The Misremembered History Of The Internet’s Funniest Buzzer-Beater
12:50 PM EDT on October 19, 2022
In July, Defector published a story about an ancient internet video called "Basketball (so funny you'll pee your pants).avi," based on extensive archival research and interviews with the people involved. The video was filmed at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Penn., in the mid-90s, during a basketball game against Delco Christian. It features a Shipley player heaving the ball across the length of the court, where it collides with a small child. Footage of the freak accident was submitted to America's Funniest Home Videos, and eventually made its way across Web 1.0 video sites and peer-to-peer networks. It is one of the earliest viral videos on the internet.
A few weeks after my investigation was published, it started to make its way through the Delco community, and numerous alumni reached out to provide more information about the event. Crucially, they were able to tell me the footage's origins. It was submitted to AFV by the team's coach, Neil Holden, after a Delco student named Josh Rider recorded the pivotal game.
Unfortunately, Joshua Jody Rider passed away in 1999, at the age of 21, after losing control of his vehicle on a wet road. He graduated from Delco Christian in 1997. According to his obituary, he "loved sports," collecting sports memorabilia, and working at the local collectibles store. He "planned to make a career as a sports lawyer" after graduating from Villanova. Reached over email, his brother Robinson Rider said, "Josh was, and remains, a fond memory of what could have been. At his funeral over 1,000 people came and many reflected on his personality, kindness and good character." It's only a small consolation, but I'd argue that capturing one of the most famous sports moments in the history of the internet is a great item to add to that legacy.
Holden, the coach, recalled the process of how the video made its way to AFV. "When AFV first called me, they said they thought our video was hilarious and likely would be the grand prize winner," he wrote over email. However, because the tape cuts off immediately, "and didn't show him getting up, they couldn't air it in prime time because of some censorship thing." Former Delco student and basketball player Corey Curyto reiterated the broad strokes of this memory—that the video's chances at winning the grand prize was hobbled by the fact that it wasn’t immediately clear if the kid was OK.
I was unable to confirm that this was the reason the tape didn't air on a normal episode of AFV, but Holden did correctly recall that the producers instead saved the clip for AFV's "Guide to Parenting," a special episode with a catch. "The catch was,” he wrote, “there was no contest, hence, no grand prize. But they did fly us all out, put us up, we had lunch with Bob Saget and the production crew, and they gave us something like $1,000, if I remember correctly."
In my original investigation, I concluded that the video must have aired on television sometime during the spring of 1995, in AFV's sixth season, but was unable to find any reliable archive. But with Holden's help, I caught another lucky break. Miraculously, the "Guide to Parenting" was put out on DVD in 2007 and readily available on Amazon via third-party sellers of used DVDs. "It was perfect for my son who went in for 2 brain surgeries," says one five-star review. The back cover of the DVD even lists the special's original air date, May 15, 1995, which manages to fall right in an unexplained gap in AFV's airing schedule (episode 21 aired on May 7; episode 22 on May 21).
The DVD-quality footage is the clearest yet of the incident. So I contacted Matthew Piltch, famous around Shipley as the kid hit by the basketball, and asked him if he wanted to see it. Earlier this month, we met up at a diner near his home in Queens and I showed him the original clip.
Piltch had never seen the video in its original AFV context, so before I showed it to him, I asked him to recall how he first heard about the video. "My memory is clearly imperfect on this," he said. "I know that cousins got in touch, or family got in touch with us about seeing the video on America's Funniest Home Videos. But I have only ever seen it on Kazaa or eBaum's World, or one of those places." His excitement was palpable and genuine.
We each put in an Airpod, and I played him the short snippet of footage. Saget's commentary is as follows:
And there's tension all over the gym. On the floor: "I gotta get a shot off before the buzzer!" And in the stands: "I gotta get to the bathroom before the buzzer." And just before the buzzer, the running kid and the accidentally thrown ball converge. [cartoon sound effect]
The clip then gets played a second time, with more cartoon sound effects.
As a critic, Piltch is far more generous than I would be. "I appreciate the commentary," he said. "The voiceover on the clip is funny." (Debatable.)
Still, he has some reservations: "I wonder what my parents would've said if the [Delco] coach was like, 'I'm going to send in this video of your kid to America's Funniest Home Videos.' I don't know what they would have done. But I wish that I had known, so that I could have participated!"
