The Ballad of Danny Heater
31 Years Ago, Basketball History HappenedThis article appeared in the Washington Post on March 13, 1991.
By PAUL HENDRICKSON
BURNSVILLE, W.Va. -- "Son," his mother said, fixing his supper, kissing his forehead, forking her fingers through his inch-high blond flattop, "If you don't mind, I won't go tonight. This other team's got nothing, you've already licked them once this season. I'll just sit at home here with your daddy, they probably won't even need to put you in."
This is the ballad of Danny Heater.
He did it 31 seasons ago. He was 17 then and built like a boneyard and had a father who was out of work in the mines and a mama named Beulah who sang beautifully in the Methodist church, and on one improbable howling-cold January night, in a little band-box country gym that was so small it didn't even have seats, he vaulted up out of his West Virginia destinies to set -- in 32 minutes and four quarters of high school basketball -- a single-game national scoring record that no one has ever been able to touch.
Stats won't tell his story, though here are several:
At one point they say he scored six points before they could move four seconds off the clock.
In the final 10 minutes, he racked 55.
He made three left-handed hooks - this is the legend anyway. Nobody could remember Danny Heater even trying a left-handed hook before, at least not in a game.
Three or four or five straight times (some say it was twice that), the opposing team couldn't get the ball in bounds, let alone a third of the way up the floor: Because the sheet-faced 145-pound boy - whose family didn't even own a car; who was known for his almost neurotic shyness; who was first and foremost a team player; whose inclination was always to pass it off as much as to pump it in -- would materialize out of nowhere and steal the thing and then dipsy-doodle it into the basket from the underneath, barely looking up.
By midway in the second quarter they thought he might break the state record. The state record was 74. He blew by 74 like an 18-wheeler with its hammer down.
He even got 32 rebounds and seven assists. Toward the end the cheerleaders from the other side were screaming for him.
There are West Virginians who'll tell you that in those final few minutes in that old rocking hotbox basement arena that was about 17 feet shorter than a standard court, hysteria began to feel like an inferior emotion. In the end as Danny Heater, his wind completely gone, kept putting them in, and putting them in, a queer quiet seemed to be drawing itself over a school that didn't even have 85 boys.
A lot of it would be myth, of course, burnished by three decades of imagining it.
And yet there are the numbers, sitting in the record books, hard and brilliant. When the tally came in over the state wires, it looked like a typographical error. Heater: 53-29-135. Which is to say 53 field goals, 29 free throws, total 135.
In all the years and dreams of schoolboys since, that number, 135, has held.
The final score was Burnsville 173, Widen 43. Which is to say that on the other side of things, it didn't feel like school history, it felt like a raw, open slaughter. And the memory endures.
This happened on Jan. 26, 1960. The mountain moon is remembered as being ripe and pearly. The Little Kanawha River, which glides right out back of the school, was so swollen it looked ready to leap its banks. A man named Kennedy hadn't yet come to the coal-haunted border Protestant state to begin smashing Hubert Humphrey in the race for the presidency, though within weeks he would.
That's the first part of the ballad of Danny Heater. But the next seems even more impenetrable: He never wanted it to happen. He asked that they pick somebody else. They had to talk him into it, his teammates and his coach. The whole harebrained inspired thing was a scheme in a worthy cause hatched by a frustrated young coach a few minutes before the boys in orange and black took the floor. That coach's name is Jack Stalnaker and he's down in Braxton County yet, his emotion mixed.
"We're going to feed it to Danny every time we get the ball," the coach had told Luther Clayton and Harold Conrad and Charlie Smith and Donnie Brooks and all the others in the locker room. And why? Because they wanted to try and get the poorest kid on the team a ride to college. Because they wanted to get the publicity for their little nowhere burg and Class A school which in West Virginia is the bottom rung. The idea, you see, was that if Danny, who had the put shot, the quickest hands, could put off something stupendous against a weak opponent, then scholarship scouts from the big universities Morgantown and other places might come riding in.
Well, he got the ticket to college all right, though not the school of his choice nor under the circumstances he wished. He got the ride to the city and to the lights of Division I NCAA ball and lasted an even six weeks.
