Fred Hetzel: Class of 1965

[The 1965 NBA draft was considered a good one for yielding four can’t-miss prospects: Bill Bradley, Rick Barry, Dave Stallworth, and Fred Hetzel. In a run of good luck, the San Francisco Warriors grabbed first Hetzel then Barry in the first round. Afterwards, their coach Alex Hannum couldn’t stop beaming, especially about Hetzel, a 6-foot-8 All-American from Davidson. “Fred has the potential to be a great one,” Hannum told reporters. “He’s shown that he’s an excellent shooter from outside, but he’ll have to learn on offense how to play facing the basket. In college, he played with his back to the basket. And he’ll need a bit more quickness on defense.” Hannum then nodded knowingly, “He’ll come ‘round.”

Hetzel’s coming ‘round soon became complicated by Barry, who emerged as the face and high-scoring future of the franchise. But Hetzel had his moments, too, especially after Barry jumped ship for the ABA Oakland Oaks. In the season following Barry’s departure, Hetzel stepped up to average 19 points and seven rebound per game. He was, if not the face of the franchise, a big part of its future. 

Or so it seemed early in the season. But by season’s end, rumors wafted through the NBA that Hetzel was on the trading block. Some in San Francisco argued that, despite “Hetz’s” steady scoring, he didn’t come up big in the clutch. “Fred has never been offered in a trade at any time, nor do we plan to offer him,” Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli countered aboard the team’s flight home from a playoff game in St. Louis on March 24, 1968. It was part of Mieuli’s impromptu news conference to nip these silly trade rumors in the bud. 

Shame on Mieuli. A few weeks later, Hetzel’s name landed on the Warriors’ list of unprotected players in the 1968 expansion draft to stock the rosters of the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks snatched up Hetzel fast, and what follows are a few articles chronicling the rest of his NBA career. These stories document the challenge he faced to find the right NBA fit for his talents. It concludes with a top draft pick’s humbling realization that his once-assumed NBA greatness was never meant to be. The first article below, which has no byline, comes from the magazine True’s Basketball Yearbook.]

Warriors 1965 rookie trio (l-r): Fred Hetzel, Warren Rustand, Rick Barry.

On the day when the new Milwaukee Bucks announced their selections in the expansion draft of NBA talent, Larry Costello, the coach, read off the names. 

“Fred Hetzel,” he began. 

Throughout the room, voices began to murmur. Fred Hetzel. Not the same Fred Hetzel who had averaged 19 points a game for the San Francisco Warriors. None of the NBA observers could imagine the Warriors making Hetzel available to the new expansion teams, the Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. 

“Fred Hetzel,” repeated Costello, as if to assure everyone he had not made a mistake. 

And with that player alone, the Bucks appeared to have established themselves as a decent expansion team. It’s not easy for an expansion team. They are stocked with players who are surplus performers on the older teams. But the Bucks did well in the expansion draft. Such name performers as Guy Rodgers, Wayne Embry, Johnny Egan, Len Chappell, and Dave Gambee were named by Costello, a former backcourt smoothie with the Philadelphia 76ers whose career had been ended by knee surgery. 

But on paper, the prize player for the Bucks appeared to be Fred Hetzel. 

At a broad-shouldered 6-foot-8, the black-haired Hetzel had been a dependable scorer for the Warriors throughout the season and the playoffs. Strangely, the Warrior front office decided to protect seven other players ahead of him. 

During the season, only two other Warriors had outscored him—Rudy LaRusso and Nate Thurmond, limited to 51 games because of knee surgery. 

During the playoffs, only two others surpassed his 18.8 average—Jeff Mullins and LaRusso. But the Warriors made him available, and the Bucks pounced on him, to Costello’s delight. Considered one of the best shooters among the league’s cornermen, Hetzel looms as the scoring leader of the Bucks in their attempt to generate some respect in the Eastern Division. 

As an All-American at Davidson, the sharp-shooting Hetzel had been a high draft choice and had quickly established himself with the Warriors. His career, however, began with the same season that Rick Barry joined the Warriors. And no team ever uses two rookies in the corner as regulars. Barry was the more-impressive rookie, and Hetzel was a substitute. 

But when Barry departed to join the Oakland Oaks of the ABA last season, Hetzel had his opportunity and appeared to have made the most of it. But the Warriors obviously thought that seven other players were more useful. Hetzel, in fact, knew his days were numbered when George Lee replaced Alex Hannum as coach last fall.

