Monday, February 22, 2010


Before there was MJ, there was Cleo Hill. Many consider him one of the all-time greats whose misfortune was to be black and born 20 years too soon. He played college basketball at Winston-Salem Teachers College from 1957-1961 for legendary coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines before ACC schools like North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest began recruiting black players. Playing at the predominantly girls school, the 6 foot 1 inch Hill averaged 27 points per game as a senior. Savvy basketball scouts considered Hill the best player in the country when he graduated from college. The St. Louis Hawks of the NBA drafted Hill with the 8th pick in the first round--the first African-American from a Historically Black College to be drafted in the first round.

At Winston-Salem, his impact was such that he was recently voted the best player in school history, even ahead of Hall of Famer Earl "the Pearl" Monroe who followed him in the late sixties and went on to star for the New York Knicks.

A little background here: Long time sports commentator Billy Packer, who played guard for nearby Wake Forest became friends with Hill in 1961. The naive Packer, a Pennsylvania native, decided one evening to cross the tracks to the poor side of town to watch a game between Winston-Salem and Tennessee State. He soon found he was the only white guy in the packed gym. Coach Gaines recognized him from a newspaper article and invited him to sit with him on the bench. It didn't take long for Packer to realize that the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) schools played better quality basketball (more speed and athleticism) than the so-called big time schools of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

Packer was later quoted as saying, "Cleo Hill was better than anybody in the ACC. There was nobody close to him. As a matter of fact, of the guys I've seen in this state, Cleo Hill was the forerunner of David Thompson and Michael Jordan. The whole league had guys like that. Out of that Cleo and I became buddies and we used to scrimmage against them." This came from a man who played on two consecutive ACC champions in 1961 and 1962. Packer organized numerous informal scrimmages between Wake Forest and Winston-Salem on Sunday mornings which were probably against the law at that time in the Jim Crow South. No coaches or referees were present at the unsupervised scrimmages, but they played top quality basketball and had fun doing so. The scrimmages were played at the Winston-Salem gym. At Wake, they would have caused an incident. For example, John McClendon, the Hall of Fame coach from nearby North Carolina Central sought to attend a game at Duke but was told he couldn't come into the arena unless he was dressed as a waiter!

Cleo Hill had all the shots--hook shots with either hand, a sweet jump shot, a two handed set shot, and spectacular athletic ability. His old playground buddy from Newark, NJ, Al Attles described Hill as the greatest high school player he had ever seen. Attles played college ball at North Carolina Central, another CIAA school and became a defensive star for the Philadelphia and Golden State Warriors. He later coached the Warriors to an NBA championship. Interestingly, the offensive high point in Attles' playing career came in a 1962 Warriors' 169-143 victory over the Knicks in which he sank 8 of 8 shots from the field and scored 19 points. Almost nothing was mentioned of Attles' performance in the next morning's news because he was overshadowed by teammate Wilt Chamberlain who scored 100 points in the same game.

In his first NBA game, Hill scored 26 points. But the NBA wasn't ready for a high-flying athlete like Hill with a 44 inch vertical leap, who could dunk from the free throw lane. His teammates on the Hawks, Bob Pettit, Clyde Lovelette and Cliff Hagan, Hall of Famers all, complained to the coach that Hill was shooting too much and wasn't passing the ball enough to them. They quickly caught on that if Hill scored a lot of points, they wouldn't score as many, and it would cost them money at contract time.

Coach Paul Seymour's mission was to win basketball games, and he wanted his best players on the floor. The previous season, the Hawks had made it to the NBA Finals where they lost to the Boston Celtics led by black superstar Bill Russell. If they were ever going to beat the Celtics, they needed more firepower.

There was more to it than that. The Hawks were scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Celtics in Lexington, Kentucky, and Russell was refused service in the hotel restaurant. He approached Hill and the other black players about boycotting the game. They did so. The Boston players were publicly supported by team owner, Walter Brown and had no problem with their fans. In St. Louis, a Southern city, it was a different story. the local press skewered Hill and the other two black players, Woody Sauldsberry and Si Green, demanding fines and suspensions. Hawks owner Ben Kerner said nothing, and shortly thereafter traded Sauldsberry and Green. He ordered Coach Seymour to bench Hill and instruct him to pass the ball more.

