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Holiday reading list: CHD talks to the co-author of a new book about Utah legend Billy McGill

With the holiday season in full swing you might be in search of a book for the basketball fan on your shopping list.  We recommend that you check out a new book called Billy “the Hill” and the Jump Hook: The Autobiography of a Forgotten Basketball Legend.  The book is about Billy McGill, who invented the jump hook as a teenager in the 1950s while trying to get his shot off against the legendary Wilt Chamberlain.  After being named a high school All-American at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, he was the leading scorer in the nation as a senior at Utah before becoming the first pick in the 1962 NBA draft.  A terrible knee injury cut short his pro career, and after retiring he ended up homeless before eventually getting back on his feet and turning his life around.  If more pro basketball players learned from Billy’s mistakes, maybe we could stop reading article after article about guys who made millions before losing it all (Allen Iverson, Antoine Walker, etc.).  Jon Teitel got to sit down with co-author Eric Brach to discover how the book came about and what Billy’s long-term legacy will be.

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Billy’s nickname is “The Hill”, who gave him the nickname, and how does he like it? He got the nickname from Los Angeles newspaper columnist Brad Pye, Jr. He loves the nickname and was originally going to call the book “From the Hill to the Valley”. People still recognize him here in LA and call him “The Hill”.

How did the book come to fruition? Billy wanted to write his life story in the mid-80s about what happens when you walk away from the game. It basically languished in his closet for decades. I got an email one day from someone at USC (where I was getting my masters’ degree) about a basketball player who wanted help with a book. Billy previously paid $300 to a scam artist who agreed to help but the guy only ended up adding and deleting a few commas. I read the book and thought it was raw but contained a lot of nuggets that could make an interesting book. I met Billy and his wife three years ago and we sat down in his living room and all agreed to work on it.

He never had a true father figure in his life: what impact did that have on him either on or off the court? He recognizes the huge impact that had on him, both in the past and even still today. His surrogate dad was Mr. Ward, the local YMCA director who ended up teaching him how to play basketball. After his horrific knee injury he wished that he had someone who could help him prepare better for what lay ahead, rather than just being told to “suck it up”.

In the late 1950s he pioneered the jump hook during a 3-on-3 game involving Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Guy Rodgers.  How did he create the shot, and what it made it so effective? He looks at it as a lucky moment brought on by the necessity of avoiding getting blocked by Wilt. It was basically unstoppable based on the angle and height of his release.  By the time someone tried to block the shot it was already 12 feet in the air. I got to watch a lot of his old footage from college: it was unbelievable. He had to deal with a lot of problems during his life, so the jump hook was the one thing he could control.

In the 1957 Los Angeles city playoffs he suffered a terrible injury to his left knee: how close did it come to ending his career, and what do you think would happen if he had suffered such an injury today? If the doctor had put in an iron kneecap (the best technology they had back then), it would have been the end of his playing days. I am not a medical expert but I assume that today there would be a better fix: just look at guys like Derrick Rose.

In the fall of 1958 he enrolled at Utah to play for Hall of Fame coach Jack Gardner, how hard was it for him to be the second African-American basketball player in school history? It was very hard for him. The one African-American player who came before him passed as a White man, so Billy was the one who was viewed as a pioneer. It must have been exceptionally frustrating: he has helped me understand what racial segregation was like in America in the 1950s.

In the 1961 Final 4 consolation game he had 34 points and 14 rebounds in a seven-point four-OT loss to St. Joe’s (led by 42 points/16 rebounds from Jack Egan), who later vacated the win due to a gambling scandal.  How exhausted was he after tying the record for the longest game in tourney history? The whole team was totally spent. It almost did not matter who won because all the starters had fouled out by the end! I got to talk to a lot of the players (many of whom are still alive) and they still speak fondly of Billy.

On February 24, 1962 he set a state record by scoring 60 points in a win at archrival BYU.  Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot he put up seemed to go in because he was “in the zone”? Yes, at least according to many press accounts of the game.

He finished the year by leading the nation in scoring with 38.8 points per game (the only center to ever score more than 33 points per game) and was named an All-American for the third straight year.  Where does he rank among the greatest college basketball players of all-time? I think he is a no-brainer for the college basketball Hall of Fame. There have only been seven players ever who got 2300 points and 1100 rebounds in only three years of varsity basketball (Oscar, Bird, etc.), which gives you an idea of how special a player he was.

The school retired his #12 jersey after his final game and soon after he stopped attending classes.  Where did the retirement ceremony rank among the highlights of his career, and did he regret not graduating? They are right at the top and bottom, respectively. Billy came and spoke at my school recently: he still regrets not getting his degree because it cost him job opportunities later in life. If you ask him about retiring his jersey, his eyes still well up about it. He had to pawn a lot of items as his life went downhill, but one thing he always kept was a special souvenir of his jersey.

After his senior year he was selected 1st overall by the Chicago Zephyrs in the NBA draft and signed for $17,000.  How close did he come to jumping to the ABL in order to double his salary? He considered it after getting asked, but he had spent his whole life dreaming about playing in the NBA.  When your dreams are granted to you at age 22 you do not really worry about looking at other options.

In the 1965 NBA Finals as a member of the Lakers he lost to the six-time defending champion Celtics in five games.  How did he feel about losing to his old friend Russell? He hated it, especially while sitting on the bench behind Gene Wiley.  Then again, I do not know if he would have even had a chance to score while playing alongside Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.

He retired in 1970 after playing with four NBA teams and four ABA teams and averaging more than 10 points per contest in each league.  How did he end up homeless, and how was he later able to turn his life around by finding a job and wife? Two of those ABA teams later became NBA teams, so he technically played for six NBA teams! Players back then had to work another job in the offseason because they were not paid that much to play basketball. Maybe he should have called Merrill Lynch, but a lot of players today still end up going broke. When he ran out of money the only place he could go to was the home of his mother and stepfather, but they did not really want him living there.

The NBA later invited him back to talk to rookies about how to avoid making the mistakes he did, what did he tell them, and do you think they listened? Shawn Bradley was probably the only one who actually listened due to his strong religious conviction, but Isaiah Rider certainly did not learn anything from Billy. Bradley is the kind of person who cares about the betterment of the world in which he lives, but most college stars today do not really care about that.

When people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most? I think he would like to be remembered first and foremost as the inventor of the jump hook, even though it is not a big part of anyone’s arsenal anymore. Hall of Famer Bob Pettit was the first player to score 20,000 PTS in the NBA, and he scored a lot of them after learning Billy’s jump hook. I think Billy’s memory may eventually fade away, but hopefully the book will rekindle interest in him.

For any readers who live in DC, Jon and Eric will be appearing together at a reading and book-signing on Monday, 12/16.  If you would like to attend, you can find further details at: www.facebook.com/events/605456752850981.

JonTeitel