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Hot Rod: The man behind the voice

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The nights are the worst. The onset of darkness fills Rodney "Hot Rod" Hundley with a sense of dread, all those long empty hours stretching out ahead of him.

He never sleeps through the night; he tosses and turns, reads, surfs the cable shows, gets up hourly with that darn prostate problem, and then once the dark begins its slow fade to light he sleeps soundly, and this is the way it has been for 68 years. Most days he sleeps till 11 a.m.

"I hate the night," he says flatly.

But that isn't quite right, either. Hot Rod Hundley was born to the night, to parties and women and bars and life after dark. It's not just the darkness, it's the emptiness, the loneliness, the nothingness of facing his own four walls and the quiet with all that nervous energy thrumming through his body. Maybe it's as simple as this: It's too much like those nights he cried himself to sleep in his hotel-room home as the teenage basketball phenom who was adored by everybody and loved by no one.

He prefers a crowded room or a packed arena where there is noise and people to get lost in. It's later, at home, when he confronts the loneliness — loneliness he created — that the emptiness is overwhelming. But whose fault is that?

He's got a wife he hasn't lived with for 29 years who is still waiting for him to come home, and three beautiful daughters who grew up without him. Worn down by all the women in Rod's life and the long absences, his wife told him, "You go on and do your thing. I'm not going anywhere."

"And that's what I've been doing," he says, sadly.

He lives alone; she lives alone. He is lonely; she is lonely.

Hundley has been alone his whole life. Nobody knows the pain he's in because to the world he is the happy-go-lucky party boy, the lady's man, the star, the silver-tongued charmer, the court clown, but then you catch him at a certain moment and suddenly you see vulnerability and sadness in his eyes, and he's telling you he is haunted by the life he has lived. Not the life you've seen on TV and the basketball court; the other one.

He is every bit Butch Hundley's son. Abandoned by his father, he has become his father.

The only constant in his life — the only real source of love he could count on in his youth — has been basketball. Basketball made him an all-American, a first-round draft, an all-star. It made him everybody's buddy. It made him feel loved. It made him Hot Rod.

As an orphaned child, passed from family to family, he used to grip a basketball and talk to it as he ran to the playground: "You're going to get me out of this. I'm going to ride you out of here."

"And I'm still riding it," he says now.

Hot Rod is of course the Voice of the Utah Jazz — the only radio voice the 29-year-old basketball franchise has ever had. On Thursday, Hundley was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in the writer-broadcaster wing — the only former player ever to win such an honor.

"I am thrilled," he said, pumping his fist. "It's all gravy now. Hey, I made it."

His daughters flew back to Springfield, Mass., for the induction, as did his girlfriend. His wife, Flo, stayed behind in Arizona.

For all his failings, for all that he is Butch's son, he did see something through. He held a job, forged a career and provided for his family; Butch never did that. He made the most of his second chance in basketball, if not marriage and family.

Two books have been written about Hot Rod's life. About 20 years ago, they were going to make a movie, too. Hot Rod still has the contract from Warner Brothers (he was invited to make a cameo appearance in the film). The movie was going to be called "Almost Home." An actor's strike forced postponement of the production, and then it never happened but not for lack of material. The Hot Rod story has everything — sports, women, infidelity, fame, alcohol, pathos, parties, tragic characters — everything except a happy ending.

Will Hot Rod ever go home?

You can run from the past, but you never quite escape it. It claims you in some way. Maybe it's genetics; maybe it's familial ties; maybe it's a voice in an airport. Years ago, Hot Rod was rushing through a West Virginia airport when he was hailed by an old man.

"You Butch Hundley's boy?" the man asked.

He was an old acquaintance of his father's, he explained. For the next few hours he sat with the old man and eagerly picked his brain for details about his father, who had died years earlier in a cheap hotel with nothing but the clothes on his back.

"I want you to know something," the old man told him. "He had a scrapbook on you. He never let you know. He felt bad about everything. That's all he talked about was you."

"I didn't know that," Hundley said recently. "It was sad. In his mind I had done well and he was proud of me, but he hadn't been around."

He barely knew his father, but to understand Rod's life that's where you begin. His name was Louis, but everybody called him "Butch," because he was a butcher by trade, although he rarely worked. Butch was lazy and irresponsible. He also was handsome, likable and fun. He chased women, drank and gambled, and he was reputed to be the best pool player in West Virginia, serving as house man for the local pool hall in Charleston.