This is perhaps the funniest possible thing Piltch could have said. I had taken great pains, waiting weeks to meet up with him in person, because I really wanted to catch his reaction to a second piece of footage I’d prepared. It was one that would, at the very least, totally flip the story he’d been telling for the last two decades. He might be stunned and stick around to ask questions; he might storm out immediately after being caught in a lie. I had no way of knowing until I pressed play again. "I have another clip to show you," I said. Moments into this next clip, Piltch's jaw dropped. Over the next 87 seconds, his gaze whipped between the screen and me in stunned silence.
The second piece of footage I showed Piltch is from the same episode. Saget does a short segment with a woman named Bonnie Jackson, who has brought along footage of her son, taken at a basketball game. "It's very difficult to watch your children all the time and anticipate their every move, and that's what..." she tells Saget, trailing off.
Saget jumps in: "There was a little mishap. We're going to take a look at it right now."
You can probably guess what comes next.
After the clip plays, Saget introduces us to a small blond boy sitting next to Bonnie. "This nice young man is Kris Jackson, the 6-year-old who got beaned by the b-ball," he tells the audience. "We have Kris here to show you that he's completely fine and unharmed. Kris, how many fingers am I holding up?"
"Thursday," Kris responds.
"Nothing wrong with his voice!" Saget quips, before asking Kris if he wants to see more videos.
"Friday," Kris says.
Eagle-eyed readers will observe that the names Kris Jackson and Matthew Piltch are not identical. So what was happening here? Had Piltch stolen viral-video valor? Did the Delco Christian side see an opportunity to get on TV, and retrofit the story to fit their needs? Or was it simply that our memories are fickle, highly pliable systems capable of turning myth into fact?
Since August, I have been revisiting my reporting on this story and reevaluating my fact-gathering process. For example, consider Niels Pennings, the player who took the fateful shot. Before he had ever replied to me, another team alumnus had identified him as the shooter, and he independently corroborated this fact. In our conversation, Pennings remembered the specific opponent he was playing against, who was in the lead at halftime, and who won the game. I corroborated all of this with box scores from newspaper archives. He even mentioned losing the finals later in the season, falling to the Christian Academy Crusaders on a buzzer-beater, which I also corroborated. His ability to recall these details unprompted made him highly credible.
But on the other side, concerning who got hit by the ball, things were a lot muddier. A source I found through Reddit was the first to identify Piltch by name, relayed by their sister, who attended Shipley alongside him. After speaking to Piltch, I even managed to track down an old college newspaper article about his minor fame as Child Hit By Basketball. Other commenters on various copies of the video conveyed something similar. "Ah, the family legend makes its rounds again. The kid who threw the ball is my cousin by marriage; according to him, the kid that took the headshot was the headmaster's son who, despite the epic face plant, managed to graduate from Shipley (where the video was filmed) a few years ago," one commenter replied to another who asked about the status of the kid.
In retrospect, none of these details actually prove that Matthew Piltch was the kid. They only prove that it was common knowledge among the Shipley community that Matthew Piltch was the kid.
When I emailed Steve Piltch, Matthew's father and Shipley's head of school at the time of the incident, I only said I was looking into the video and withheld that I had been told his son's supposed involvement. Steve told me unprompted that it was Matthew in the video, which I took as another independent corroboration. Listening to our conversation again, I clearly went into it assuming that he had knowledge of the incident both as a parent involved and the head of the school, given the enthusiasm with which he responded. Certain quotes from my conversation with Steve Piltch stick out: "I remember sitting in the stands beforehand, and him saying, 'I'm going to go get whatever.'" Or, "As parents, I think my wife and I were both going—you know, everybody's laughing, but you're going, 'Shit, is he okay?'"
I called Steve back to try and figure out what happened here. How he could remember sitting in the stands and seeing his son get hit by the ball? When I presented this new information to him (he was already aware of the video’s contents through Matthew), Steve remained sure that he had been at that game with Matthew, but conceded that it might have been another child who got hit by the ball.
Similar to the Delco camp’s version of events, whichever child took the hit recovered from the wallop almost instantly. “The period ends, the ball gets fired to the opposite end of the court, and hits this little kid going by. The kid pops right back up, so there's no issue, you know, whatever,” Steve said. “And I think, [he] goes upstairs or whatever it is to get some candy or whatever. So that's the extent of my recollection.”
