Hank Whitney: Cyclone Trailblazer
Story written by Mike Green, Director of Athletics Communications at Iowa State
Hank Whitney, without question, is one of the best basketball players in Iowa State history. The 6-7 forward from Brooklyn, N.Y., proved this on the court during his Cyclone career (1958-61).
Whitney came to Iowa State on the heels of John Crawford, another New York City product, as the second black basketball player to wear the cardinal and gold. His accomplishments at ISU helped pave the way for future black players from the New York City area-- like Vinnie Brewer and Zaid Abdul-Aziz (Don Smith) --to join the Cyclones.
Whitney was a true ambassador for Iowa State, but more often than not, his name gets left off the list of the all-time greats to play for the Cyclones. The athletic post player earned first-team all-Big Eight honors (1961), helped the Cyclones win a conference title (1959 Big Eight Holiday Tournament champions) and enjoyed a very successful professional basketball career with stints in the Eastern League, ABL and ABA.
It’s time for Whitney to get his due, including his 2013 induction into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame.
It was one of Whitney’s proudest moments.
“The basketball hall of fame is a big thing in New York,” Whitney said. “To be added to that group, and become a part of that, is a tremendous honor. It’s something that everyone looks forward to each year and they finally decided that they were going to put Hank Whitney in.”
Finding Iowa State
Whitney’s story is a fascinating one, especially how he made it to Ames. ISU enjoyed a string of success under head coach Bill Strannigan in the 1950s. With the help of Crawford and All-American Gary Thompson, the Cyclones rattled off upper-half finishes in the conference, appeared in the national rankings for the first time and won the 1955 Big Seven Holiday Tournament title.
Strannigan had the program in high gear, but word didn’t travel like it does now with television, the internet and social media. Whitney knew nothing about Iowa State as a prep star for Brooklyn’s High School of Fashion Industries. That changed when he met a guy named John Boyle.
“Strannigan knew this John Boyle guy, who was scouting many of the high school baseball players in the area,” Whitney remembered. “My high school coach, Coach Pierce, said someone was interested in me for basketball. I had a lot of offers to go to different colleges and my coach said this person who was affiliated with Iowa State is interested in me. I didn’t know where the hell that place was.”
Recruiting was far different in the 1950s from today’s world, where every prospective star is tracked daily through recruiting websites. Word of mouth through contacts and scouts was about the only way players were discovered.
After ISU had targeted Whitney, the coaching staff set up a workout to see if he was worthy of a scholarship.
“They (ISU) told me to meet on the west side at a playground over in Manhattan to play ball, so I had to be there at a certain time,” Whitney said. “Strannigan was there and said there would be other ball players there, too. They had us do some drills, you know—lay-up on the left side, lay-up on the right side, go to the high post, turn, shoot, so on and so forth. Then Strannigan said, ‘can you guys dunk?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I can dunk.’ And I went up and put it through the hoop. Then he said, ‘can you dunk with two hands?’ And I put it through with two hands.”
Strannigan evidently liked what he saw. Boyle quickly came over to Whitney to tell him there was a spot for him at Iowa State.
“Mr. Boyle spoke to me and said, ‘you know the coach wants you,’” Whitney said. “I wanted to go to St. John’s, but they already had a star forward from the area, Tony Jackson, who was there. If I went to St. John’s I’d be a small duck in a big pond. Tony was all the ruckus in New York, and I didn’t want to go up to Seattle, another school that was looking at me. I said right there I’m going to Iowa State.”
Now came the hard part for Whitney. He had to tell his parents he would be attending a school he had barely heard of, over 1,000 miles from home. There were two strong selling points for his decision.
“Coach (Strannigan) showed me the schedule and I saw Kansas was on it, so I would get the chance to play against the great Wilt Chamberlain,” Whitney said. “That was my first reason. Then I saw they get to play in Manhattan, and I said, ‘Oh, I get to come back home!’ But I later realized it was Manhattan, Kan.”
“So I went to my mother, and she said, ‘Well, what happened?’” Whitney recalled. “I told her I picked a school. She said, ‘Well, where is it at?’ I told her Iowa State. She said, ‘Iowaaay?’ I said, ‘No, Mom, Iowa.’ But, I guess the important thing was to get that education, and I promised her this would be a place that would allow me to do that.”
