billy "the hill" and the jump hook

Reviewed by Dennis Gildea, Springfield College

23 february 2014       archive

"Ain't taters high." That line came seeping out of the past as I read Billy "the Hill" and the Jump Hook, not because Billy McGill is, as the book's title suggests, "a forgotten basketball legend," but because the line in a peculiar way encapsulates McGill's basketball career and its sad aftermath.

The line comes from a decades-old issue of Sports Illustrated, and it appeared in the "Scorecard" segment that always ran near the beginning of the magazine and featured relatively brief takes on happenings in the sports world. This passage dealt with a college basketball recruiter who picks up a prospect for a three-hour drive to the recruiter's campus, a destination calculated to impress the young man enough so that he agrees to pledge his talents, if not his soul, to that university for the next four years. The prospect in this story, though, responded to nothing the coach said throughout the ride. The only thing he said, the coach told the magazine, was, "Ain't taters high." The report of the non-exchange was supposed to be funny. The butt of the joke was – the recruit; the recruiter; the university seeking the services of this player; or the readers of the passage who might have laughed at the attempt at humor. All of the above?

McGill, a product of inner-city Los Angeles, made no comments about "taters" on his recruiting trip to the University of Utah in 1958, but nevertheless, he and his chronicler Brach make it clear that McGill was as much out of his element in Salt Lake City as was the recruit in the "Scorecard" brief. The campus, McGill recalls, is "overwhelming and beautiful," tucked prettily against the bulk of the Wasatch Mountains. "Nothing I have seen on the streets of LA have prepared me for this. It's breathtaking" (84). So, too, was the recruiting pitch from coach Jack Gardner. Of course, this is Salt Lake City in 1958, a city, state, and even a state university dominated by the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. McGill, by his own reckoning, turned out to be one of two African-American students at Utah and certainly the only African-American who stood six-feet-eight.

Much of the story McGill and Brach tell is sadly predictable because we have heard it before: the inner-city teenage phenom who goes to college where he is exploited and celebrated for his basketball prowess while devoting little time to his studies. McGill never graduated. This interlude is followed by a so-so professional career, which is followed by a precipitous decline and eventual salvation. It is a story as old as American sports themselves, although in some cases there is no salvation.

The strength of the book lies in the chapters dealing with McGill's time at the University of Utah and his experiences with and reaction to the racism he encounters. On his first day in Salt Lake City he goes with a fellow athlete, a white man, to a diner where the waitress is reluctant to serve him and the sign over the restroom door reads, "No coloreds" (87). "No one told me of the sad and unfortunate racism that permeates the culture of beautiful Utah. Nobody told me [certainly not the coaches] how Mormon scripture specifically states that black people are descendants of evil … All I can do is keep my head down and wait for freshman practices to begin" (89-90). In Utah, McGill was an outsider in every sense of the word and in every place except the basketball court.

What drives much of his basketball recollection and serves as a peculiar frame of reference for McGill's life is the origin of "the jump hook." He was a high school star in Los Angeles when he found himself playing in a pickup game against Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Guy Rodgers. Russell picks McGill ("I'll take the high school phenom") for his team, and McGill is matched against Chamberlain (51). McGill had been working on his hook shot, which he released with his left foot planted. Against towering Wilt, though, that shot would be stuffed. "Chamberlain has turned into a beast before my eyes. He's chasing after raw meat, and my shot is the steak" (53). To elude the "beast's" outstretched arm, McGill jumps and then releases the hook shot. "The ball, as if lifted by angels, goes above the reach of Wilt the Stilt" (54). It goes in; the onlookers cheer wildly; Chamberlain is embarrassed; McGill's "jump hook" is born.

What was born also on that day on the playground court was McGill's obsession with comparing and ultimately contrasting himself with Chamberlain. And that comparison even includes sexual exploits. Except for the angel-lofted jump hook shot, Chamberlain typically comes out on top of all comparisons.

Billy "the Hill" and the Jump Hook succeeds because it offers an insight into big-time college and professional basketball in the late-50s and early-60s and the exploitation that some players suffered. A peculiar aspect of the book is the title's insistence that it is an autobiography. The narrative is unmistakably McGill's, but the language too often jerks a reader away from his tale and into Brach's telling of the tale. For example, when McGill suffers a serious knee injury, the emotional effect of the recovery is recounted in these words: "It takes all the willpower I have not to crack and break down over what has befallen me" (64). The wording sounds more Victorian than inner-city LA. The wording sounds more like Brach, a "lecturer in English at California Lutheran University," than Bill "the Hill."

McGill, Billy and Eric Brach. Billy "the Hill" and the Jump Hook: The Autobiography of a Forgotten Basketball Legend. Lincoln, NE.: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, 293 p., illus.; no notes. $29.95.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Gildea

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