He met Rod's mother, Corrine Serfus, when she was young. Her story was a familiar one in the Depression years: Corrine's mother died young, her father lost his farm, she left home at 16 seeking work in the city. She was vulnerable, naive and poor and completely taken in by the charming Butch. They married. She conceived a couple of years later. After two days of hard labor, she gave birth to Rod, and Butch faded from the scene. Corrine moved out and struck out on her own, a child with a child.

She worked to make a few dollars for her baby and soon concluded she couldn't take care of Rod and hold a job. She took the infant from one house after another looking for someone to take him in. He lived for a time with one family and then another and then another.

He was abused, ignored, unloved and beaten. He became so nervous and high strung that his hands shook as he held a glass of water. He wet his bed. He threw up. Corrine visited him when she could.

"My earliest memory is that (Dad) was shooting pool and drinking," says Rod. "Mom carried me in and asked for money. I can still see all the cigarette smoke."

On one visit to check up on Rod, Corrine discovered bruises and welts on his legs. She took him away from the family on the spot and wandered the street in the night, alone, crying, scared and desperate, looking for another family. She found an old couple, George and Mame Sharp. They were already in their 60s, their own children grown. They took him in and gave him a home. Corrine moved to Washington, D.C., to find work.

The Sharps lived in a tiny house in the poor part of Charleston. George washed bottles for a local ice cream store, and Mame stayed home.

"George and Mame were the most loving people," says Rod. "I always wanted to buy them a house, but I didn't have the money for it."

Rod lived with the Sharps until he was 16, and then he moved out because it cramped his style. "I was starting to get frisky," he says. He moved into a cheap hotel that was owned by a teammate's parents and lived in a second-story room rent-free.

Corrine visited Rod occasionally, but by the time she remarried and found a stable life, she thought it was too late to reclaim her son, and she disappeared from his life.

"I just lost track of my boy," she told Bill Libby, author of the Hot Rod biography "Clown." "I went back a couple of times, but sometimes I wouldn't be with him. I'd just look at him from a distance. I remember once I was at a drugstore and I heard some people talkin' about going to the basketball game that night, and they were all excited because they were going to see Rodney Hundley play. . . . I couldn't help it. I told them he was my son. I went to see him play. . . . I sat there in the dark among all those people yelling for him."

Over the years Rod ran into Butch on the streets occasionally, both of them enjoying the nightlife. Butch stopped Rod a couple of times and scolded him for being out late, but by then it was too late to be a father and Rod would have none of it.

"I'd see him on the street, and we'd nod at each other," recalls Rod. "I didn't want anyone to know he was my father. Maybe because he was a failure. He was always nice to me."

The other kids envied Rod's freedom, and he relished the role of the high-rolling, partying basketball star, staying out late, picking up girls, coming and going at all hours from his room by the fire escape. But what no one knew was that every night he went back to those four walls, alone with the night — back to the nothingness — and cried himself to sleep. He was free because no one cared. He liked to hang out at pool halls — "Anywhere where there are people," he says. "I didn't want to be alone."

Hot Rod came and went as he pleased. There was no one to tell him when to go to bed, when to get up, what to eat. There was no one to correct him or discipline him. He was beholden to no one, watched out for himself and no one else, and lived without responsibilities. "He always had a lot of aimlessness about him," a high school girlfriend told Libby.

The pictures on the wall of Hot Rod's home office are postcards from his world. There is Hundley smiling back from the frames, posing arm in arm with Bill Russell, Mickey Mantle, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Jesse Owens, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan. His Lakers' warmup jacket is framed on the wall. There are pictures of him with various teams, with his crew cut and bird legs.

This was where he was most comfortable. Even today he can still tell you how many points he scored against Chapmanville Junior High (26) in 1950 and the final score (57-24) but can't remember the name of the book he's reading at the moment.

"I was only happy playing ball," he says now.

Basketball gave him the love, attention and company he craved. It filled the void and the silence in his private life with crowds and noise.

"Without basketball, I don't know where I'd be," says Hundley.

Life handed Hundley at least one break: The Sharps' home was adjacent to a basketball court at Reynolds Street Park. This is where he learned to play the game, and early on he saw it as his ticket out. He knew he was much better than the other kids. He shoveled snow off the court to practice shooting in the winter. To practice his passing, he'd spend an hour at a handball court, where there was no temptation to shoot baskets. He'd pass behind his back at a mark on the wall, with one hand and then the other.