Off To Ames
Whitney now entered a whole new world called Ames, Iowa. It certainly was an eye-opening experience for a young kid who grew up in one of the largest metropolitan areas on Earth.
To say Whitney went through culture shock was a giant understatement.
“Oh, you don’t even want me to begin,” Whitney joked. “First of all, I had to find on a map where Iowa was, where this state was. And I looked at the map and said, ‘Holy Christ, that’s way over there!’ I had heard of Illinois, California, South Carolina, because my parents were from the south. My first impression of Iowa was that it would be wooden sidewalks and horses. And none of that was true, but that was an impression from an inner-city kid finding out about the other part of the world.”
Having Crawford , Brewer and Nick Bruno, another New York City kid, as teammates helped ease his transition to Iowa life. Whitney and Bruno entered school at the same time and they quickly formed a special relationship.
“Nick and I went out to Iowa together at the beginning of the school year, which was in September,” Whitney said. “Nick and I became very, very good friends. You cannot imagine how close we were. We never roomed together, keep in mind, but we were almost inseparable.”
Hitting His Stride
Whitney sat out his freshman season under NCAA rules at the time and began seeing court time as a reserve with the Cyclones as a sophomore (1958-59). Crawford had just graduated and ISU struggled to its worst record under Strannigan at 9-16.
After the season ended, Strannigan abruptly left to take the head coaching position at his alma mater Wyoming. Whitney would enter his junior campaign with a new coach, Glen Anderson, and a new start.
Not much was expected out of the 1959-60 Cyclones, but for one weekend in December, ISU displayed its toughness. The Cyclones shocked many by winning the 1959 Big Eight Holiday Tournament title. Whitney and Brewer formed a formidable tandem in the paint.
“You cannot believe how special that was winning the conference tournament title,” Whitney said. “We were missing pieces in the wheel the year before, and that piece was Vinnie Brewer. I felt so comfortable playing with him, because I knew that between myself and Vinnie we could get any ball off the boards. We beat Kansas in the final to win the tournament and it was just unbelievable. It was a great thing.”
Whitney averaged 8.1 points and 10.0 rebounds as a junior while the Cyclones finished the season at 15-9 and 7-7 in league play. It was a great start to the Anderson era, and many experts had the Cyclones contending for the Big Eight title in 1960-61.
However, Brewer had off-court issues and was suspended for the entire season. Whitney would have to carry the team, and he certainly did his part. The forward produced one of the best statistical seasons in school history, averaging 17.4 points and 12.1 rebounds to earn first-team all-Big Eight accolades.
Whitney’s season rebounding average broke the single-season school record, becoming the first of just four players in school history to average 12.0 rebounds a game during a season (Abdul-Aziz, Bill Cain, Dean Uthoff).
Life After College
It was clear that Whitney could compete against the best players in the nation. But professional basketball was nothing like it is today. There was only one legitimate professional league, the NBA, but there were only eight teams in the league when Whitney graduated in 1961.
Whitney took his education seriously, securing a job in education in the New York City school district right after graduation, even though he was the No. 37 pick in the 1961 NBA Draft. The security of a regular job was very lucrative for Whitney, but he still had the itch to compete.
“After my senior year, I went and played in New York’s Rucker Tournament and other tournaments in the area,” Whitney said. “I was playing with top-notch ball players. They were all coming to New York to play at Rucker. The team I was on was the perennial champs and I felt very comfortable competing against guys from the NBA.”
Whitney had developed a reputation as a strong defender. His services were called upon by an upstart league called the American Basketball League (ABL). He briefly put aside his career in education to play in the new pro circuit.
“I was a very physical and intense player on the court,” Whitney said. “I love defense more than I do offense. I had the chance to play in the ABL. I got a bonus, which was a lot of money in those days, and the league was going to be competing against the NBA.”
As for his physicality, Whitney says you can ask Hall-of-Famer Connie Hawkins to attest.
“He didn’t like playing against me,” Whitney said about the basketball legend. “A lot of guys got caught up watching his moves. I didn’t. I just tried to push him off the block and make him uncomfortable.”
Whitney bounced around the ABL for a couple of years playing against Hawkins and other future stars. He played for teams in Cleveland and Los Angeles before the league folded in 1963. He moved back to New York to work and play in the Eastern League, a semi-pro organization.
