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When the Game Stops. . .

BILL PLASCHKE

Billy 'The Hill' McGill Took Utah to Great Heights in 1961, but His Fortunes Plummeted and Lack of a Degree Is to Blame

March 28, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

SAN ANTONIO — When the Utah basketball team takes the floor here tonight against North Carolina in its first Final Four appearance in 32 years, the most accomplished player in Ute history will not be there.

"It's just not a good time," Billy "The Hill" McGill said softly.

When Utah took the floor for its upset of Arizona last weekend at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim--right down the road from McGill's Los Angeles apartment--McGill also wasn't there.

"I couldn't really call the school for tickets because it was long distance," he said. "I thought, maybe they would let me through the door if I wore my Utah letter jacket. But I doubted it."

When the Utes return to Salt Lake City to finish the school year, win or lose, that's when McGill will show.

Well, not McGill himself, but his story.

Used not exactly to inspire, but to warn.

"Sometimes, Coach Majerus will even stop practice to tell us about Billy McGill," forward Alex Jensen said.

They are not stories about drugs, violence or gambling.

They are stories about pottery class, sculpture class and driver's education.

McGill is unable to follow firsthand a basketball program he made famous in the early 1960s because he is running out of money.

He is running out of money because he has not had a job for three years, when he was laid off by an aerospace firm.

He cannot get a job, he says, because he does not have his college degree.

Four years of stardom for Utah on the courts . . . yet only two years of fruitful study in the classroom.

The 6-foot-9 center was a two-time All-American, a first-round NBA draft pick, pioneer of the jump hook . . . yet his life now is defined by his inability to master classes in math and science.

From the bedroom of his Ladera Heights triplex, McGill will watch tonight's game, like millions of other average fans, on television.

But he might be the only one wanting to scream into the set about schoolwork.

"If I could tell these players anything, it would be that all this ends," he said. "It ends, and then what are you going to do?"

If you are McGill, you spend every morning studying the classified ads, every night wondering if anyone will take a chance on a man in his late 50s with little more than a high school education.

Even if he did once score 60 points against Brigham Young.

After agreeing to give a difficult interview for a story to be published about his situation, McGill had one question.

"This would be like sending out millions of resumes, right?" he said.

*

The story of Billy McGill apparently depends on your perspective.

Billy Packer, CBS announcer, heard his name mentioned along press row here Friday and piped up.

"Lemme tell you about Billy the Hill," Packer said. "Great post man. Gifted hook shooter. If he were playing today, he would be a premier lottery pick."

Chris Hill, Utah athletic director, heard his name and sighed.

"A tough story," he said.

Both men are right.

After starring at Los Angeles' Jefferson High, McGill went to Utah in 1959 as only the second African American basketball player in the school's history.

What he found there were warm embraces and all-too-familiar hopes.

His color was not an issue. Neither was his ability.

In three years of varsity ball--freshmen were still ineligible then--he racked up enough rebounds and field goals to lead the school in both departments.

No other Ute, not even Keith Van Horn, has scored more points in a game, 60, or grabbed more rebounds, 24.

Van Horn was the No. 2 overall pick in last year's NBA draft, McGill was an overall No. 3.

But Van Horn never led the Utes to the Final Four, which McGill did in 1961, where they lost twice. They were beaten by St. Joseph's of Philadelphia in four overtimes in one of the most exciting consolation games ever.

Although Ohio State's Jerry Lucas was voted the outstanding player of that Final Four, nobody scored more points in the tournament that year than McGill, who averaged 29.8 in four games.

Is it any wonder that he didn't pay much attention to school? Or that starry-eyed Utah officials didn't make him pay closer attention?

"By the time I got out, I was only thinking about the NBA," Hill said. "I thought, 'I will always just go back and finish up later.' "

He laughed. "Everybody always thinks that, but hardly anybody ever does. It's hard to go back. It's harder than you think."

Although McGill was a top pick of the Chicago Zephyrs--they're the Washington Wizards now--he never lived up to his reputation.

The jump hook, unstoppable in college, was easily rejected by the pros.

A knee injury he had been hiding from college trainers--he saw local doctors for draining--was exposed.

He bounced around for eight years with eight teams in two leagues--he had an eight-game stint with the Lakers--before bouncing back to his city home.

Because fewer than four of those seasons had been in the NBA, he didn't qualify for a pension.

He had to find a job. A buddy hooked him up at Hughes Aircraft, to work as a buyer. For someone with no degree, it was a lucky break.

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