It’s a small gesture but a big tribute that Coach Cleo Hill Jr. does before a Winston-Salem State game at the Gaines Center. Hill gives two pats to his heart and then points to his father’s retired jersey hanging on the wall.
“I do it pretty quickly,” Hill said. “He died about five years ago, but I do think a lot about how cool it would have been if I was coaching here when he was alive.”
It’s fitting that in February, which is Black History Month, the story of Hill’s father being blackballed from the NBA is told again.
Hill Sr., one of Coach Big House Gaines’ first superstars at WSSU, was so good back in his day that Billy Packer, who was then a student at Wake Forest, would later say that Hill was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. When Hill graduated from WSSU, he was the eighth pick in the first round of the NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks in 1961, the first HBCU player to be picked in the first round.
That’s where the story could have been written, where a 6-foot-1, 185 pound point guard would go on to have a stellar NBA career. But it never happened. According to accounts of that era, Hill was frozen out by white teammates because of his color, and by some accounts, was too flamboyant on the court.
Despite the backing from his Hawks coach, Paul Seymour, Hill didn’t get the playing time once the regular season started. When Seymour went to the Hawks’ owners to plead his case for Hill, it was Seymour who was fired.
"He wasn't treated fairly," Hill Jr. said earlier this week.
Taking the high road
“What I remember him telling me about that time was he thought it was easier to score in the NBA then it was in the CIAA,” Hill Jr. said. “With his moves and his ability to get to the basket he was ahead of his time, there’s no doubt about it.”
Hill helped Gaines win CIAA titles in 1960, in Greensboro, and in 1961, at the old War Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem. Hill left WSSU as the all-time leading scorer with 2,488 points, but Earl “The Pearl” Monroe came along a little later in the 1960s at WSSU and passed Hill. Monroe went on to NBA stardom and into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, while Hill did not.
The Hawks had made the NBA finals in the 1959-60 and 1960-61 seasons, losing both times to the Boston Celtics, before they drafted Hill. He did go back to the Hawks before the start of the 1962-63 season but was cut in training camp and never got another chance in the NBA. To his credit, Hill never mentioned race, at least publicly, as to why he hardly got off the bench in his one season in the NBA where he averaged 5.5 points per game.
Another twist to Hill’s saga was that he nearly was drafted by the New York Knicks, who had the 10th pick, which would have been the second round, according to Hill Jr.
“He never said anything like what could have been," Hill said, "but the only thing that sticks out in my mind was he talked about the eating arrangements and how he was denied a table to eat in different areas of the country because of his color. That kind of stuff went on during those times.”
Moving on from the NBA
What might be the better story about Hill Sr. was how he never let the treatment he received from that NBA experience define his life, according to Hill Jr.
“He didn’t say too much to me about that one season with the Hawks, but I heard others tell me plenty of stories and he didn’t have it easy on or off the court,” said Hill Jr., 53, who was born in September 1966. “He started coaching in 1972, and that’s where his love for the game continued in that capacity.”
Hill, who came to WSSU from Orange, N.J., settled back there with his wife, Ann. They met at WSSU, which back then was called Winston-Salem Teachers College, earned degrees and were married for 52 years before his death at age 77.
“To me, the best thing he did here at Winston-Salem State was meet Ann Gilmore, and they ended up getting married,” Hill said. Ann still lives in New Jersey in which Hill Jr. grew up.
After his short stay in the NBA, which had eight teams at the time, Hill played semi-pro basketball before he started teaching English and math in elementary school. He got back into the game as head coach of Essex Community College in Newark, N.J., in 1972, and he left his mark by amassing nearly 500 victories in 33 years at Essex.
When Hill died Aug. 10, 2015, it was his funeral at which his son realized the significance of his father’s impact.
“Those guys that he coached who came to the funeral kept me from losing it,” Hill said. “I really idolized his best players because when I was coming up I went to his games that he coached and if not for those guys and my Orange High School teammates being there for the funeral I never would have made it through. That was a tough day, but I’ve thought about it a little more and it’s amazing what his legacy was as a coach.”
Cleo Sr. was dunking in his 40s
There’s not a lot of film available of Hill’s play at WSSU or in the NBA. But what Hill Jr. remembers the most, when he was 11 in East Orange, N.J., was seeing his father’s "A" game.
“We had the backyard where kids in our neighborhood would come and play,” Hill said. “We didn’t have a big court back there but we always played and one day some older kids came to play and the older kids brought somebody, and he was a white guy. Well, this kid was supposed to be going to Seton Hall and my dad comes out and asks the older kids who was their best player. So they point to the guy who was going to Seton Hall.”