He became the premier player of the state, earning all-state honors three times. By the time he was finished with high school, he had more than 100 scholarship offers. Recruiters were flying him around the country for campus visits, girls were doting on him, boys were eager to be seen with him. Hot Rod was hot. In the Kentucky-West Virginia all-star game he scored a record 45 points.

"I couldn't miss," he recalls. "I went out and had myself a party, and when I went back to the hotel I thought here I am 18 years old and I'm the most important SOB in the world. I got the world in my hands."

But not really. "I was lonely," he says. "I'd walk on the court and I was king. I was in my domain. As soon as the game was over it was a letdown. It was back to my room."

He enrolled at West Virginia but withdrew from school and tried to turn pro. The Philadelphia Warriors were trying to get an exemption for him to play in the NBA. He practiced with them, but the loneliness was worse than ever. His Warrior teammates didn't want to hang out with a kid. He returned to West Virginia just in time to get back into school.

He averaged 35 points a game for the freshman team (freshmen weren't allowed to play varsity at the time) and didn't take a single shot in a handful of games because it was "too easy." Somebody nicknamed him Hot Rod for the way he played, and it stuck.

It wasn't enough for Hot Rod just to win the adulation by playing the game in the usual way; he wanted more. He became a court clown. He shot and passed behind his back, spun the ball on his finger and punched it to the basket with the other hand. He sat by fans in the stands while the game played on and flirted with a pretty girl. He dribbled off his knees or with his knees. He passed the ball from one hand to the other behind his back. He shot from sitting, kneeling or prone positions. He led fans in cheers for himself or saluted when called for a foul. Once he sat on the opposing team's bench during a game. He just couldn't get enough of those crowds and their affection.

But he could play. He averaged between 23 and 26 points a game for three seasons. He was a three-time all-American and the first pick of the entire 1958 NBA draft, by the Lakers.

He played six years for the Lakers. He would have played longer, but he didn't take the game seriously. He was too busy having fun, particularly when the Lakers moved to Los Angeles. Hot Rod and Hollywood were a bad mix. He made two all-star teams, finished with a career scoring average of 12.8 points per game, and then it was over.

During his school years, the game had come so easily to him that he never worked at it. He stayed up late shooting pool, smoking, drinking, partying. Nothing sums it up as well as this: He sustained a serious knee injury while chasing a girl around a swimming pool (it required surgery to repair and bothered him the rest of his career). The lifestyle caught up with him in the pro ranks.

"Boy, you talk about regrets," says Hot Rod, his voice trailing away. "I'd have a nice pension now. If I had had Jerry (West's) dedication. I had more natural talent than he did. I was an idiot. I was too busy Hollywooding it. I had never seen anything like it."

Fast forward through the 40 years since he played the game. He sold basketball shoes for a few years, then landed a job doing broadcast work for the Lakers with the venerable Chick Hearn, and he was right back in basketball, his first love. After another broadcast gig with the Phoenix Suns, he got his own play-by-play job with the Jazz, and he has been there ever since, first in New Orleans, then in Utah.

And that has brought him here, padding around his house on a recent morning, trying to wake up to a cup of coffee in the early afternoon. He lives in a neo-contemporary home in Holladay, with its bright blue and red walls and his pipe furniture. He kills his summers with golf and charity events and speaking engagements and clinics.

Ask Hot Rod if he's happy and this is what he says: "I've had so many things happen to me. All-state honors. All-American in high school and college. Two NBA all-star games. No. 1 pick. West Virginia Hall of Fame. Named to 1982 Silver Anniversary All-America team."

He is asked the question again and never really answers it, but finally he faces it on the fourth try.

"I feel like I've been a bad person," he says, quietly. "I've been a bad father. I've been a bad husband, twice. My wife raised the kids while I was running around. I'm not religious — I believe in God, but I don't go to church. I've been in trouble — there was the DUI last year. The dark side haunts me. I think about those things a lot. I'm still riding basketball. What have I ever done? I picked the ball up and I'm still holding it. It's been my whole life. Money, homes, cars, all this is from basketball."