So Steve’s vague explanation—I cannot stress enough that it’s been 27 years since this happened—is that he saw a kid who looked like Matthew get hit, but when the child instantly recovered and kept going, he just assumed it was Matthew and that he was OK. This was compounded by, he recollected, other people who saw the video on TV and then told Steve that they had seen Matthew on TV.
To get more insight into this, I called up Charlie Warzel, a writer at The Atlantic whose beat has long been covering how the internet makes people believe certain things and act a certain way. He also attended Shipley just a few years ahead of Matthew Piltch.
Warzel recalled viewing the video online before he'd ever set foot in Shipley, beginning in middle school. He remembered sitting in the gym for a school assembly at some point, and being told by classmates that it was the gym from the viral video. "My recollection," Warzel said, "is it was just known. It was a popular enough video that most people knew about it." He indicated that Matthew's starring role was a key piece of the legend, but it wasn't brought up directly very often. Warzel recalled being in the school musical with Matthew at one point, but they never discussed the basketball incident.
I posed my next question to Warzel: How do you think you might respond if it turns out it wasn't Matt Piltch in that video?
"That would be pretty wild," he said. "Because that was always the most delightful second wrinkle about it, knowing that it was the headmaster's son." The video itself is funny to everyone; that the principal's son got beaned made it specifically resonant for Shipley's student body. Warzel added, "I would feel like a big part of the lore of the school is a lie."
Delco coach Neil Holden was blunt in his assessment of the situation. When I sent him a link to my original story, he wrote back that someone else claiming to be the kid hit by the ball was "hilarious and incredibly sad, and disturbing."
In August, I spoke with Corey Curyto, the former Delco point guard who played in that fateful game against Shipley. In fact, he is the one who takes the first failed shot in the clip, which Pennings then rebounds and unloads down the court. Like other people in the video, it brought Curyto some minor celebrity in college around the turn of the century. "The sad part is, if I had a better jump shot, none of this would've ever happened," he joked.
Curyto recalled events somewhat differently than the Shipley side. In his recollection, Jackson hits the floor and—as little kids are wont to do—bounces right back up and keeps running. He'd already been comparing notes with other Delco affiliates. One friend, whose comments Curyto relayed, recalled "[Jackson] getting up fairly quickly, turning towards the crowd and raising his arms up in a 'V' and then turning and running out of the gym." Another friend said, "Someone or a few would have naturally checked in on him." Regardless, they all agreed that Kris Jackson is the kid in the video, not Matthew Piltch.
Eventually I was able to get in touch with Jackson himself, who was 7 at the time of the incident. He ended up at that game because his oldest brother, Keith, played on the team and his dad, Jim, helped out the team as well. The way Jackson remembers it, a player on the Delco Christian bench said he would buy Jackson a soda (or a snack, that detail escapes him) if he ran over to the Delco spectator section on the other side of the court and gave a cheerleader a hug. On the DVD, after Jackson takes off down the sideline, you can see someone in a vaguely cheerleader-y outfit sitting in the first row of the bleachers. "It was literally just a stupid bet so I could get a candy bar or a soda from one of the guys," Jackson said.
As Jackson was running back to the bench, he got leveled by the basketball. "It knocked me clear to the ground, and then I just remember kind of coming to, immediately. Like, it didn't knock me out at all," he said. "Then as soon as I started to stand up, like all these people were running towards me and I had no idea what happened." He remembered one of the Delco players "picking me up and holding me and making sure I was all right. And then sure enough, my mom's the next one who runs over."
A few weeks later, the Jacksons and the Holdens went out to Los Angeles for the episode taping (Daniel Tyson, a friend of Josh Rider, recalls Josh being upset that Holden did not bring him as well). Kris remembers meeting Bob Saget in the green room, and that his mother, Bonnie, would cover his ears when Saget would mess up a take. As proven by his post-Full House career, Saget could swear like a sailor. "The reason I don't remember too much of being on the actual set was because it was so boring and it felt like church," Jackson said. The production would run through the same segments over and over again. "It took forever."
The Jacksons watched the episode when it first aired and recorded it on a VHS, but at some point it eventually vanished. The first time Jackson heard that the video was floating around the internet was from one of his cousins. (I cannot explain why multiple parts of this story relies on word-of-mouth from cousins.) He says he often saw his extended family because "my dad married my mom. And then my dad's little brother married my mom's older sister. And then my dad's baby brother married my mom's baby sister. So three brothers married three sisters. So we had this huge family where we all had the same last name. We all had the same grandparents." They would refer to it as a "super clan."
