The boy was Danny Heater, then a senior at Burnsville High School in central West Virginia. Like many coal country kids, Heater came from nothing. His dad, a miner, was furloughed repeatedly by different bosses at the local mines. One day during his junior year, the family’s apartment (and the poorly-constructed department store on which it sat) burned to the ground, incinerating everything they owned except the clothes on their backs. The Heaters could barely afford food, much less put money into a college fund.
By most appearances, their son didn’t look like university material anyway. Weighing just 153 pounds and sporting a cropped haircut and toothy grin, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later described Danny as “a shy, clumsy kid who ... once broke his wrists running into a wall at the gym.” But “Shotgun,” as his classmates called him, was the best athlete at a school (enrollment 175) with an unassumingly talented basketball team. His senior year, the squad rattled off wins in 17 of its first 18 games, scoring 99.5 points per contest. An inside-outside threat who could knock down shots from the perimeter and dunk when slashing to the hoop, Heater was the primary offensive weapon. Head coach Jack Stalnaker was convinced that his shooting guard could secure a Division 1 scholarship, and get out of Burnsville, if a big-time college scout would ever swing through their isolated town to watch him play.*
On January 26, Stalnaker devised a controversial gameplan to raise the profile of his unheralded star. His club was scheduled to host Widen, a school that taught just 25 boys in the entire top four grades and that Burnsville had torched by 50 earlier in the season. Burnsville, in other words, could score at will. And Stalnaker saw no reason why Danny shouldn’t take every one of his team’s shots, all night long, until he broke the state’s single-game scoring record of 74 points, an achievement the newspapers in nearby Morgantown and Charleston would have to cover.
Heater’s teammates loved the idea, but the tactic made the humble star anxious. On the first several possessions, he didn’t look for his shot once, riffling passes across the court whenever the ball landed in his hands. Stalnaker called a timeout to reiterate his strategy: his boys were to force turnovers by running a full-court press and feed Heater the basketball whenever they could. After some additional cajoling, plus individual promises from each Burnsville player that he would not be bothered by the selfish display, their star finally bought in.
In front of a standing-room crowd of 200** and on a floor 20 feet shorter than regulation size, Heater started hoisting up shots. And he didn’t stop. Because his side was applying so much defensive pressure, he got plenty of easy buckets around the rim. By halftime, Heater had tallied 53 points, and a neighbor ran to his house to alert his family, who had stayed at home, confident their son would play just one quarter against hapless Widen. His sister raced to the gym in time to watch Danny blow past the state record early in the second half, a feat that drew booming cheers from the Burnsville faithful. Stalnaker called timeout to take Heater out of the game, but his own team sensed the national record of 120 points, set eight years before in Ohio, was within reach. They convinced their coach to stay the course. Over the final 10 minutes, Heater dropped in another 55 points, though the hometown scorekeeper -- who needed help from the timer because of the ridiculous tempo -- counted two extra baskets. ("I feel sure our guys were right,” Stalnaker later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (January 5, 1997). “They had about 40 years' experience.”) Widen’s head coach Robert Stover, meanwhile, complained two days later to the Charleston Daily Mail that the clock “ran about three minutes extra." Minor discrepancies aside, it was beyond doubt that Heater had recorded one of the most ludicrous lines in basketball history: 32 minutes, 135 points on 53 of 70 field goals and 29 of 41 free throws, 32 rebounds, and seven assists. His squad won 173-43. “It didn't feel like high school history,” Paul Hendrickson wrote in his classic 1991 retrospective for the Washington Post, “it felt like raw, open slaughter.”
Stover, not surprisingly, was pissed about the outcome. "If I hadn't been a young coach and afraid of getting suspended, I would have taken my kids off the floor at halftime," he admitted to the Post-Gazette. "It was a farce." Even in the face of criticism from local reporters, Stalnaker defended his decision. “I don't believe in running up scores,” he said in his post-game interview. “But we decided in advance that we had to do something to get him [Heater] some publicity.” Heater, on the other hand, dealt with conflicting emotions. "I was happy and sad at the same time,” he told another reporter from the Post-Gazette (January 23, 2000). “I was embarrassed. I wasn't raised that way to embarrass people."
As silly as it was, Stalnaker’s plan worked. Once news spread about the scoring outburst, a scout from powerhouse West Virginia University -- which had made it all the way to the NCAA title game the previous season, thanks to the play of superstar Jerry West -- scheduled an appointment to watch Danny play the following week. But the following night, Heater came down awkwardly from a jump ball and twisted his ankle. By week’s end, the pain had not subsided. And when the Mountaineer scout visited Burnsville, Heater could barely jump and had trouble moving laterally. He poured in 27 points on his gimp leg, but it wasn’t enough to secure a roster spot at his state’s best program. The final words handed down from Morgantown? “Boy was slow.”
There is an interesting coda to Danny’s story. While his chance to suit up for the in-state power vanished, a retired state senator from Virginia with a keen eye for out-of-state talent offered to pay Heater’s tuition and housing costs if he came to play for the University of Richmond. A local plumbing company kicked in $26 so Danny could buy two shirts and two pairs of jeans, and in the winter of 1961, Heater packed up what few belongings he owned and traveled to the old Confederate capital. It was the hooper’s first time away from Burnsville, and it did not go well. Because he arrived at the start of the second semester, the only uniform the team had left was three sizes too big. That was an apt metaphor for Heater’s entire experience in the mid-size city, a place where he never felt comfortable. "I didn't know basic things like Room 201 means a classroom on the second floor,” he joked to Hendrickson years later. “I wasn't stupid, I was just naive." He played in five games, never more than 10 minutes, "and was so homesick I couldn't stand it." After six weeks, he moved back to Appalachia and eventually found a job loading bags and taking tickets for Pan Am Airlines, where he worked for 39 years before retiring in 2005.
Since that cold night in West Virginia, roughly 26 million young men at the high school level have stepped onto the hardwood. Only 10 of them have posted over 100 points in one contest, and nobody has scored more than 110. It’s possible, even likely, that Heater’s record will never be broken. Yet it was Stalnaker, the mastermind behind the outrageous performance, who later came to regret the experiment entirely. “It was a real stupid thing to do," he said in his 1997 interview with the Post-Gazette. "I'm sure it hurt the kids we played, and it went against everything we try to teach kids - not to humiliate an opponent, not to run up the score. I still feel badly about it."
*“The crowd,” according to the Washington Post story, “was ganged four and five deep in the stairwells; was pressed against the sweating concrete walls; was leaning down from the balcony, which really wasn't a balcony at all, just an open hallway leading to classrooms.”