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Billy McGill has difficult time with life after basketball

CROWE'S NEST

Two-time L.A. City player of the year went into NBA without finishing college. He stumbled, then battled homelessness and regrets that haunt him still at age 71. His story holds lessons.

February 20, 2011|Jerry Crowe
  • Bill McGill, the former Jefferson High star and three-time All-American at Utah, at his Los Angeles home.
Bill McGill, the former Jefferson High star and three-time All-American… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Billy "The Hill" McGill says his nearly completed memoir, "From the Hill to the Valley," was not written as a cautionary tale.

But the two-time L.A. City basketball player of the year from Jefferson High knows that's probably how it will be viewed.

It's the sad tale of a dream denied: a seemingly can't-miss NBA prospect that didn't make it and, having never conceived such a thing, is unprepared for what comes next.

Real life.

McGill, 71, says he still is paying the cost of not applying himself academically at Utah, where he led the nation in scoring and caught the eye of the Chicago Zephyrs, who made him the No. 1 pick in the 1962 NBA draft.

Eight years later, an unexpectedly fallow pro career behind him, the 6-foot-9 McGill was living on the streets in Los Angeles and lamenting his not having earned a college degree.

He's no longer homeless today, but he's still regretful.

He has been unemployed for nearly four years, his lack of a degree stifling his job search, he says, and his confidence and self-esteem reaching new lows almost daily.

"I blame myself for everything that's happened," he says softly during an interview in the Ladera Heights apartment where he and wife Gwendolyn have lived for 35 years. "I can't blame nobody else. But maybe somebody could have given me a little shove."

He sounds blue.

"I am," he says, head bowed and fingers nervously rubbing his temples. "I can't grab hold of nothing."

Job hunting at his age, McGill says, "You say you're looking for employment and they give you that twilight-zone look."

No one looked disapprovingly at McGill in the late 1950s, when he pioneered the jump hook, led Jefferson to two City championships and was celebrated far and wide as the best big man ever developed in a California high school.

Pete Newell, in the midst of his greatest coaching success, tried to get him into Cal, but McGill's grades were lacking.

At Utah in his junior year, McGill was described by Time magazine as "one of the basketball phenomena of the year — a 6-9, 215-pound giant who can nevertheless dribble with the slick speed of a sawed-off backcourt man and get off every shot in the book, ranging from arching hooks to driving layups."

As a senior, McGill averaged 38.8 points a game, a figure that has been topped by only three other players.

His coach, Jack Gardner, called him "the greatest offensive center in the history of college basketball."

Bill Sharman, later coach and general manager of the Lakers, remembered McGill as possessing "the most fantastic turnaround jump hook there ever was. Nobody could stop it."

Not long into his NBA career, however, McGill was already being projected as a pro basketball bust.

"In less than seven weeks," Sports Illustrated wrote of McGill in November 1962, "he had been transformed from a serene and storied college player … to a shaken skeleton who could hardly even get into a game with the team that drafted him."

It was said that McGill lacked the strength to play in the post against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell and wasn't quick enough to play forward on defense.

McGill blames a bum left knee, injured during his junior year at Jefferson and, he says, never fixed.

"I know within my heart, if it weren't for this," he says, motioning toward the offending joint, "I'd be living up there where Magic's living, or Kareem. Thirty-eight point eight, that's no fluke when you can average that many points."

Instead of a mansion on a hill, however, McGill was headed toward "oblivion," as he puts it.

After his rookie year, the Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and traded McGill to the New York Knicks. Two years later, after a last-chance eight-game stint with the Lakers, he was out of the NBA.

In 1970, he played his last pro game with the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Assn.

At 30, having never made more than his rookie salary of $17,000, he was broke and in debt.

He has been scrambling ever since.

His two years of sleeping in laundromats and at bus stops ended in 1972, when sports editor Brad Pye Jr. of the Los Angeles Sentinel, who first called him "Billy the Hill," found him a job in general procurement at Hughes Aircraft.

That lasted until 1995, when he was laid off.

A similar job in the aerospace industry lasted until 2007, when McGill says he was again laid off.

"If he'd lived his life 20 or 30 years later, he'd be a multimillionaire," says Eric Brach, an English professor at Cal Lutheran and co-author of McGill's memoir. "At the same time, he could have been born short and a bad dribbler and then he wouldn't have been there in the first place. …

"There's something we can learn from him on many levels."

The NBA thinks so too, occasionally calling on McGill to give a speech to rookies about finishing their education.

He does so with mixed feelings.

"It helps me because I get a few bucks," he says blankly, staring straight ahead. "But every time I get up on that podium to speak, I break down discussing my homelessness, what it means to not have a degree and looking for jobs.…

"It hurts."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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