Playing in the Eastern League allowed Whitney to continue his teaching career and dabble in hoops on the side. He did this despite repeatedly getting calls from NBA teams.
“I got a lot of calls from NBA teams to come and play,” Whitney said. “I told them I’m not leaving. I got married, I had a home and I had a teaching assignment as the director of a recreational program. I was able to make enough money in my job to what many of the guys in the NBA were making. I finally was talked into going to St. Louis (NBA’s St. Louis Hawks) in the summer of 1965 for rookie camp. I was invited back, but they couldn’t guarantee me a contract, so I said no. Bill Bridges (St. Louis Hawks star) tried to talk me into staying, but I told him no. None of what they were offering was guaranteed and I needed something that was guaranteed because I had a family. So I came back to New York, and returned to teaching and kept playing in the Eastern League on the side.”
In 1967, another upstart league formed to rival the NBA. The American Basketball Association (ABA) was pulling out all of the stops to nab the best players in the country.
Whitney had a comfortable life and again passed on the opportunity to play in the new league. However, Whitney was blessed to have an understanding principal who knew his employee had other extraordinary talents.
The two worked out a deal which allowed him to play.
“When the ABA started, they went after me. I didn’t want to quit school in the middle of the year, but my principal was very helpful,” Whitney said. “He told me I needed to understand that this is an opportunity. Don’t worry about your job. If anything happens you will always have a job here. He said, ‘We’ll work with you.’ He released me a couple hours early every day, and I was able to practice with the ABA’s New Jersey Americans.”
Whitney put up outstanding numbers in his first season in the ABA, averaging 16.0 points and 12.9 rebounds in 37 games to help the Americans (now the Brooklyn Nets) make the playoffs.
The league was known for its rapid pace, high-flying action, the 3-point shot and its red, white and blue ball. It allowed players much freedom, and Whitney fit right in. As for the ball, Whitney was skeptical at first.
“Well, you see a red, white and blue ball, and the first thing you ask, is it a quality ball?” Whitney said. “And it was. There was some excitement with the 3-point shot, too. I remember being behind one game by 21 points and we had a guy make 12 3-pointers and we ended up winning. So there was some excitement with that 3-point shot. We were never out of a game.”
The ABA showcased many quality basketball players. The league eventually merged with the NBA in 1976.
Whitney played two more seasons (Houston Mavericks and Carolina Cougars) in the ABA before hanging up his high tops.
“It was quite an exciting time for me,” Whitney said. “I got to travel, met a lot of people and it was fun. But I was getting up in age, so I returned to New York and focused on teaching full time. I spent my last 25 years as a principal at my old junior high school.”
Once a Cyclone, Always a Cyclone
During his time playing professional basketball, Whitney kept close tabs with his former school. One day, his former Cyclone coach called to check out a raw recruit from the New York area named Don Smith (Zaid Abdul-Aziz).
Anderson wanted his opinion on Smith. Whitney obliged, working him out and doing some reconnaissance work for his alma mater. His report to Anderson was glowing.
“I told coach, ‘Hey, this guy jumps higher than me,’” Whitney said. “Coach said, ‘Oh, no way. Nobody jumps higher than you!’ I played one-on-one with him, and I came away so impressed. I told coach he is a hell of a ball player, you have to take him. And the rest is history.”
Yes, the rest is history, as Whitney played a part in helping ISU secure the services of one of the greatest players in school history. Abdul-Aziz went on to earn All-America honors, was the Big Eight’s Player of the Year (1968) and the fifth pick in the 1968 NBA Draft.
Whitney has been a success off the court, spending over 40 years molding young minds in his teaching career before retiring. He said Iowa State helped him along the way.
“I do not regret to this day going to Iowa State, because I met some of the finest people that you would want to meet,” Whitney said. “Especially in the situation where you are African-American, and what was going on in those days. I had people adopt me and Nick into their families while we were there and made us feel at home. If I’d have to do it all over again, I’d still go to Iowa State. As a matter of fact, my son graduated from Iowa State. He graduated in 1987 and had a great time. I didn’t force him to go there, but he wanted to go. I met my wife at Iowa State. She is from Des Moines, so that played a part as well. He came back to New York, where he is a teacher.”
Thank you, Hank Whitney!