The Secret History Of The Internet’s Funniest Buzzer-Beater
12:49 PM EDT on July 19, 2022
Editor's Note: On Oct. 19, 2022 Defector published a followup to this article, revealing that the recollections of several of our sources were incomplete or based on false memories. The true story of who got nailed by that basketball is more complicated, and even more interesting, than what’s written here. We apologize for the error. We still suggest you read this article first, then the sequel.
Do you know that video of the kid who gets nailed with a full-court basketball shot? That might sound vague, but I suspect that anyone who remembers the pre-YouTube internet, when there were like five videos in total, probably does.
Still unclear? Let me describe it to you.
An unspecified quarter of a high school basketball game is about to come to an end. A player rebounds the shot, turns, and flings the ball across the court. The ball arcs through the air, but there is little suspense. You can instinctively tell, just from the trajectory, that the ball is going to fall short of the net. Instead, in a bizarre alignment of circumstances, the ball collides with a small child running down the baseline. It hits him in the head so hard that it knocks him off his feet. In the bleachers, where the cameraman is, everyone throws their hands up in alarm.
Take a look:
It's not difficult to explain the video's appeal. It is a perfect and devastating subversion of the cathartic buzzer-beater video. A one-in-a-lifetime freak accident that is also a flawless piece of slapstick. The video is one of those truly immortal viral videos that never goes away, an artifact from a time when video bandwidth was expensive, and only the cream of the crop was deemed worthy of server space. In bygone internet parlance, it is simultaneously a “fail” for the child and an “epic win” for the player.
A couple of months ago, Defector staffer Dan McQuade asked me to suss out the origins of what he knows as "basketball.avi." The shorthand reference is telling: "basketball" is so vague and generic that it implies that this footage comprises the only basketball video that matters, and ".avi" is a decreasingly popular video file format developed for Windows; it also happens to be the preferred video format of the National Archives.
For the record, the full title that Dan was thinking of is “Basketball (so funny you'll pee your pants).avi.”
Where did you first see this video? I honestly can't tell you where I first saw it. Perhaps you caught it on an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos. Maybe you downloaded it from a peer-to-peer service like Limewire or Kazaa. Perhaps you saw it on a site such as Break.com or KillsomeTime.com or FileCabi.net or eBaum's World, the last of which concisely titled it "Basketball Whack." Maybe you saw it on YouTube, or as a GIF.
The video is practically as old as the World Wide Web, and because it predates concepts like h/t links, retweets, creator tags, or toothless "no copyright intended" disclaimers, one might assume that it's impossible to know where it came from. It's kind of always been here, the basketball video on the internet that just showed up one day.
That might explain its staying power. For the most part, the modern internet incentivizes stripping context from anything being posted. Proper nouns get turned into “This Person” in headlines, and the creators of viral artwork go uncredited or unmentioned. By and large, people want the internet to be an inexplicable machine of random stuff, entertaining them with funny videos of basketball games that could have taken place in Anytown, USA.
A seemingly infinite array of no-context funny videos—scraped from archival footage, newscasts, and increasingly, other users—gets recycled online every day for the sake of likes and shares and attention. “Basketball (so funny you'll pee your pants).avi” could well be the very first one, a watershed moment in the history of the internet.
The lack of additional information elevates the viewing experience. But every so often, if you dig into a piece of internet ephemera, the context—the who, what, when, where, and why—have the potential to dramatically enhance your understanding of the freak accident that you just witnessed.
The first step in determining the origin of the basketball video is to closely analyze the copious nine seconds of footage. Unfortunately, the video is effectively the size of a postage stamp. A version I grabbed from an Archive.org snapshot of eBaum's World measures 352 pixels by 240 pixels. To put that in perspective, imagine a block that's about three iOS icons wide and two icons tall. Not a lot to go on here.