At some point around 2000, Jackson says he was at a birthday party at one of his extended family members' houses, and a cousin, in college at the time, recognized the video on collegehumor.com and showed it to him. Like everyone else involved with this story, it became a fun piece of trivia for Jackson—a thing to talk about with friends he'd known before the whomping happened, and a fun fact to bring up with new friends who had already seen the video but didn't know of his involvement.
I asked Jackson how he felt about someone else claiming to be the kid in the video. At some point, Jackson theorized, Piltch had been told enough times that it was him, and then repeated it so often that it became an established fact. As a former tour manager and musician who would tell stories on the road, he was sympathetic to the predicament. "I mean, there's some of the bullshit that I would say to people and you know, yarns you'd spin and stories you'd tell," Jackson said. "And each time you tell the story, you embellish a part here and there. And, 10 years later, the story is not the same and you tell it and you believe it."
At the diner, I watched Matthew Piltch work through his disbelief in real-time, via astonished questions and halting, half-finished statements. By that point it was clear to him why I had invited him to get a drink face-to-face rather than another phone call. And it was clear to me that he genuinely had no idea what I was planning to reveal.
I laid out why I was leaning towards Kris Jackson and the Delco side's version of events as the truest version. From the Piltches, I had received little in the way of concrete details about the game—details like when it happened or who was playing. They had merely confirmed a preexisting pattern of declaring Matt as the video's star.
Meanwhile, from the Delco side, I had been given a thorough accounting not just of how the video made it to AFV, but also enough detail to track down the episode, which literally features Kris Jackson. That the Delco players, coach Neil Holden, and the Jackson family all conspired to create an alternate history, hinging on a 7-year-old’s ability to lie in order to get a free trip to L.A. and 87 seconds of fame, isn't out of the realm of possibility—but it is very close to the boundary. There was no way to parlay this event into further fame and lucrative Instagram sponcon at that point in history.
The Piltch side does not have an equivalent counter-argument. Matthew Piltch processed the idea: "I actually think a more ... Well, I think it's equally possible that—Everybody on the Delco, like—well, I guess they sent in the video, and the whole family went, so it seems like that everybody in my life was just wrong for a very long time."
"Yeah ..." I said. "How do you feel about that?"
"Confused!" he responded. "It kind of adds to the story, in a way, if that's the case." In his mind, a neat story has morphed into an even weirder, funnier story now. "So now the trivia goes from 'I was in America's Funniest Home Videos and YouTube videos' to 'Everyone in my life collectively told me that I was in YouTube videos, and I believed them.' And it seems like I was probably wrong!"
Piltch said that he has no clue how the idea started that it was him in the video, or where it came from. We talked it over together for a long time and came no closer to the truth. "It seems plausible that when the video popped up," Piltch said, "someone just decided it was me. Like, what other towhead kid was running around Shipley basketball games? It must've been Matt." (Piltch's hair has darkened, but he did provide an old photo of him from around that age. His hair was indeed very blond, though not quite the level of Kris Jackson's.) That's certainly what his father thought.
Over the next hour, as we worked through the possibilities, Piltch came around to the idea that he'd been living with bad info for the majority of his life. "Our memories are not meant to be perfect," he said. "This is an amazing instance of collective mis-memory." He later noted that "it makes you wonder how much other stuff is out there like this."
Later in our conversation, Piltch turned the focus on me. "How does this affect your perception of journalism?" he asked. Largely, I said, it had made me think about precision. I thought that I had done a diligent job buttoning up that first story—at the time, it even felt like I was engaging in a bit of overkill for such a low-stakes story about a funny viral video. Looking back, what I had actually done is uncover evidence of the video's supposed legacy, rather than evidence of the inciting incident. I assumed that because multiple people independently told me the same thing, that thing was true. Should I have tried harder to find the provenance of the video, which would have alerted me to my glaring error? Possibly, but measuring what I was missing against what I'd already uncovered (along with the resources available to me; I didn't have the budget to head down to Delco and ask for the yearbooks missing from Classmates.com), I felt there was enough there for a good story.
Kris Jackson might have been knocked into next week by a flying basketball, but I also got to watch Matthew Piltch get knocked senseless by something unexpected. You know, in a figurative sense. In the end, my attitude is fairly similar to his: This giant mistake of mine managed to uncover something even weirder, wilder, funnier, and—to be corny—deeply human. It was worth getting knocked on my ass.