He married his high school sweetheart while attending West Virginia University and divorced two years later because, in his words, he was "out running around." While with the Lakers he met and married Florence Pellman — Flo to everyone — a girl from a family of nine, raised on a chicken farm in North Dakota. They had three daughters together — Kimberly, Jacquie and Jennifer and settled in Arizona after he took the Suns broadcasting job.

She was a homebody who preferred to be home with her daughters; Rod had to be moving. He was gone constantly and usually had female company. (When a book was published on Rod's life, Flo quipped, "If all his girlfriends buy the book, he'll be a millionaire.") By then, she was checking his shirts for lipstick and hating herself for it. When Rod took the job with the Jazz in 1974, she stayed behind in Arizona. They've lived apart ever since. He asked if she wanted a divorce; she declined.

"She's still madly in love with him," says Kimberly. "It's too bad."

Hot Rod visits his wife during the holidays and throughout the summer. He still talks to Flo regularly by phone.

"I think she's like his mother — the mother he never had," says Kimberly.

Hot Rod paid the bills, paid for the country club membership, paid for the house and their cars, paid for the girls' college educations, which wasn't easy for a legendary tightwad. (Kimberly likes to imitate him paying for groceries: "He fondles each bill as he removes it from his wallet, as if it's breaking his heart," she says.) The girls remain "best friends" with their mother, calling her daily. (Two of them live in Arizona.)

"(Flo) is a great woman," says Hot Rod. "It's all my fault. It was me being me. I try to make up for it with money. I failed as a husband and a father. That haunts me. It leaves an empty spot. That bothers me. The other side, (basketball) is wonderful."

Rod has had a girlfriend, Suzette, for some eight years who lives close to his house. His daughters have met her, but it's awkward getting them together. Flo has remained true to Rod and occupies herself with her daughters and two grandchildren.

"Rod really is a good man," says Flo. "He cares. It was just the way he was brought up. I figured he'd come home someday. One time he told me jokingly, 'I'll be coming home in a wheelchair' when he's old and tired of running around. He was so loving and beautiful in the beginning. Then two to three years into the marriage he started to run around."

The young Hot Rod was once described as an "alley cat" by a friend. As a player, and later as a broadcaster, he was up at all hours, bar hopping, skirt chasing. "If it was moving and it had a skirt on it, I was after it," he says. "I hit on every airline stewardess. I'd get on a plane and even before I took my seat I mingled with the stewardesses to start warming them up."

After games, all he did was drink and hang with the boys, rather than go home and face the family and the quiet and the four walls.

"He was never home, but we didn't want him there," says Kimberly. "I don't think any kids want their fathers around. He was like most fathers. He was self-involved and kind of mean. A lot of fathers are disassociated from the family. When they have such a rich life outside the home, kids are not very interesting to them. But with his upbringing you wouldn't think he'd have that commitment to the family. The thing is, we understand how he was brought up. He had the most horrific nightmare of a childhood you could imagine. We understand that he didn't have any role models. He was alone."

Hot Rod says he has slowed down with age, but last year he was stopped by a police officer for driving 65 in a 50 mph speed zone after downing a couple of beers and a couple of glasses of wine. He tried his usual charm on the officer — "Hey, officer, Rod Hundley with the Jazz, how ya doin'? Sorry I was speedin.' " (Hot Rod says, "Everyone has something they use. That's my line.") The officer wasn't impressed. He required a field sobriety test, and Hot Rod flunked. He was charged with a DUI and eventually served community service.

"I still like to drink beer," he says. "I don't run the bars anymore. I quit that *$#!@10 years ago."

Says Kimberly, "He loves a party. I met him at a wedding the other day. He was having a better time than the bride and groom, and he barely knew them."

The bottom line is that Hot Rod is so engaging and charming that it's difficult not to like him. Even former and current wives, the people he burned, couldn't help it.

In recent years, he has reached out — awkwardly and uncertainly — to family, visiting them, calling them. His daughters ask why he doesn't call more; he says he didn't want to bother them and didn't think they wanted him to. But he wants to.

He also has made his peace with the past. Flo urged him to reconcile with his mother before she died. He was playing for the Lakers by then and hadn't seen her in years.

"I couldn't understand it," says Flo. "Who doesn't speak to their mother?"

He visited Corrine at her home in Washington, D.C. She lived alone since her second husband had passed away. She had followed her son from afar, in newspapers and magazines, and later on TV when he turned to broadcasting. That was her son, she'd tell everybody. They sat in the house, and she asked if he hated her; he said, no, he didn't hate her.