In later years there would be the occasional newspaper story about the automobile accident the summer before college that ruined a Appalachian boy's back and chances. There would be stories about the family fire that drove Danny Heater home from the University of Richmond before could really get started. It isn't much that these things are untrue, it's just that the real truth is both more simple and more profound.
But it's okay now. It's been okay for a long while. Which is one reason why the ballad of Danny Heater, once of Burnsville but now of Germantown, is a richer tale than you might suspect. Which is why the 235-pound and exceedingly modest and instantly likable and semi-beat-up 49-year-old passenger agent for Pan Am who gets out of bed at 3:45 a.m. five and six days a week to drive through urban darkness to his job at National Airport didn't even want this story done, had to be rather strenuously coaxed and cajoled into it.
"I just can't see who'd want to read about my life," says a man who a long time ago notched one for the books, the lilting West Virginia rhythms laced perfectly in.
In a Maryland Town House
He is sitting in his living room, talking about his parents, John Curry and Beulah, deflecting it from himself in the way an old jock might flick off a pass if he still had great peripheral vision. His huge frame, gone to stomach, is sunk deep in a chair in a spick-and-span town house he doesn't own. Danny Heater has never owned a house. The money has just never been there. He wouldn't like it put this way, but the fact is he's always passed off any extra money -- of which there's been damn little helping a sibling in trouble, helping a parent with black lung.
John Curry Heater, Danny's dad, died of black lung four years ago, which is the oldest, saddest West Virginia story there is.
Beulah Heater, who was always Danny's biggest fan, and who missed the game of games, died 12 years ago. Her love was as round and wide as she was. She used to scissor out all her boy's story's and paste them in her dime-store scrapbooks. And when somebody wrote something she didn't like, she'd scissor out the offending paragraph and glue the rest in.
Around Danny today is his nuclear family -- his wife, Carol; his 18-year-old daughter, Tracy; his 21-year-old son, Kevin. Kevin's a lean, taciturn, likable fellow in a T-shirt and big floppy gym shoes. He's Danny a generation ago. He once got 32 in the I-270 league.
"I've hardly ever taken them to downtown Washington," John Curry's son says of his own children. "Downtown Washington scares me." Danny Heater's been living in these climes for almost 29 years.
For a while they lived in Suitland. Danny was a file-review clerk at the FBI then. (Obscure fact: The FBI has a long history of coming to rural places in West Virginia to recruit for low-level jobs.) Later Danny got on with the airlines. His first job was loading bags into the belly of the planes. Now the airline he works for is in bankruptcy.
But he was talking a second ago of his father's fears and struggles. "About all he knew in his whole life was work. He only had about a seventh-grade education. He was doing a man's work when he was eight years old. He went into the mines because that's where the money was. It took him years to get on the black lung program. He'd go from doctor to doctor. He got a congressman here to help him. I was with him in West Virginia the time the doctor came in and told him he had a bad spot on his lung and it might collapse..."
Pause. "I think he just felt that's the way life is."
Danny Heater's father once had a car. But he got in a wreck. The judge said it was his fault. The bill was $100. John Curry could never make the money. They took his license. The family didn't ride again.
The West Virginia Heaters lived all over Burnsville -- five places, at least, in a town that barely had 700. "I had no one to play football with, so I played football with myself -- an old oatmeal box. I'd throw it in the air and catch it and tackle myself. Never lost, neither."
The belly rumbles.
He has large hands, which look out of place. He's wearing a red polo shirt and blue suspenders, a pair of plain black shoes. His voice, tenor-range, sounds faintly Elizabethan, which is of course how Anglo-Saxon people with their mountains in their bones often sound, no matter where they are domiciled.
For a while growing up, Danny's family lived over top of Marple's Department Store. Wasn't much of a department store. It burned, as overcrammed and poorly made structures do. Danny's mother was in the apartment that noonday. "She got out with her bathrobe," says the son. They lost everything they had. Danny was at school. He ran home, wild. He thought his mama and his older sister Carolyn were still inside, but actually they were across the street, safe. John Curry had come home that day to announce he'd just been furloughed by the mine bosses.
These West Virginia stories hard, laconic, almost bloodlessly delivered -- have been going on. What hasn't been going on is much talk about the night of nights, Jan. 26, 1960. Why? Danny seems to be studiously avoiding mention of what came after, at the University of Richmond, when he got the ticket to ride, when some basketball aesthetes must have figured him for the noble savage straight up out of the West-by-God-Virginny hills.