Hill Sr., who was in his late 40s, took the court in a T-shirt, shorts and wingtips, according to Hill Jr.
“So they start playing and the kid is making everything, so I’m kind of embarrassed and I’m sad for my dad because this kid is killing him," Hill Jr. said. "So I go inside and kind of watch from the kitchen window.”
Hill said that what happened next was unbelievable.
“So my dad asks the kid some questions, and the kid said he was all-state averaging 28 points a game,” Hill said. “And then one of my father’s friends, Jack DeFares (also a former WSSU star) comes over and starts watching and he tells Jack, ‘I’m tired, I need a break.’ So I’m still looking out the window, and then he takes his rest and they play again.”
And Hill's dad became a different player after the break.
“What I saw was his intensity was like Game 7 with the Knicks vs. the Bulls, and my dad was making all these shots, with hooks, and layups and jump shots and it was incredible,” Hill said. “Then he ties the game at 14-14 and he takes a jab step, head fake, then another jab step and another head fake, got the guy in the air, and then he drove around him and dunked it and broke my basketball goal down for the game-winner.”
That's when Hill figured out just how good his father was at basketball.
“So after that I went hunting for those scrapbooks and started reading more and more as I got older and I realized he could really play,” Hill said. “That scrapbook came to life in that game of one-on-one with a high school kid.”
A history lesson for all
Even though Hill has been at WSSU for two seasons as head coach, he says none of his players have asked him much about his father’s retired jersey. Hill suspects they know a little about his father’s history thanks to Google, but he’s not sure.
“There hasn’t been much conversation,” he said.
The Rams are relevant again in the CIAA and have a chance to win the Southern Division and are in first place with a game at Fayetteville State on Saturday.
What Hill hopes to do, as early as next year, is start work on a documentary about his father. It’s a tale about how his father came south for the first time in the late 1950s and wound up in Winston-Salem.
“The funny thing is when I was coaching at Shaw I had heard that my father nearly went there instead of Winston-Salem State,” Hill said. “And what I understand is he went to Shaw first and had a tryout and registered at Shaw for summer school. And he and Artie Johnson came down for a tryout and the coach said, 'I want to bring you in.' And my dad said, 'You have to bring Artie, too,' and their coach said 'no' so they came right to Winston-Salem State and they both ended up here in a package deal.”
Hill is hoping that the documentary will come together, but says it will focus more on his father’s life than his NBA days.
“This will be about his life as a husband, father, teacher and a coach,” Hill said. “My student-athletes who I coach now as well as NBA guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant need to know about his life and what he went through back then because it’s certainly a history lesson that needs to be out there.”
Billy Packer coming across town
When Packer, 79, a former CBS broadcaster who lives in Charlotte, starred for Wake Forest in the 1960s, he would read the Winston-Salem Journal and see a few paragraphs about Hill and WSSU.
“We would get like a half a page in the Journal about our team, and there would be three paragraphs on Winston-Salem State and what was going on over there,” Packer said. “So I kept seeing this guy named Cleo Hill in the write ups. So one day I had nothing to do, so I hitchhiked across town to Winston-Salem State to see Cleo play.”
Even though Packer was the only white person at Whitaker Gym on WSSU’s campus he didn’t feel out of place.
“I’m from up north (Wellsville, N.Y.) so it didn’t matter to me, I just wanted to see him play,” Packer said, “So I get in there and (Gaines) takes me aside and puts me near the bench so I can see the game and the first shot that I see comes from Cleo, and he tries a 35-foot set shot that was an air ball. After that, I was like ‘What am I doing here?’”
Hill then put on a show, and Packer became convinced Hill would have been the best player in the ACC at that time. Packer and Hill became friends, and Packer and some of his teammates went back to WSSU after the 1960 season to play Hill and some of his teammates in pickup games.
“It was unheard of during those days for blacks and whites to play together like that, but we had a blast,” said Packer, a star on the only Wake Forest team to make it to a Final Four in 1962. “And we did that a few times and Coach Gaines even came out to watch, but we always went over there to Winston-Salem State and they didn’t have anybody who could handle Lenny (Chappell) and we didn’t have anybody who could contain Cleo.”
Packer said it was unfortunate what happened to Hill once he got to the NBA.
“It’s funny but just a few years after Cleo was in Winston then Earl (Monroe) came along and the world was changing,” Packer said. “And you saw how good of an NBA career Monroe had, but I know that people who saw them both play are convinced that Cleo might have been a better player.”