I also tried to grab a more pristine copy of “Basketball (so funny you'll pee your pants).avi” from a user named bhs on Soulseek, but they immediately blocked the transfer when it was 9 percent complete and told me to “fuck off” after I tried to download it without sharing any of my own files, which is totally fair. Through Google’s search engine, I discovered that almost all of the few links to any file approximating the original are now dead, though I did manage to grab the file “(Comedy) - Basketball (so funny you'll pee your pants) (1) (1).avi” from the Polish website Chomikuj.pl, where the file size was exactly equivalent to the Soulseek listing: 2,815,090 bytes. Alas, this version—320 pixels wide and 240 pixels tall and also lacking audio—yielded no clues.
YouTube hosts many versions of this clip, all with different color grading attributable to a wide variety of video encoding and processing. None of them were helpful. In internet parlance, this clip is a “potato video,” a video that is so blurry and low-res that it might as well have been filmed using a potato. This actually leads to a mildly interesting dichotomy in the comments: Most users understand exactly what is happening in the video, but a few (likely younger and attuned to higher video resolutions) cannot decipher the action on-screen.
Here's what I can work out, based on the video alone: It's in a gym, and there's a banner that depicts a "5" or an "S" on the wall at half court. There’s a circle at half court as well, and some sort of overlook area on the left-hand side.
One version I came across seemed to provide a slight hint: the unmistakable narration of former America's Funniest Home Videos host Tom Bergeron. "There's no play more exciting in sports than the classic buzzer beating," he says before the video's own punchline. There’s audio on this version, and you can hear the crowd’s shocked reaction. The narration comes from a May 2002 episode called "The Battle of the Best," which also featured input from celebrity guests Kathy Griffin, Martin Mull, Picabo Street, and Coolio.
I bought that episode on Amazon for two dollars, hoping a pristine copy might provide more clues. No dice. I emailed Vin Di Bona Productions, AFV's production company, but they rebuffed me: "Unfortunately, we do not sell or give out copies of the show or individual clips. We also do not give out the personal information of our submitters." Understandable. I was unable to find the ancient clip on homevideolicensing.com, where Vin Di Bona Productions acts as a middleman for licensing AFV clips much in the same way that Storyful or Jukin Media might.
It looked like I'd have to brute-force the solution. One nice thing about a video this popular is that there are bound to be plenty of comment threads about it. And usually, if you scroll far enough down in enough of them, you might find someone who says, I know the guys in this video or I recognize this place.
The info I needed was contained deep within a March 2019 Reddit thread on r/gifs titled "This is the only way you can miss a full court game winning shot and still be looked at as a legend." The GIF has more than 38,000 upvotes at the time of publication. A commenter named RoyMustangela wrote, "Fun fact that no one will care about: this happened at my high school back in the early 90's, the kid that got beaned eventually graduated from the same school a few years ahead of me and the gym still looks exactly the same." Later in the subthread, he adds that the school was located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and that the school mascot was the Gators.
That's enough information to triangulate the gym in which the events of “Basketball (so funny you'll pee your pants).avi” took place: The Shipley School, an elite private school in the greater Philadelphia area. That explains the big "S" banner at half-court. Images and footage of the gym posted on social media confirm it is the same gym, including a sort of overlook area at one end of the court, V-shaped hoop frames suspended from the ceiling, and a bleacher section on one wall with a large gap in the middle. Furthermore, a photo from Shipley's 1995 yearbook features the same concentric-circle design at half-court. In a direct message, RoyMustangela confirmed that it was the Shipley gym.
To find out more, I emailed Steve Piltch, who served as Shipley's Head of School from 1992 to 2019. He immediately knew what video I was referring to and was "happy to chat." He also clarified another curious detail that I had uncovered in my initial research: "It was actually my son Matthew (who is now 32) who got hit by the ball."
Piltch can laugh about it now. "Retrospectively, of course, it's very funny,” he said. “When it happened, everyone laughed but said, 'Oh my god! Is he okay?'" (He clarified that people laugh when they’re nervous, too.)
If you scroll through comments on uploads of the clip, you'll eventually come across unfounded speculation that the child was grievously injured, possibly even dead. Piltch hit me with a quick fact-check: "I'm happy to tell you, 25 or more years later, he's doing just fine."