No, he doesn't seem much inclined toward Jan. 26, 1960, and the aftermath, but at one point today he does say sort of short-bouncing it in, "I mean, when your parents have zero, when there's no money at all, you've got to go home and help. Don't you?"
It's so hard to picture the bony brush-topped boy.
It's so hard to figure the 135 points.
You turn to his children. What kind of a father is he?
Kevin: "The best. When I look at my other friends' homes --
Tracy: "They may have more money but none of them have more love."
Danny's wife Carol: "These are the only high school kids in the whole state of Maryland who had to be in bed at 9 o'clock."
Danny: "We're in somewhat the same position with Tracy and Kevin as my folks were with me. We can't afford college. That hurts."
Tracy Heater wrote a moving essay. She called it 'Dad.' She talked of a former basketball player, his hair not yet gray, his skin aged from hard work. He was a strong man, but nothing could break him.
"... He would work double time just to get that little extra money for a birthday present. He sacrificed his health for the well being of others."
As Though In a Dream
The mythography of it.
The word "spree" doesn't seem to cover it. Consider. The most anybody ever got in the pro game was a cool 100. That's the NBA record. And that guy's name is Wilt Chamberlain. And the most anybody ever got in college was 113. He's an obscure-famous American name, Bevo Francis.
About 200 were said to have witnessed Danny. The crowd was ganged four and five deep in the stairwells; was pressed against the sweating concrete wall; was leaning down from the balcony, which really wasn't a balcony at all, just an open hallway leading to classrooms.
One reason schoolboy basketball is king in West Virginia is because all you need for a team is six kids with short pants and T-shirts; five firsties and a sub. The high schools in the state are historically that small and poor.
Danny Heater is in the Guinness Book of World Records, though it should be said the Guinness list also stipulates in 1924 a Maryland schoolgirl named Marie Boyd got 156 in points in a single game. But that was six-person basketball and, really, a different game. Basketball statisticians agree that the "modern era" of the game began with the 1938-1939 season, which was the first without the jump after each goal scored.
Danny couldn't get off the floor that night. His sister Carolyn kept trying to hoist him up. Afterward they all went to the Spot and had a Coke. It was as if he was in a dream. He got into his house about 10:30. Beulah was weeping and laughing and bounding up and down at the same time.
The next night, in a game against Tanner High, Danny sprained his ankle. He came down off a jump ball and stood flat-footed and did a freak twist. He played only 10 minutes but he got 21. Limped around on the ankle too long. The following week the scouts from West Virginia University rode in. Danny knew that someone from Morgantown, then one of the great basketball institutions in the nation, was in his little gym, watching him. A six-footer didn't leap well. His ankle hurt. Everything seemed a beat off. Still, he hit for 27, it wasn't that he was awful. Afterward, standing courtside, a WVU scout spoke to him for maybe two minutes. "Good shot you got there, son," he said.
The scouts never came back. "Boy was slow," the WVU men later opined to Danny's coach.
In a Coal-Haunted Place
Braxton County -- you knew it before you came. House trailers stuck into ridges. The Little Kanawha the color of dirty nickels. Half-going mom-and-pop coal operations. Millions of leafless trees. Mare's tails of smoke curling up from chimneys hidden in folds.
And these signs: "Dusk Camp Road," "Somewhere Else Bar," "Ratliff's Hairport," "Bibles Books Monuments Custom Upholstery."
The way to get to Danny Heater's home ground is to slash down from Morgantown on the interstate. You sail the ridge along the spine of the mountains. When Danny Heater was living in Braxton County, it used to take 5-1/2 hours to get to Charleston, 3-1/2 to get to Clarksburg. Now you can get to the first via I-79 inside an hour and a quarter, and to the second in a flat 39 minutes. Appalachia grows smaller, though in other ways it's more or less the same.
Danny isn't along this trip. Was going to go but then backed out. No amount of coaxing and cajoling. The reasons must be complex but some of it is now becoming clear: The burden of the name, at least down here, is still huge.
On the phone before the trip, he'd said, "My heart is always there."
