Heater’s enduring superlative crystallizes into national news. It will make its way to the Jerry West–famous program and to the ear of a Virginia state senator.

The day after the record, on January 27, 1960, you have a game against Tanner High. You jump ball but come down hard on your ankle. You roll it. You play ten minutes and get twenty-one.

Thursday the twenty-eighth, this is the sports headline: “Plan for Heater Worked. Wanted Publicity for Scholarship.” The story starts this way, and it doesn’t get better: “Is it justifiable to beat a hapless, outmanned high school basketball team by 130 points with the expressed intention of obtaining a college scholarship for the star of the winning team?”  Your mom might as well cut out the whole article.

The next week, the scout comes, the one from the Jerry West–famous WVU. Your ankle hurts. You can’t jump on it. You don’t play well. The scout says, “Good shot you got there, son,” to you after the game. “Boy was slow,” he tells your coach, and no scholarship offer materializes.

You hadn’t wanted to do it. It was not your idea. They had to talk you into it. You’re a good kid, at least your coach and English teacher say so. Even Coach Stover, from the opposing Widen High, says you’re a good kid, too. “One of the best around these parts,” he tells the Charleston Daily Mail. “It was pretty difficult to take, though,” he says.

Thirty years later, the Washington Post says of the night, “on the other side of things, it didn’t feel like high school history, it felt like raw, open slaughter.” That’s another part for your mom’s scissors.

So no WVU basketball fame comes your way, but a college opportunity does. The retired Virginia senator who hears about you arranges for you to get a chance.  He gets you a grant to attend the University of Richmond and play basketball. But your college stint didn’t begin until second semester. Another January day in West Virginia, your cousin Jake drives your family to the Greyhound station. Your mother crying, you leave. You are crying, too. You do this, in fact, for the next eight hours of the trip to Richmond.

The team was already set when you got there to the Richmond Spiders basketball team, and they gave you a uniform three sizes too big.  You get in a few games and score a little bit.

But you are backward and homesick and lonely. They make fun of your accent. You don’t know your way around campus. You don’t last at the college chance.   

Years after the record you’re a family man, and you work for an airline at Washington Reagan. You get up at 3:45 every morning to get to your job by 5:30. You work overtime to buy your kids’ birthday presents. Your daughter writes an essay about you called “Dad.” In it, she portrays you as strong and unbreakable and generous. Your son says that you’re the best father. It hurts that you can’t afford their college.

You run into coach Stalnaker at Reagan. You take him to the VIP lounge and treat him like a king. “He never wanted to show off,” says Coach Stalnaker all these years down the road, explaining your finesse with the basketball and ways you could have shown off if you’d wanted to.

And you don’t like to talk about it, the record, your 135 points, that night in the gym with no scoreboard. That night when you shot and shot. You worked hard at those hook shots, just as you work hard every day at your job. “He goes out of his way to help people,” says your boss at Washington Reagan. Your boss admits you make his shifts easier. “I’m grateful for him,” he says.

Good kid, hard worker, good dad, not a show-off. These are the things that time will tell about you. You should get to feel heroic about your high achieving score, your world record. It’s basketball. It’s a game. A guy like you deserves heroic.

Your teenage granddaughters play basketball. They like your record. They delight in it; they’re proud.  And that helps because family is everything to you. They get to be proud even if you are proud and embarrassed. Even if you are happy and sad.

Zekana Shuff has an MD and an MFA. She lives and works as a physician in beautiful West Virginia with her husband, their two kids, their dog, and their cat. Her medical writing has appeared in various medical journals. She has lectured on art at a national medical conference and at her MFA. program. Her poetry and prose have appeared in a handful of literary journals in print and online, including in this summer’s edition of Storyscape.



Image credit:  Mitch Geiser on Unsplash




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