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Rebound From Racism
At 69, he’s enjoying a comfortable semi-retirement, living in a tidy ranch house in a quiet part of Orange with his wife of 46 years, Ann. He’s got two children, five grandchildren and a basement full of trophies, plaques and mementos from a lot of good years in basketball.
And, sure, there’s always the possibility it could have been so much better — that he could have been one of the greatest players in NBA history were it not for some incalculable combination of jealousy, poor timing and skin color — but a man can’t stay hung up on could-have-beens.
“You can’t be angry forever,” Hill said. “The fire eventually burns out.”
His story, long forgotten in many corners of his sport, will soon be revived in a documentary by filmmaker Dan Klores called “Black Magic.” Hill is among a group of players from historically black colleges being profiled in the piece, which airs March 16 & 17 on ESPN after the NCAA basketball tournament selection show.
The film will use the term “blackball” to describe what happened to Hill and makes the case he was frozen out of the league by a vengeful and perhaps racist owner. Not everyone buys that version
“You’re going to hear some stories about Cleo that aren’t true,” said Marty Blake, the general manager who drafted Hill for the St. Louis Hawks. “A lot of it has been overblown.”
Hill doesn’t know quite what to think — he just knows something happened to him. Others, who know things about the racial environment of the early 1960s NBA, have less doubt.
“I consider him one of the tragic stories in pro basketball history,” said Ron Thomas, whose book, “They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers” includes a chapter on Hill. “The guy was a phenomenal player, and he never got a chance to show what he could do.”
He still managed to earn some acclaim through the years: He’s enshrined in several Halls of Fame; The Star-Ledger named him to its All-Century boys basketball team; and Winston-Salem State University voted him the best player in school history, ahead of legendary Knicks point guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
But, mostly, the proof of Hill’s greatness is confined to the testimonials of a few basketball lifers who saw him play. They talk about a 6-foot-1 guard who had all the shots — right- and left-handed hook shot, jump shot, set shot — and also possessed athletic ability that could have revolutionized the NBA had he been given the chance.
“Cleo was the greatest high school player I’ve ever seen,” said Al Attles, who starred at Weequahic while Hill was at South Side, then later coached the Golden State Warriors to an NBA championship. “In terms of overall basketball talent, he’s as good as there ever was.”
Billy Packer, the CBS Sports commentator, played for an all-white Wake Forest team when Hill was on the other side of town playing at all-black Winston-Salem State Teachers College.
“Cleo could do it all,” Packer said. “I don’t think there’s any question that if you took race out of the equation and took personality out of the equation, he would have been a major, major star in the NBA.”
The tale of why he never got the chance begins with an episode early in his rookie year, something Hill simply calls “the incident.”
After breaking the CIAA’s scoring record at Winston-Salem, Hill became the first player from a historically black college selected in the first round of the NBA Draft when the St. Louis Hawks took him with the eighth pick in 1961.
Hill’s rookie season hadn’t officially begun when the Hawks were in Lexington, Ky., for an exhibition game against the Celtics on Oct. 17, 1961. The team was staying at the Phoenix Hotel.
Around lunchtime, Hill said he got a knock on his door: Bill Russell and Sam Jones, two of the Celtics best players, said they had been denied service in the lounge downstairs. As a protest, they were sitting out the game — and urged the Hawks black players to join them. Hill went down to check it out, was also denied service, and agreed to the boycott.
In a league that was slowly integrating — 32 percent of the players were black, as opposed to 75 percent today — the incident became news. In Boston, the Celtics owner, Walter Brown, publicly supported his players, issuing an apology.
It played differently in St. Louis. Bob Burnes, a columnist for the staunchly conservative St. Louis Globe Democrat, wrote that the players should be fined and suspended. Ben Kerner, the Hawks owner, said nothing.
But three weeks later, Woody Sauldsberry and Si Green — the team’s only two black players besides Hill — were traded.
Hill’s only remaining ally was the coach, Paul Seymour, who announced Hill would be in the starting lineup.
That’s when the revolt began among the team’s vaunted Big Three. Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette — three veterans, all white — had guided the Hawks to two straight NBA Finals appearances, and each averaged above 20 points a game.
When Hill scored 26 in the regular season opener, Hill said the veterans began to freeze him out, no longer passing to him or refusing to rebound when he shot the ball.
“They never said anything to me,” Hill said. “But they knew there were getting paid for the points they scored. And here I was, taking their points.”
The coach issued an ultimatum on the team’s freeze-out: “Anybody who passes the rook up gets fined,” Seymour told the local papers. The veterans complained Hill shot too much and should have had to work his way into the starting lineup.
Push was coming to shove. And Kerner, the owner, felt he had to make a choice between the big three and the coach.
Seymour, the coach, was fired midway through the season.
Pettit, in his autobiography, called it “the most unfortunate incident of my professional career.”
“I made headlines around the country because it seemed that I, as a Southerner, was unable to get along with a Negro teammate,” Pettit wrote. “This hurt because I have never had anything but good relations with boys I played with or against.”
Through the years, other have argued race played a role. Hill isn’t one of them.
“It wasn’t racial,” Hill said. “It was points.”
Without Seymour to protect him, Hill’s play suffered. His average went from 10.8 points a game to 5.5 by the end of the season. In many games, he barely played at all. He even sat on the sidelines during practices.
Sauldsberry, Hill’s roommate earlier in the season, passed away last September, but spoke about Hill’s plight in the Klores film.
“They messed him up so much, he looked like he didn’t know how to play basketball,” Sauldsberry said. “He would get the ball and hesitate where he used to get it and make his move.
By the beginning of training camp the next year, the Hawks had a new coach, Harry Gallatin. But Blake said Hill did little to impress.
“Cleo Hill lost it somewhere,” Blake said. “I don’t know if it was because he was despondent or if he felt he wasn’t treated fairly. The fact is, he had his opportunities that second year. I don’t know what happened to him. He was just a shell of himself.”
After just a few practices, Hill was cut.
This is where the history gets fuzzy. As some tell the story, Kerner, the owner, put out the word Hill was a bad apple and no one should take him.
That story has never been verified by anyone who heard Kerner say the words. Hill just knows he got a phone call from Seymour, his old coach, telling him not to worry about being cut because at least two other teams wanted him.
“Then three weeks go by and I don’t hear anything,” Hill said. “Then I get a call from Seymour saying, ‘I’m sorry, Kerner is more powerful than I thought.’”
Hill never got another look from an NBA team. Years later, Seymour, who has since died, wrote Hill a letter.
“Occasionally, I get disgusted thinking what happened to you,” he wrote. “I believe you got white-balled.”
Blake, the general manager, denies there was any form of collusion to keep Hill out of the league.
“How do you blackball someone from the NBA?” Blake said. “People would take him if they thought he was good enough. They’d take an ax murderer if the guy could play.”
Thomas, the author, said one possibility is that in an era before players had agents, Hill had no way to shop his talents to other teams. At a time when scouting was mostly word-of-mouth — and games were not extensively filmed as they are now — a bad review from one owner could have a devastating effect.
Whether it was blackballing or not, Hill returned to Newark. Working two jobs — substitute teacher during the day, recreation teacher at night — and playing in the Eastern League on the weekends, he actually made more money than he did as an NBA rookie. He did his best to forget what happened.
Eventually, he turned to coaching, winning 489 games in 24 seasons at Essex County College. He said it took a long time before he could watch an NBA game without feeling like he had been slighted, but the feeling eventually passed.
“The one consolation I have,” Hill said, “is knowing that if I was merely mediocre, I would have been left alone. So I guess I must have been pretty good.”