Les Henson says that when worshipers at the altar of curiosity shake hands with him, they almost all say, "Is this the hand that threw it?"
And Henson, who plays basketball for Virginia Tech and will be in town tonight to go against George Washington, says, yes, this is the very hand that propelled the orange sphere 89 feet 3 inches and smack through the hoop.
Yes, this is the right hand attached to the strong right arm that earned its owner a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Yes, this is the hand that silenced 10,000 screaming crazies in a basketball house.
Yes,this is the right hand of a guy who plays basketball left-handed and shoots his shots left-handed. Yes, the southpaw shooter threw the basketball 89 feet 3 inches into that distant thimble of a hoop with his right hand because he is ambidextrous and he throws a baseball right-handed.
Les Henson. The Longest Shooter.
The shot -- and it was a shot, a premeditated shot, murder in the first degree the night of Jan. 21, the victim being Florida State, shot dead in the last second, 79-77 -- and made Les Henson a national celebrity who was chased down by newspapermen from Denver and Boston, New York and San Francisco. Any TV station with any sense ran videotape of the shot.
"Everybody keeps asking me the same thing," Henson said. "They ask, 'What went through your mind when it went in?'"
"I turned to a Florida State cheerleader and said, 'Can you believe that?'
"A lot of people say I started shouting and screaming, 'Can you believe that?'
"I didn't. I just said, 'Can you believe that?' Just like that. 'Can you believe that shot?'"
Florida State had missed a shot to win the game. The ball came off the rim to the left. Henson grabbed it after one bounce near the baseline.
"Coach had told us to try to score if they missed. When I got the ball, I heard Dexter Reid (a guard) hollering for me to throw it to him at midcourt. But I looked up at the clock in the end zone and there wasn't enough time to do anything.
"I saw it click from three down to two seconds. So I figured I might as well throw it and see what happens. I was trying to throw it in."
It is not an easy thing to throw a basketball. The thing is heavy. It is big. If you throw it very hard, it most likely will curve because your hand comes around the side of it. To throw a basketball from one end of the floor to a spot at the other end requires considerable skill. To throw the ball through the hoop then requires six tons of outright luck.
"It went up near the rafters," Henson said. "From the angle I was looking at it (which angle is familiar to folks watching rocket launches), I thought it was going to hit the rafters."
This interview was done by telephone. Les Henson was cooperative.The questions everybody had asked two weeks ago, he answered again. But at this point, with the basketball going up near the rafters, Les Henson's voice turned to music.
The shot was happening again and he loved it.
"The crowd started getting real quiet," he said. "They had been going crazy shouting and trying to get their team to score there at the end. Everybody was hollering until I turned and threw the ball and they saw it going up near the rafters.
"As soon as the ball cleared halfcourt, you could hear from the quiet that everybody was watching the shot.
"The ball. it just kept going," said Henson, who had pressed the launch button on his missile and then, a creator awed by his creation, watched it ply the sky. "It just kept going toward the basket like it had a magnet in it and the rim was sucking it in."
Twenty-thousand eyes monitored the flight of Henson's leather space capsule. Ten thousand brains said it was really dumb to be thinking this shot had a chance.
In California, a high school player once threw a shot the length of the floor and it bounced into the hoop. A pro in the old ABA made a 10-footer while on his back. A high schooler in West Virginia made a shot from behind the backboard.
But nobody ever made an 89-footer in the last second to win a major-college basketball game. Nobody ever just turned and threw the ball up toward the rafters and said he was trying to make it from 89 feet. It is, coaches will tell you, a low-percentage shot.
From out of the rafters, burning its way back into the earth's atmosphere, the Henson spacecraft came practically straight down (it was maybe 50 feet high, really) and ripped through the net, just grazing the back of the rim, snapping the net as if Darryl Dawkins had deposited one of his interplanetary stuff-slam-volcanic tremble dunks.
"When it went in," Henson said, remembering again the silence of 10,000 witnesses, "everybody just sat there."
Everybody except Virginia Tech players, who were hugging each other and rolling on the floor.
All of them, that is, except The Longest Shooter.
"Everybody forgot about me," Henson said, "and I ran off the court because the fans had been throwing stuff and I didn't want them to throw anything at me. I ran into a hallway and stood there. Then it hit me what I'd done. And Dale Solomon (a 6-foot-8, 240-pound teammate) picked me up and started running full speed with me into the locker room."
A four-year regular at Virginia Tech, Les Henson is a 6-6 quick forward shooting 54 percent and averaging 13.8 points on a 16-3 team currently on a seven-game winning streak. The senior from Richmond's Benedictine High wants to be a pro and he thinks the publicity from his long shot will get him a look.
Pros or not, the shot has had one significant affect, Henson said. "Used to be, Coach wouldn't let me shoot from outside," he said. "Now he says go ahead.