"Are you Mr. Heater, are you Mr. Heater?" little kids form Burnsville Middle School -- which is what Danny's old school is called now -- are coming up to ask a reporter. Word travels.
A man is talking. He has a big haunchy frame and it's in a window-pane suit. His face is heavy and hands are ever heavier. He's got 39 years in secondary ed. His name is Jack Stalnaker. Hasn't coached in a long time, though enough people still called him "Coach." These days he's an assistant principal and athletic director at Braxton County High, which is the consolidated school that swallowed Burnsville and Gassaway and Sutton high schools. It's the only secondary school in the county now.
Coach still works out with weights. He'll be retiring soon. Today he's taking time off and wheeling a visitor on dusky roads, pointing out the landmarks, the places where Danny lived, the little shrine in the gym in the basement of the old school. He's fine company.
And Danny's old coach says: "He never wanted to show off because he was afraid he wouldn't do it right. He's always been a worrier. In practice, he'd lead on the fast break, he'd dribble between his legs, he'd look the other way and lay it up there. He could knock you down with a chest pass ... But he wouldn't do it in a game. I don't know, just because he didn't want to show off, I've always thought. His own inner self has kept him from . . . "
In the '60s, Jack Stalnaker left Braxton County. He coached in Warrenton, Va. among other places. Some say he left because the burden of Jan. 26, 1960, got too great on his mind. He doesn't say that. In 1973 he came back. West Virginia was in him. Once, when he was living in Fauquier County and going through National Airport, Stalnaker ran into, yep, Danny Heater. There was Danny, taking tickets at a gate. Worlds had flowed on underneath them. Danny let out a whoop and put Coach in the VIP lounge, just couldn't do enough for him.
"There was no way he could go to college," Stalnaker is saying. "Yes, yes, some people have said it was the most damn fool thing I ever did. I told them before the game 'I'll never ask you boys to do this again.' This is the only time in 18 years of coaching I ever asked anybody to do this. See, we weren't getting any coverage. We'd had two good seasons. It was just frustrating. Danny had the most talent. I knew he was gifted. If only I could get it out of him -- that was what I was thinking."
Then, "In a sense, he's my greatest coaching failure."
Then: "He just wanted to be one of the boys, that's all he ever wanted to be, you know."
At Danny's old school, Miss Laura Belle Crutchfield, inspirer, hugs Coach. This school goes back to the teens of the century. Laura Belle Crutchfield not only taught Danny Heater senior English and advised the yearbook and sold tickets to generations of Burnsville games, she even taught Jack Stalnaker senior English. Miss Crutchfield was drumming Shakespeare into Braxton County boys when World War II was on. She's old now and quite beautiful and still talks with precise, wondrous articulation. "The soul is the eternal jewel," she used to tell her charges. "It's the only thing that really lasts."
Now she says, "I remember looking down on him. He was so white. I recall at the end of the game there was such a complete silence. What I remember about the boy is the ready smile. He always threw up his hand whenever I drove by or would see him on the road to school."
She turns to Coach. "I think it rested very heavily on him. I'd see him after that and he seemed in such a deep study."
Fingers drumming on a can of Coke. A man is sitting in a pilot lounge. His tie is down, his sock is down. His skin looks prematurely old. He's been at work since 5:30 this morning. To get up at 3:45 a.m., this man has to tell his family good night at 8:30 or 9 o'clock. "It's so hard to leave them sitting there watching television," he says.
A few minutes ago, Danny Heater's boss said: "He goes out of his way to help people. He always makes it easier for me when he's on my shift. I'm grateful for him. I don't know any other like him. I've seen him do things for people who are stranded or worried that I couldn't ever describe to you. And he won't talk about his basketball history unless you bring it up," Bill Galanis, lead passenger agent for Pan Am at National Airport, said this out of Danny's earshot.
Danny circling round once more to the night of nights, but now somehow able to talk a little more openly: "I was embarrassed, yes, I was embarrassed. And after the game I felt it terribly when they came over to shake. What could you say, 'I'm sorry'? That didn't seem right."
The difference between all you feel inside and what you're supposed to feel outside.
Of course he's proud of that night, will always be proud, but it's a complicated kind of proud.
Two weeks have passed. The reporter has learned many things, but in another way all of his knowledge is bringing him closer to his ignorance.
