Not one to seek attention, Dave Hovan says he cringes when his students tell him he’s famous. The 31-year-old St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.) High School astronomy and AP physics teacher has been hearing that a lot this week after a video of him spinning a basketball on the end of a pen in class went viral.
“They’re excited,” Hovan told USA TODAY Sports of his students’ reaction to the video, which has more than 260,000 views as of this writing, almost all of them this week.
Hovan’s former student Russell Stokes shot the video last year, but it didn’t go viral until Bob’s Blitz posted it on Monday with the following description: “A cool teacher spins a basketball on top of a pencil while writing…” Brendan Shea, an English teacher at St. John’s College, alerted Hovan after he saw the video on Bleacher Report later that day. After that, the video was picked up by Yahoo! and Huffington Post among other sites. The Harlem Globetrotters even took notice, posting comments to the YouTube video in hopes of learning the identity of the anonymous teacher with the impressive skills.
Several St. John’s College students reached out to the Globetrotters to identify Hovan, and the Globetrotters responded by arranging for one of their players, Handles Franklin, to visit one of his classes on Thursday.
Hovan, who is in his sixth year teaching at St. John’s College and 10th year teaching overall, said he’s surprised at how fast the video went viral. He also said he wasn’t grading papers while spinning the ball, as some sites have purported, and the trick served an educational purpose.
“We had been talking about angular momentum and the formation of the solar system,” said Hovan, who has earned a pair of graduate degrees in education after studying physics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. “It’s something I’ve done every year. I’ve been able to do it since high school and when I got to teaching physics and astronomy, I knew it would amaze students.”
Hovan said his fascination with being able to spin a basketball dates back to kindergarten, when a high school kid performed the trick for his class. Hovan watched Pistol Pete Maravich videos and started carrying a basketball everywhere, practicing regularly. As a student at DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) High School, he watched English teacher and former Harvard basketball player Patrick Smith perform the trick on a pen.
Hovan’s above-average spinning skills weren’t enough for him to make DeMatha’s powerhouse varsity basketball team, which was coached by the legendary Morgan Wootten, but he said his obsession with the trick planted a seed for him to pursue a rewarding career teaching physics.
“I wanted to know what makes chemistry happen,” Hovan said. “My 11th grade AP chemistry teacher told me, ‘If you want to know what’s driving molecular changes, that’s physics.'”
And if you want to know how a physics teacher becomes a viral video sensation overnight? That’s just the magic of the Internet.