The Hill You’ll Never Get Over

Via Flickr - Courtesy H. Mike Miley and the Illinois Railway Museum

We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of an historic moment in the NBA, a moment that first made me aware of the game as a young boy. Some 30-odd years ago a school assignment, my first book report, led me to discover an unreal feat of scoring prowess from a legend (stay tuned to HP for a special report on this unmatched performance on Friday from Curtis Harris).

Some 30-odd years later another 50-year anniversary stirred similar feelings in my heart for the game of basketball.

To understand the scope of this moment you have to understand just how much the Utah Utes and BYU Cougars hate each other. The rivalry between these two schools is such that normally civilized people will stoop to attacking each other at a single mention of a recruit some years removed from even attending one or the other of these universities. It’s gotten so out of hand that each school’s athletic directors are trying to ween fans from their “Holy War.”

While the term “Holy War” is generally applied to only the football rivalry, don’t be fooled. The ugliness spans the spectrum, from any sport all the way to academics and alumni. These two groups genuinely hate each other, so much so that at a recent Sacramento Kings at Utah Jazz game this happened.  Y Fan will say they cheered because Jimmer was booed. U Fan will tell you they booed because Jimmer was cheered. An entire NBA arena was taken over by a  college rivalry spilling over nearly a year after it had all ended. Slow sports day? No problem. Just say “magic happens,” and it does — a tried and true way to fire up local interaction and reaction anytime ratings are low and reporting slow. These fanbases will leap at any opportunity to belittle their nemesis, and never forget an incident.

Except in the case of former Utah Ute Billy “The Hill” McGill. A week before Wilt dropped his 100-point bomb on the NBA, the soon-to-be number one pick in the NBA draft set a record of his own. Getting off the team bus on the BYU campus, heading into the gym for a rivalry game on February 24, 1962, averaging an NCAA-best 38 points-per-game, McGill, only the second ever African-American player for the Utes’ program, received extra motivation courtesy the Cougars.

“On the bus ride to Brigham Young, unfortunately I think I heard a kind of a word you don’t wanna hear right before I went into the gymnasium, and it was the “N” word. I kept thinking about that once we got into the locker room. [My teammates] knew about it, cause some of them heard it. I tried to push it out of my mind…but it gave me a little more incentive I think. It was like a 22-point incentive.”

Before punishing the Cougars with a 60-point retribution, as a junior in Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, McGill had been told he’d never play basketball again. Coming up in a predominantly Caucasian game at the time, he’d been told something that would “stick with him.”

“”A black player can’t be hurt. A black player don’t get hurt.’  The doctor, he told me I’d never play again…that was my junior year…[I] just destroyed my kneecap, and I never got it operated on. The doctor says “We can put an iron – iron, Tony – kneecap in. At least you’ll be able to walk halfway normal, but as far as basketball, you’re done.”

-Billy McGill with Tony Parks, 1320 KFAN

McGill, out of fear of folks finding out, folks that could keep him from the court, would rehab himself instead, never telling anyone until years later about his personal ordeal, in his own words, “loving the game of basketball so much” that he rehabilitated himself out of shear determination, dragging, crawling, and finally running around the football field and track at Thomas Jefferson High until he was able to play his beloved game again.

All through his college dominance no one would know that today McGill wouldn’t be able to enter an airport or an NBA arena without drawing the ire of a security guard with a wand had he chosen medical iron over hoop iron. McGill was a pioneer, a playground legend with a shot that would go on to make many men much more famous than he would be.

It all happened one beautiful summer day in 1955 at the Denker Playgrounds in the inner-city of Los Angeles. Back then, the royalty of the basketball world would regularly gather at Denker for spectacular summer romps. Everyone was there, and the play on this particular Saturday was dominated, as it often was in those days, by a young, spindly high school freshman from L.A.’s Thomas Jefferson High School named Billy McGill.

Holding court was never a problem for Billy, even as a ninth-grader, and people would flock to the dilapidated gym whenever he played. As the pickup games stretched on and the crowd swelled, three college stars of the day found their way to Denker and immediately claimed “winners” — Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Guy Rogers. The intensity ratcheted upwards as Russell strode onto the court, announcing to the assembled masses as he stroked his long jaw, “I’ll take the young guy on my team,” instantly recognizing the burgeoning talent of McGill.

-Bill Walton, Special to ESPN.com

That unstoppable skyhook would land McGill with the Chicago Zephyrs (now the Washington Wizards) as the number one pick in the 1962 NBA draft. With high hopes for his future, “Iron” Bill McGill would undertake his professional career, only to find himself stuck behind Walt Bellamy in a tweener’s no-man’s land.

His intended pro path wasn’t going as planned.

Quickly the word got out: “He’s a wonderful shot, but he kills you on defense.'” His critics drew up a catalog of horrors about McGill: he dribbled too high, he couldn’t get to the backboards for rebounds, he was easily faked out on defense, he looked cautiously for a spot on the floor from which he could loose his delicate, arching shots. This last fault was critical, for it gave the pros the half second needed to smother the shot before it ever got off.

-Circa November 26, 1962, SI Vault

Eight years, two leagues, and eight teams later McGill would find himself without a job or a degree, having completed only two years of academics at the U of U in his playing days, and no NBA pension since less than four of those pro-playing years had come in the league. Despite knowing so many people, McGill’s options were limited, so he was lucky to have a friend set him up with a job at Hughes Aircraft that he’d hold for 23 years until being laid off in 1995.

McGill would like a job with the NBA, but it seems the only time the league calls him is to give a speech to rookies about finishing their education.

“They have successful millionaires talk to them . . . then they have me,” he said.

He also would like a job passing along his basketball knowledge to younger players–a place like Utah would be perfect–but the Utes’ athletic director sighed again.

“With all the NCAA rules, you can’t really involve yourself much with boosters or former players unless you hire them,”[Chris] Hill said.

-Bill Plaschke, LA Times

And of course, you can’t hire a guy who has no degree, now can you? What would people say?!

So we’re left with a broke and broken pioneer, a legend full of colorful stories and history of the game who’s dying to tell you about. Upon hearing Billy McGill’s tales on KFAN with Tony Parks I immediately texted in, saying “I’ll buy that book! Where can we find find it?” That’s the sad last segment you’ll hear in the interview.

“There’s no copy. I’m going through the rigors…I’m beatin’ on doors, I’m tryin’ to get a publisher. I know that’s gonna be a big, big task, but God willing maybe some publisher out there will take a look at it. My thing is, as far as [the book] From the Hill to the Valley, I just want the people that I love…that I feel dedicated to, [to get an explanation] of what happened to me in the pros.”

-Billy McGill with Tony Parks, 1320 KFAN

Highlights of McGill’s jump hook and 60-point game

Last I’d heard, from Parks Monday afternoon, some interest had been expressed by a firm in publishing Billy’s story. I have no further details at this time, but will keep you updated as more information becomes available.

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Why did the Washington Wizards used to be called the Chicago Zephyrs?

As far as I can tell it was for an historic rail line run by a train called the California Zephyr, to McGill’s home state. The line began in Chicago, Illinois, ending in California. Remnants of the original line are still used for freight today.

The Washington Wizards were born the Chicago Packers in 1961-62, then the Chicago Zephyrs for the 1962-63 season before moving to Baltimore as the Bullets until 1972-73. The franchise played one year as the Capital Bullets in 1973-74 before becoming the Washington Bullets until 1996-97.

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Thanks to Mike Miley for the header photo. Check out his photostream on Flickr.

Seth Carstens