Turns out the scholarship to the University of Richmond was less a scholarship than a charity tuition-and-housing ride provided by a retired Virginia state senator. Jack Stalnaker had worked so hard to get Danny a grant-in-aid. Surely some big school or other would see the light of day and help develop this boy the way no country coach ever could. Letters came to Burnsville, but no hard offers. Had word gotten around that what happened was a fluke performance by some mountain kid who was better than average, yes, but still would never cut it at university ball?
The deal was sealed for Richmond. Fairly big ball, through hardly Morgantown or UCLA or Ohio State. The senator's grant didn't begin til the second semester. The boy was taken to the bus station. Cousin Jake Heater drove the family up to the Greyhound in Clarksburg. Beulah pressed her face against the outside glass and bawled. Danny was bawling inside. He bawled for the eight hours of that trip out of the mountains.
"I had a suitcase. But I didn't know enough to check it. I carried it on, trying to get past everybody to the back of the bus." He was wearing two coats. Somebody had given him the coats before he left and he'd be damned if he was going to lose one of them.
"I guess terror's the word. I was really frightened. Didn't know anybody, getting there late. It was the loneliest feeling I ever had in my life. Cold gray West Virginia January day."
Why did you go at all?
"I wanted to try it. I had to try it. I think even in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn't going to work."
They made fun of his accent, they gave him a uniform three sizes too big. Hey, hey, another Zeke from Cabin Creek. The frosh coach tried to be helpful. They put him in a sports dorm with another jock. He could barely talk to that no-necked guy. He got in a few basketball games, scored a few points. But the freshman team seemed a unit -- and he was the rube who'd just arrived. His classes were even worse. "I didn't know basic things like Room 201 means a classroom on the second floor. I wasn't stupid, I was just naive."
The ex-state senator, who was supporting several promising out of-state athletes, invited them all to his house. Danny had one pair of pants. He took a nap before he went. He thought it might ease his nervousness. He woke up late and his pants were badly wrinkled. He didn't have an iron. At the state senator's mansion, maids and butlers appeared whenever a bell tinkled. Danny was so nervous he couldn't pick up a fork.
And down in Braxton county John Curry couldn't get work.
Softly: "I think overwhelming guilt feelings and homesickness just drove me home." And then: "I guess I felt I had to live up to someone else's expectations. I guess I felt I represented the whole of Central West Virginia."
But wasn't there an automobile accident that summer before school?
Right out: "That's been built up. I've been a part of it. It wasn't much, really."
"The year before."
Has it ever seemed to you that you were perhaps used -- have you ever been angry at Jack Stalnaker over all this?
"No! No. If anything, the other direction. 'Cause he did it for me."
So he came on home, bus back to Clarksburg. He worked for a home improvement company, he worked in hayfields for 25 cents an hour, anything he could get, gave the money to his folks. About a year later he went back to the city, not to Richmond, but to Washington, D. C., not as an athlete but as a messenger boy at the FBI. And he's in the city yet.
The late Irwin Shaw once wrote a great short story titled "The 80-Yard Run." It's about a college football player named Christian Darling who, just once, in practice breaks away for a stunning open-field sprint, eluding enemy tacklers, but whose life, almost from that instant starts traveling downward. Fifteen years after his rush of glory, Christian Darling is the guy who "went down to the nearest bar and had five drinks off to himself in a corner before his money ran out."
And that isn't even close to the ballad of Danny Heater. This is a life that has been lived with grace, for all its pain. For all its triumph too.
Shortly before Christmas this year Danny opened the Washington Post and saw a little stat box on his long ago achievement. It had just popped into the paper, as it is wont to pop sporadically into papers around the country. Danny was at work that day. On break he called his son. "Hey, Kev," he said, sneaky and proud, "take a look in the paper at your old man."
Phil Toth sent this e-mail:
I had the chance to play in a game in that gym, in 1970. It was after Burnsville High had become part of Braxton County High. I was with the Tanner (Gilmer County) Jr. High Bulldogs. I don't recall the score, but we must have gotten beat pretty badly, since I was allowed into the game.
Dawn Jones Morrison sent this message:
I certainly enjoyed the article about Danny Heater.
Basketball Record to Be Recorded by Film ProjectsThis Associated Press article was distributed on Sept. 20, 1999.