She became a part of the Hundleys' lives, visiting them at their home in Arizona. She became their grandmother. He continued to visit her over the years when he was in town to do a game. "She'd have a six pack for me — she knew I liked beer," says Rod.

He recalls one visit vividly: "I had been to my father's funeral a few months before. I said, 'Mom, did you know Dad died.' She had tears running down her face. She felt bad. No one had told her."

Rod was going to move her to Phoenix to be near family when it became clear she needed help. Jacquie flew to Washington to help move her. While she was there, Jacquie noticed that Corrine wasn't feeling good and called 911. Corrine died in the ambulance en route to the hospital.

"It was like she was just waiting for someone to be there," says Rod.

Life goes on for Rod. Broadcasting has given him a second basketball career, putting him back where he is most comfortable. He does play-by-play for Jazz games, travels the country, stays out late, sleeps late, rubs shoulders with teammates and friends from the old days who are now on the periphery of the game.

He was out of basketball for three years after his playing days ended, but not really. He was selling Converse basketball shoes in California. He found he missed pro basketball and the night life that comes with it. Then the Lakers called and offered him a job as a TV analyst with Chick Hearn. That was 37 years ago.

Says Hot Rod, "I said this to myself when I got this job broadcasting: I messed it up the first time, but this time I'm going to take it seriously. This was my second chance and I wasn't going to blow it."

This is how seriously he took it, his second chance: A lifelong, three-pack-a-day smoker, he gave up cigarettes to preserve his voice after going hoarse on an early play-by-play assignment. Like so many players of his day, he had smoked through an entire basketball career — even in the halftime locker room. But just like that he gave it up, cold turkey.

"I was in a bar and had one cigarette left, and I thought, this is the last one I'm going to smoke," he recalls. "If I was going to stay in the business, I had to quit."

Like the kid on the Reynolds Street Playground, he worked hard on his game. He studied Hearn's old tapes. He studied tapes from others he respected in the business. Hearn told him, "Take a line here, take a line there, we all borrow from each other, but be yourself, too."

Hot Rod borrowed the "hippity hop" line from Hearn. He borrowed one of his most famous lines from a newspaper story about himself.

"Nobody knows this story," says Hot Rod. "They all think I made up this line. I was a sophomore in high school. I scored 30 points in the state championship game, and when the all-state team came out I was on the second team. A sports writer in Parkersburg, W.V., named Bill Fleming wrote a column about the all-state team, and he wrote, 'My, my, my but it really feels wonderful to wake up with a clear conscience. I voted for Hot Rod. . . . The young kid with the crewcut with a gentle push, a mild arc and the cowhide globe hits home. Few players master this art.' So you see, I stole it out of a newspaper in 1951."

While Hot Rod pursues his Hall of Fame broadcasting career, his family is prospering. Kimberly, 41, is vice president of operations for Heritage Publishing company and lives in Arizona. Jacquie, 38, is a schoolteacher in California — she chose to teach in the tough Compton area of Los Angeles "because those kids need me." Jennifer, 33 and model beautiful, the only one who is married (with two children), lives in Arizona near her mother and works as a hairdresser.

Flo lives in the house that Hot Rod bought her. Asked why they didn't divorce, she says, "I didn't want one. Why should I? I'm very happy and very secure. When he comes home, it's fun. We're probably happier than some other marriages."

Hot Rod is back where he started, alone, only these days he wrestles his demons, with his regrets as a father and a husband. Maybe it's hereditary, he says. He's like his father in so many ways.

"I'm very nervous in church," he says. "I don't feel like I belong. I know a lot of people who run around and then go to church. I'm not going to do that. It's an honor to be there. I believe in God. I want to feel like I'm clean. I don't want to go to hell. How am I going to heaven? I think of some of the nice things I've done, helping kids or talking to old people who tell me they listen to the games."

The afternoon is burning up. The night is coming on. Sitting in his house, Hot Rod says, "I don't have a lot of what you call friends. I don't have buddies I run with. I'd rather go somewhere by myself and meet someone there. I want to be in a bar and meet people and disappear in the middle of them and be one of them."

Maybe after nearly seven decades, it comes down to this: Hot Rod is still trying to find a home.

E-mail: drob@desnews.com