Piltch couldn't recall when precisely the incident happened, who Shipley was playing, or who lobbed the brick. But he did theorize that his son was probably headed out the door to the vending machines. He also doesn't know who recorded the video and submitted it to AFV, but as school principal, he soon became aware that a viral video of the Shipley gym was traveling around the world wide web.
"What I think is really interesting is this: For quite a long time, people would come back and refer to it," he said. "I probably hear about this once every year or two now, so it's not like all the time."
It took me a while to get in touch with Matthew, which made me a little worried that, despite his father’s claims that Matthew had taken it in stride, my reporting would reopen an old wound. After a month or so of prodding, he did get back to me and was very enthusiastic to talk about what happened.
His memory of the events are similarly hazy. Matthew did not remember when the game occurred, or who took the shot, nor did he provide much of a blow-by-blow recap. Though, in his defense, there was only one blow and he was on the receiving end. Similar to his father, he theorized that he was headed towards the vending machines and that is how he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. “My favorite part of the video is the reaction of everybody in the stands, where they all put their hands on their head at the same exact time,” Matthew said. “It is priceless.
He doesn’t even remember seeing the footage on AFV, though he theorized that the footage came from a parent who was tasked with filming all of the team games. Regardless of who filmed it, it’s doubtful that they’re also the person who also digitized it, blurred out the small network bug in the lower-right corner, and started passing it around the internet. Yet ever since the clip was uploaded to the web, it has followed him throughout the rest of his life. In the pre-YouTube days, Matthew recalls that the video mainly lived on Kazaa and on eBaum’s World, but it eventually ended up as countless freebooted YouTube uploads.
“One of my favorite teachers in seventh grade would regularly play the video of me getting hit in the head with her advisor, and with me present sometimes,” Matthew said. “She had it downloaded from Kazaa and would regularly show it as a mechanism of entertainment.”
He pauses. “It sounds kind of cruel when I say it, but it actually wasn't; it was extremely funny.”
The viral video incident was only the first in a line of sports-related head injuries. At Shipley, Matthew played goalie on the soccer team, which is generally regarded as a great way to get hit by balls at high speed. He suffered a number of concussions, and at one point, was hit in the face so hard that it shattered his eye socket—and his aspirations to play sports in college. He now has four titanium plates in his skull. (I asked Matthew if he thought there was any chance that the initial hit from the basketball might have weakened the integrity of his skull. His entirely non-scientific answer was doubtful. “If anything,” he added, “it might have hardened my skull to prepare me for getting hit in the face playing soccer.”)
At college, Piltch did not take the chance to rewrite his past and become a guy who did not get creamed in a very famous viral video. He told many of his classmates about his online notoriety, becoming known as the viral video star on campus a decade before teens who grew up with Instagram, Vine, and TikTok started to stroll the quad.
His celebrity status even merited a write-up in the school paper, The Williams Record. In a February 2009 feature article headlined “First-year YouTube legend still haunted by a ball,” Piltch was compared to contemporaries such as “Chocolate Rain” singer Tay Zonday and the MMA fighter Kimbo Slice. Piltch admitted at the time that the notoriety among his classmates was “pretty sweet.” Some of the details in our conversation are already present in this old article—clearly, he is practiced in talking about his claim to fame.
Pulling off that shot is highly difficult even if one were planning to do so, requiring careful aim, timing, and the participation of an entire gym full of people. And even if it were somehow staged, it was filmed before there was even an online market for monetizing viral videos. At the time, the market for this sort of clip was AFV or the local newscast. For Matthew, the video’s enduring appeal has a lot to do with its authenticity, and he noted that viral videos nowadays are usually either planned out meticulously, or footage of tragedy.
“I think a lot of videos that are now funny in the modern day are extremely manufactured,” he said. “There's either very sad videos, where people pull out their phones to film something not-great that's happening, or it's like something that someone spent minutes or hours sketching out before they put it up on TikTok or Instagram or wherever. I think the spontaneity of [the basketball video] gives it a little bit of enduring power, because it's not manufactured.”
His father, Steve, similarly reflected on how a camera in every phone has changed what we enter into the historical record. "When I was 4, 5, 7 years old, something I did wasn't going to show up 25 years later. Now, anything's a possibility,” he said. “But because it brings back a smile and a fondness, it's OK."