By JOHN RABY
CHARLESTON, W. Va. (AP) -- Danny Heater's voice fills with enthusiasm as he talks about two film projects that will chronicle his life, his native Braxton County and the night he set the basketball world on its ear.
Heater scored 135 points in one game in 1960 for Burnsville High School, accomplishing what no player -- NBA, college or high school -- had ever done.
As a shy youth four decades ago, Heater struggled with his coach's wish to break the existing state record of 74 points. Now, Heater doesn't mind the attention.
"It's about time to get some good publicity. The state's caught hell for a long time," he said.
Projects by two Washington, D. C.-area residents are in the works.
Diane Wiltjer has purchased the creative rights to Heater's story and plans to make a made-for-television movie or a full-length feature film.
Kevin Downs, a screen writing and film directing professor at Georgetown University, is about 70 percent finished with a documentary for public television. Downs started his project after reading a 1992 newspaper account of Heater, now a ticket agent at Ronald Reagan National Airport near Washington, D. C.
The documentary will feature Heater and life in a rural town before the days of school consolidation, interstate highways and MTV. It includes interviews with Heater and his coach, Jack Stalnaker.
"Even though a game of basketball sets the conflict in motion, it's truly a family drama," Downs said.
Stalnaker wanted to call attention to his team, which had won all but one of its games that season yet hadn't received any publicity or notice from college scouts. He also wanted to do something for Heater, the team's leading scorer and the son of an unemployed coal miner who couldn't afford college tuition.
"Before the game, he told us that he'd never asked us to do this before and would never ask us to do it again," Heater said. "I didn't want to do it. I told him no.
"But as we were warming up, all the guys were coming up to me and telling me, 'Do it, do it."'
In the game's first minutes, Heater's reluctance was obvious. He took a pass from a teammate and, instead of shooting, threw the ball to someone else. Stalnaker finally called a time-out to prod Heater into shooting.
By halftime, Heater had scored 55 points, mostly on layups. He scored 80 points in the second half to lead Burnsville to a 173-43 victory over Widen High of Clay County.
"It was like a dream. I didn't believe it had happened," Heater said. "Even the next day when I saw the headlines, it didn't sink in what I had done.
"At that time, we were just planning on breaking the state record, which was 74. We passed that one pretty fast," he said.
His performance also overwhelmed him with guilt.
"I didn't know what do say. What do you say when you've done that to somebody?" Heater said of the other team. "I was happy and sad at the same time. I was embarrassed. I wasn't raised that way to embarrass people."
Heater's accomplishment is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. His record is 35 points more than the highest score ever achieved by an NBA player, Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points.
Since footage of the game doesn't exist, the most expensive part of Downs' documentary will be re-creating the contest in a black-and-white, grainy, newsreel format, "so the viewer can have some idea of the feeling he had when that record was taking place," Downs said.
"What I'm really looking for now is the resources to take it to a higher level, which includes some scholars who have some insight on rural West Virginia at that time," Downs said.
Downs also must cut 18 hours of interviews to about an hour. He still would like to shoot scenes from Burnsville and of memorabilia from the basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
His greatest challenge is finding money to complete the project.
"It's just a fantastic story," Downs said. "But so much grant-giving has been cut back with regard to works of public interest such as documentary works. We're competing against people like Ken Burns and filmmakers of that level."
Wiltjer, a former English professor, bought the creative rights to Heater's life story. Her husband is an airline pilot who knew Heater as a ticket agent. They didn't know about Heater's feat until reading a newspaper article.
"We knew him as Danny, customer service rep. But we didn't know him as a person who had achieved this truly terrific record," Wiltjer said.
She said Heater had never mentioned the feat.
"He couldn't believe that anyone could care about anything he had accomplished in his life," Wiltjer said.
Wiltjer enrolled in Downs' class where she wrote her initial screenplay. The pair considered becoming partners on the project, but decided to do separate works.
While most of her 115-page screenplay was written more than five years ago, she has reworked it over the years, Wiltjer said.
Wiltjer is looking for an agent to help get a production company interested in the project. "The reality is, I'm not a known entity," she said.
40 Years Later, Single-Game Prep Record
This article was distributed by the Associated Press on Jan. 22, 2000.