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Hoops Pioneer Sonny Hill: A Behind-The-Scenes Leader
PHILADELPHIA— His name is William Randolph Hill Jr., but most everyone knows him as Sonny.
He is a small, brown-skinned man whose eyes twinkle and beam as he talks in rapid-fire staccato. He is impeccably dressed in designer suits and Italian leather shoes as shimmering gold dangles from his wrist and adorns his manicured fingers.
Wherever he goes, the 67-year-old man greets people with a warm smile, a firm handshake and several minutes worth of stories.
Sonny Hill has tales to spin and, if you have the time, he’ll tell you all about Wilt Chamberlain, his longtime friend whom he calls the greatest basketball player to play the game.
He’ll describe for you the early days of the NBA and chronicle the rise of a game that has spawned a $2 billion industry.
“My involvement goes back to those who preceded me,” he said. “Then I had the opportunity and when I got my chance to move into another level, I reached back and pushed the guys today even farther ahead of me.”
Sonny Hill is what you might call a pioneer. He never played in the NBA, but his fingerprints can be found all over the game.
He never coached or managed in the league, but on most nights he walks around the Wachovia Center, where the Philadelphia 76ers play, as if he owns the place.
He’ll stroll into the visiting locker room and hold an audience of multimillionaire athletes who hang on his every word.
The last time the Sonics were in Philly, Hill sat and spoke with Ray Allen about stewardship and mentoring his teammates. He conversed with Rashard Lewis and Danny Fortson, who each took time out of their pregame routines to share a few words with Sonny.
“That’s Philly basketball right there,” said Seattle’s Ronald “Flip” Murray, who as a kid played in the summer-basketball league that Hill started 36 years ago. “You say Sonny Hill, you think of Philly street ball, summer leagues and all of that.
“Everybody that’s in the league right now from Philadelphia has played in his league. Everybody.”
The list includes Kobe Bryant, Rasheed Wallace, Cuttino Mobley, Alvin Williams, Eddie Griffin, Aaron McKie, Eddie Jones, Fortson, Allen and Murray.
“I got about 16 players in the NBA,” Hill said. “I don’t think any program can make that claim.”
Before the traveling spectacles of AAU basketball and the big-money infiltration of Nike and Adidas into basketball tournaments, there were Hill’s leagues for amateurs and professionals in the 1960s and ’70s.
In his book “Values of the Game,” former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley credits Hill for helping him develop into a Hall of Fame player.
“I was, to put it bluntly, a failure,” Bradley wrote. Twice a week, he commuted from New York to Philadelphia “to work on my game” in Hill’s Baker League for pros.
Those leagues, still the most popular summer destination for youngsters in the Tri-State area, are Sonny’s legacy, but his impact is much more profound.
He is a Sixers executive, radio host, broadcaster, counselor and mentor to thousands of young men.
Born and raised in the neighborhood at 16th and Dauphin streets, he is a Philadelphia landmark much like Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and cheesesteaks.
He ranks among Julius Erving, John Chaney, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Wali Jones, Ray “Chink” Scott, Hal Lear and Walt Hazzard as the city’s greatest basketball dignitaries.
“What Red Auerbach is to the Boston Celtics, Sonny Hill is to street ball in Philadelphia,” Fortson said. “People out here may not know who he is, but you go on the East Coast and everybody knows Sonny.”
He was one of a handful of African Americans providing radio commentary during that era, when blacks were barely tolerated on the court and restricted from participating in other aspects of the game.
Jack Ramsay, the former general manager of the 76ers, gave Hill his first job in the NBA as a color analyst for the 76ers in 1969. He moved on to CBS, where he provided commentary for the network for four years during the early ’70s.
Sonny is still in the broadcast business, hosting a Sunday show in Philadelphia for the past 18 years, but his real work these days is spending time in the streets and executive suites with the city’s young ballers and the visiting NBA players.
Nearly every conversation touches on the theme of giving back to the game and making it better for future generations.
“Sometimes I feel good about the league and sometimes I don’t feel good,” he said. “I always talk to them about reaching back. The baton is not passed on anymore and we’re left with people who don’t really understand the history because we haven’t passed it on.
“It’s easy to look at these kids and say they’re not doing a good job, but the reality is there’s a gap. There’s a gap in what they know and what they don’t know. The disarray is there because we haven’t passed the baton. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.”