“I can’t say a kind word about Lee,” said Hetzel. “I averaged over 19 points the season before, and he was willing to lose me in the expansion draft. I know for a fact that over five clubs had tried to make a deal for me. And what did he get for me? Nothing but money.”

In recent seasons, other players on expansion teams have prospered because of a chance to play regularly. Bob Boozer developed into a steady scorer for the Chicago Bulls two seasons ago; and last season, several players emerged—Walt Hazzard with the Seattle SuperSonics, Don Kojis and John Block with the San Diego Rockets. All four had been obtained in expansion drafts: Boozer from the Lakers, Hazzard from the Lakers, Kojis from the Bulls, and Block from the Lakers. 

Now, it’s Fred Hetzel’s turn to haunt the Warriors for making him expendable. 

[Hetzel averaged about 16 points and nine rebounds per game in Milwaukee. But the 26-year-old veteran lasted just a half season there. Bucks president Ray Patterson said his team desperately needed a rebounding forward. According to Hetzel, Patterson desperately needed to save some cash. He said the Bucks “couldn’t afford my salary,” reportedly $60,000, and moved him to the Cincinnati Royals for the rebounder Don Smith and, you guessed it, some cash. Hetzel finished the 1968-69 campaign in the Queen City, contributing about 12 points an outing and feeling optimistic about his future on and off the court, as highlighted by this article, no byline, from the July 24, 1969 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer.]

Can you imagine a 6-foot-8 cowpoke? Would you believe a 6-foot-8 stockbroker turned cowpoke? Both of these descriptions fit the Royals’ Fred Hetzel. The former Davidson All-American is working these hot summer days in a dual capacity. 

By day, or through the week, the big, good-looking Fred is employed with McDonnel & Company, a member firm of the New York Stock Exchange, in Washington, D.C. On weekends, he dons a pair of Levis, grabs his pretty blond wife Wendy, and they both take off for their farm in the hinterlands in Virginia.

Hetzel, who played with both San Francisco and Milwaukee before coming to Cincinnati in a trade last year, really enjoys his offseason occupations. Fred and Wendy are both natives of Washington, D. C., and they are happy to be back home during the summer. This marks the first time that Fred has spent the offseason at home. 

“Wendy was the girl next door,” says Fred. “It seems like we always knew each other, and it was taken for granted that we’d get married.”

About the farm, Fred thinks it is great. “It’s about 138 acres of weeds and poison ivy right now,” he declared, “but during our weekends, we are trying to shape it up. Even bought some cattle, so we are going to have our hands full for a while. 

“I enjoy the stockbroker bit, too,” exclaims Fred. “It’s really a kick. Seems like something is always happening, and I really look forward to going in every day.”

Hetzel is one of many NBA players who dabble in the Dow Jones averages. “I know Rudy LaRusso of the Lakers, Dave DeBusschere of the Knicks, Gail Goodrich and Don Kojis are all stockbrokers during the offseason.”

“Hetz” took his training in San Francisco when he was a Warrior. He played under Bill Sharman in those days, and that is something of an ironic note as Hetzel’s new coach with the Royals this coming season, Bob Cousy, was a teammate for a great many years at Boston. 

“I know I’m going to enjoy playing under Cousy,” says Fred, “because I see where he promises that the Royals will run this year. I shouldn’t have any trouble because that is the way Sharman played it, too.”

Fred says he’s been working out with a basketball in the evenings when he gets a chance. “I sure want to have a good season this year, and I want the Royals to have a good one, too. I really can’t wait to get started.”

[About two weeks later, Hetzel was the featured speaker at a high-powered Washington sports luncheon. Hetzel beamed about his NBA career and, feeling comfortable, made the following offhand comment: “We’re going to have to play a fastbreak style of ball under Cousy, but I can’t see [Oscar] Robertson fitting into this type of offense. He needs the ball too much. Oscar has to control the action. Can you see Oscar leading the fast break? I can’t . . . Believe me, the Cincinnati fans are growing tired of watching Oscar dribble the ball up the floor.”