After Hill's first NBA game, the team's veteran stars essentially froze Hill out, refusing to pass him the ball and refusing to rebound his shots. They felt that the rookie, Hill, should have to work his way into the starting lineup. Coach Seymour called a team meeting and threatened to fine them. Kerner had a revolt on his hands, and it was easier to fire the coach than his star players.

The color blind Coach Seymour insisted on playing the rookie, Hill, who he felt was his best player. For foolishly trying to win rather than promote racial harmony, the coach got himself fired. The new coach, Harry Gallatin drastically reduced Hill's playing time and his scoring average dropped from double figures to 5 points per game as he spent more and more time on the pines.

The following season, 1962, Hill wasn't the same player. His intensity was gone, and the Hawks released him in the pre-season. In those days, players didn't have agents who could call upon the other teams seeking a place for their client. Although it was never proven, it appeared that the word was out that Hill was a trouble maker. Hill's former coach Seymour actually did contact several teams on Hill's behalf, but no team wanted him. "White-balled" was the word they used, according to Seymour.

Fortunately for Hill, he had earned a teaching degree and became a substitute teacher and went into coaching. He played in the Eastern League on weekends and made more money than he had as an NBA rookie. He became a successful basketball coach at Essex County College in Newark, NJ, winning 489 games in his 24 year career. He insists that he's no longer bitter about the St. Louis incident. "It wasn't racial, it was points," he said. He went on to say, "the one consolation I have is knowing that if I was merely mediocre, I would have been left alone. So I guess I must have been pretty good."

Cleo Hill is now 71 years old, living comfortably in New Jersey with his wife of 48 years and a house full of trophies and plaques commemorating his life in basketball. He has 2 grown children and 5 grandchildren. I'd like to say he has no regrets about what might have been. When one avenue in life is blocked off, you take a different route. Cleo Hill was successful in the game that really counts, the game of life.




Blogger friend said...


January 18, 2012 at 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Dr. Betty Nyangoni said...

In 1961/62 it was not against the law for whites to visit the campus at Winston-Salem State University (then known as Winston-Salem Teachers College)nor for African Americans to visit the campus at Wake Forest University. As a student at Winston-Salem, I visited the Wake Forest campus every Thursday, participating in a program sponsored by the United Methodist Church. At the time, there was one African enrolled in the University. He attended with no incident. At my 100% black home college, Winston-Salem Teachers College, we welcomed white students from Wake Forest, Salem College Germany and elsewhere,as visitors, speakers and peers. By the way, Cleo Hill was not only a great basketball player, but a kind, respectful and totally likeable student.

August 17, 2013 at 6:26 AM  
Blogger Mike376 said...

I've been an NBA fan since the middle 50s, and I found out about the Cleo Hill experience a few years ago. Although I lived in Phila., I used to follow St. Louis, because next to Wilt, Pettit was my favorite player. While I had other things occupying my attention at that time (first year in college), I am surprised that I did not hear about this situation.

I wish someone would provide information on how Hill did the immediate 10 games after the first one. While the Hawks'owner, Ben Kerner, was suspected of having racist views, he did draft Hill on their first pick, and had drafted other black players the previous year and had other back players on the team. I understand that Kerner was angered by Hill and hiis other black players refusing to play in that exhibition game.

Perhaps if the coach, Paul Seymour, was more sensitive to everyone's feelings, he could have made this work by bringing along Hill more gradually. But I would have wished Pettit, as the best player on the team and one of the 5 best in the league, would have exercised greater leadership. It is hard to imagine that a 6'1" guard could have bropught the Hawks a championship, but they essentially wasted Hill's talent, and Hill's career was loused up. I understand that Pettit has said the Cleo Hill situation was the worst experience in his 11-year pro career, but I have not seen any specifics by Pettit, or any other player or coach, about the experience.

February 9, 2015 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger Christopher T Fisher said...

Samuel Jones of North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central) was the eighth and final first round player selected in the 1957 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. By CHRISTOPHER T. FISHER (former NCCU SID) 6-5-2015

June 5, 2015 at 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Bill McGrady said...

I was privileged to have known Cleo Hill....I was director of the NJ Orange YMCA Cleo myself and other astute basketball men would meet Saturdays in the sauna and talk basketball and life for hours on in.
The most impressive thing about Cleo washius humility,the kindness man I ever know.

March 31, 2016 at 5:11 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home