Harold “Bunny” Levitt, 5’4″, looked up at members of the defending state champion basketball team at Evans High School in Orlando, Fla.
“Now, let’s get to work,” the 65-year-old Levitt snapped. “I’m gonna show you how to get the ball game from your opponent. I’m gonna show you how to hold the ball where nobody can even touch it. I’ll show you seven different dribbles. But the first thing I’m gonna teach you is how to be a good passer. Watch how I do it. I get close to him and fake like that, fake like that, fake like that and then let go. If I do this, he moves here and he moves there—Wow! I’ve got him!
“That’s all there is to passing, fellows, cross my heart.”
Levitt has gotten a little carried away. His specialty is supposed to be teaching players to shoot free throws. But they don’t call you “Mr. Basketball” if you can only shoot free throws.
Actually, they don’t call Bunny Levitt “Mr. Basketball”; Bunny Levitt does. Ever since the day in 1935 when he set a still unbroken record of 499 consecutive free throws, he has avoided hiding his light under any baskets whatsoever. (The Basketball Hall of Fame says two reports of 500-plus records in the past year have not yet been sufficiently documented.)
Levitt (who got his nickname because “when I was young, I was quick, like a…”) set the record at a YMCA carnival in Chicago with “35 tumblers somersaulting behind him and the hard ‘spiked’ drives of volleyballers flashing past his head,” according to one newspaper. Shooting underhand—which he still advocates, especially for an arm-weary player late in a game—Levitt missed on his 500th shot. Undaunted, he pitched in 371 more in a row before he was stopped again, this time by janitors who felt that 3 a.m. was an inappropriate time to watch free-throw shooting.
Abe Saperstein called the next day and hired Levitt to tour with his Harlem Globetrotters as a halftime attraction. Saperstein offered $1,000 to anyone who beat Levitt in a free-throw shootout, and in Bunny’s three years with the Trotters he never lost.
Levitt has only rarely played a full game of basketball. But he has become a sought-after teacher, traveling 100,000 miles a year to put on clinics sponsored by Converse sports shoes, whom he has represented for 36 years.
During that time Levitt’s pupils have included such standout players as Pete Maravich, Bill Sharman, Calvin Murphy and Tom McMillen. Bunny’s most conspicuous failure among the pros was Wilt Chamberlain, who is notorious for his dismal record at the free-throw line. “He didn’t practice,” Levitt says.
McMillen, a Buffalo Braves forward who was a seventh grader when he first met Levitt, remembers and still follows much of Levitt’s advice. “He never tires of working with kids,” McMillen says. “He’s a remarkable man.” Niagra University coach Frank Layden, an old pal, adds: “If you don’t give him things to do, he gets mad at you. In the morning he’ll work with little kids and at night he’ll end up holding court.”
But then what else could be expected from a man whose motto is, “The best things in life are free throws.”