Identifying who was on the receiving end of the shot was only one half of the equation. I still don’t know who took it. Using the 1995 Shipley School yearbook on Classmates.com, I started flinging out messages, each of them a desperation heave of my own, to members of the varsity basketball team, trying to find out if anyone remembered anything else. "I found your name in an old Shipley yearbook from around that time, and wanted to see if you remembered anything about that game, or more generally, what you know of the video."
Thirty-seven minutes after my emails went out, I received a chipper response from the captain of the Shipley team for the 1994-95 season, Niels Pennings: "I would be happy to discuss this event as I am the person who threw the basketball."
Unlike the Piltches, who both attended many Shipley games during Steve’s time as Head of School, Pennings remembered this fateful one very clearly.
"Of course, I felt horrible," Pennings recalled. "He was crying, and I ran over to him to see if he was OK—and my head coach was yelling at me to get into the locker room because we were losing."
That coach was Lefty Ervin, the former coach of the La Salle University Explorers. "I was his center who couldn't shoot," Pennings admitted. "I was a good rebounder, pretty good defender, and he turned me from a guy who averaged six points a game to 18, 19 points a game my senior year."
The infamous shot attempt happened just before halftime, during a game between Shipley and the Delaware County Christian School. From what I can tell based on box scores from old copies of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the game—the last one of the regular season—happened on Friday, Feb. 10, 1995, and Pennings’s shot would not have changed the game much. The teams entered halftime with Delco Christian leading 52-40. The Shipley Gators eventually lost, 95-86.
A Philadelphia Inquirer article on Pennings, from just a month before the infamous game, bears the headline, "Pennings is beginning to learn how to get mean for Shipley." It quotes his coach:
“I’m teaching him to be a villain,” Ervin said. “He’s been taught to be a well-rounded, wonderful person. If we teach him to be a villain, we’ll be doing him a service from a basketball standpoint.”
Turning Pennings into a tenacious, aggressive player might have worked out for the Shipley basketball team—they made it to the finals but lost to the Christian Academy Crusaders on a three-point buzzer-beater—though maybe not for Matthew Piltch, whose cranium was on the receiving end of a full-court brick.
At the end of the 1994-95 season, Pennings had the 25th-highest scoring average in Delaware County, totaling 405 points over the season and averaging 15 points a game. (In that same season, Lower Merion High School's Kobe Bryant scored 965 points and averaged 31.1 points a game.)
A few weeks after the game, Pennings showed up to school and started getting swarmed by middle schoolers. "They were so excited that I was on America's Funniest Home Videos, I was like, 'What the hell are they talking about?'" He went home and mentioned having a weird day at school to his mom. "I told her the story, and she goes, 'Oh my god, my secretary saw you as well.'" (If Pennings’s recollection is accurate, that would mean the video made it to AFV before he graduated from Shipley that spring, somewhere within episodes 15 to 22 of Season 6.)
Soon, the video made its way from AFV to the constellation of nascent, Web 1.0-era video-sharing sites. Pennings said he encountered it on Morpheus, a file-sharing service. And the footage has stuck around ever since, despite the fact that on AFV, "it never won anything, it never even got top three." It's since become a party-conversation go-to for him and his wife.
Pennings didn't know that he had hit the principal's son until I contacted him about it, nor did the Piltches know that a Shipley student had shot the ball. Both stars of the video had been telling opposite sides of the same funny anecdote for more than 25 years, unaware of who to thank for their respective brushes with fame.
“I didn't even know that was Steve Piltch's son. Maybe that was why he didn't like me," Pennings speculated, later adding, "He and I never really had a great relationship and I think that just made it more sour, potentially."
“Oh my god! That is incredible!” Matthew Piltch reacted when I told him who took the shot. “I'm sure that he was mortified because my father was the head of the school. Wow… wow… that brings me a lot of joy, as you can tell.”
Sometimes, the footage shows up in more unexpected places. "I mention this story," Pennings said, recalling a job interview years ago, "and the guy says, 'Shut up!', turns his computer screen around, and turns on a screensaver—and there's the video."