These off-the-cuff remarks soon reached Cincinnati, where Robertson and fellow star Jerry Lucas weren’t getting along. The Big O bashing, while possibly correct, only further divided the locker room, and Hetzel hurried to take them back. He claimed he’d been misquoted. But the damage was done. Robertson wasn’t happy with Hetzel, and neither was Cousy. A team insider whispered cryptically during the preseason, “Hetzel isn’t Cousy’s kind of player.” Making matters worse, a Cincinnati newspaper whispered that Hetzel was considering a jump to the ABA Los Angeles Stars. “I haven’t had any contact with Los Angeles at all,” Hetzel huffed. “That’s all there is to it, as far as I’m concerned.” 

Cousy put Hetzel was on the trading block late in the preseason. Philadelphia 76er coach Jack Ramsay, who couldn’t stop tweaking his roster, took the bait. He traded his third-string center Craig Raymond to the Royals for Hetzel, hoping to add some needed firepower to his frontline. Ramsay announced the trade to the press late at night in the parking lot of the Trenton Civic Center. “I talked to [Hetzel] tonight before the trade was announced,” Ramsay said, “and he said he was anxious to come here.”

Hetzel arrived to a 76er team in decline and a personable, well-meaning rookie coach who had run his roster into the ground with his habitual trades, most of which proved unwise (setting in motion the 1972-73 disaster to come in Philadelphia). As Ramsay struggled to find a winning combination, Hetzel got buried near the end of the bench, nursing injuries and averaging a career low 6.1 points and 12 minutes per game. 

Hetzel (30) as a Laker.

By season’s end, Ramsay made Hetzel available in the 1970 expansion draft, and the brand-new Portland Trail Blazers took a chance on him. But not for long. Hetzel was waived in the preseason, and the Los Angeles Lakers claimed him off waivers to shore up a thin bench. Indeed, Hetzel spent the 1970-71 season on the Laker bench and watched his numbers sink even lower: 4.8 points and 10 minutes per game. 

In this July 1971 column from the Charlotte Observer, the outstanding Frank Barrows laid out Hetzel’s musings about his waning NBA career.]

He is still 6-foot-8, still weighs 230. But his hair—longer than a businessman would wear, shorter than Pete Maravich’s—is turning gray around the edges, though he is only 29. He spent the better part of last season as a well-paid observer of the Los Angeles Laker basketball team, averaging less than 10 minutes a night on the floor, watching instead Jerry West hit jump shots and Wilt Chamberlain grab rebounds. 

And during the years, between 1965 and 1971, Fred Hetzel learned a thing or two about basketball.  “I came out of college with a big ego, with all the confidence you could have. I thought I could do anything on a basketball court, and I felt it had to be proved to me that I couldn’t. And it was very quickly.” 

He couldn’t take the baseline against Billy Cunningham. He couldn’t keep up, defensively, with Dave DeBusschere. He couldn’t outrebound Bill Bridges. He couldn’t play the game as well as Bailey Howell, Chet Walker, Joe Caldwell . . .

Fred Hetzel does not stand alone. All-American after All-American achieves less than astounding success as a professional. Remember Paul Hogue, Barry Kramer, Gary Bradds? Consider Pat Riley, Larry Miller, Bill Bradley. How about Art Heyman, Dave Schellhase, Billy McGill? Some flop miserably, some play consistently but without flash, some drift from team to team. All, for one reason or another, failed to live up to expectations.

And, in Hetzel’s case, what are the reasons? First, he had to change positions, from center in college to forward in the NBA. Second, he is a step too slow. Third, he isn’t a rugged rebounder. Fourth, he played Southern Conference basketball collegiately, a background which did not toughen him as much as Atlantic Coast Conference or Big 10 competition would have. Fifth, although he averaged 19 points a game in 1968 for the Warriors, he hasn’t always been in the right place at the right time, hasn’t always had the opportunity to play. Sixth, he simply is not an Elgin Baylor. 

The end is now in sight. “It’s hard to sit on the bench and watch somebody else play, especially when you’ve had the success I’ve had in basketball. And every year, it gets a little more difficult to get into shape. So, I always find myself asking, ‘Is it worth it?’” 

[In September 1971, the Lakers waived Hetzel in the preseason of what would be a historic championship season. But Hetzel was well-prepared for life after basketball. He launched his own Virginia-based real estate company a decade later. In 1985, he served as president of the Virginia Association of Realtors. Looking back on his pro career many years later, Hetzel noted, “I am happy to have had the experience of the NBA. To meet such great personalities and to have relationships with such great people is just special.”]

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