Billy McGill: Over the Hill, In the Valley, and Rising Up Again, 1977

[What follows is a memorable story from Newsday’s Pete Alfano about Billy McGill. If the latter name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s understandable. McGill, a.k.a., Billy the Hill, faded from the basketball spotlight way back when.

But, in the late 1950s into the early 1960s, McGill was big news, first as an All-Everything prep in Los Angeles flashing the original “jump hook” and then at the University of Utah mixing in Wilt Chamberlain’s finger roll. While at the “U of U,” McGill was a consensus All-American and led the nation in scoring in 1962 with a 38.8 per game average. That included four 50-point outings that season.

McGill was a high NBA draft choice. But his pro career was filled with way too many lows. Alfano chronicles those highs and lows nicely here in this article that appeared in the Street & Smith’s 1977-78 Basketball Yearbook. No need to jump ahead of him. But, if McGill’s tragedy and triumph grab you, you’re in luck. One of the best basketball books of the last decade or so is McGill’s autobiography. It’s penned by Eric Brach in tandem with McGill. If you don’t own a copy, do yourself a favor and get own. The title is Billy “the Hill” and the Jump Hook.]  


He is a tall, thin man with a full Afro and a peaceful expression. He looks like a basketball player and, indeed, he once was. Bill (The Hill) McGill extended his right hand and introduced himself. The nickname is from another era. “Now and then I’m called ‘The Hill,’” he says, “but it’s mostly then.”

McGill was sitting on a chair in a hotel lobby in Inglewood, California, with his back facing the entrance. Still, he could not resist a peek when a bus pulls up and the Knicks stepped off after an afternoon workout here last season. It was a moment McGill had hoped to avoid, yet one he knew would be inevitable.

“I had a feeling all day at work,” he said in a soft, melancholy voice. “I knew that no matter what time I came here, the Knicks would all be pulling through. It was emotional because basketball has jerked so much out of me. I saw Red [Holzman]; he looked at me dead in the eye. I’m sure he recognized me. I’m sure he knew. But he didn’t say anything.

“I saw Walt [Frazier]. I know him, but he did not see me. It was a weird feeling. I did not want to go up and say hello. Where I am and where the Knicks are, it’s like from here to the moon.”

Once Bill McGill, who says he is 35, thought he had his slice of the moon, too. He was a three-time All-America at the University of Utah, and in his senior year, he led the nation in scoring with a 38.8-point average. “You know, I could shoot that ball like not too many could,” he said.

He was the No. 1 draft choice of Chicago in 1962 and signed a two-year, no-cut contract for $17,000 a year. Chicago had Walt Bellamy at center, however, and the 6-feet-9, 225-pound McGill sat on the bench. “I was stereotyped that first year, though,” he says. “They said I was a great shooter who could not rebound or play defense.”

All the expectations he had had as a collegian faded in the ensuing seasons. He was in the National Basketball Association for only three years. He played two more years in the American Basketball Association. The years were not consecutive either, as his career spanned eight seasons, ending in 1970 when he was released by Dallas of the ABA.

“I came home to Los Angeles with no money,” McGill said. “I got in touch with people like Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Sam Gilbert, and Willie Davis. I wasn’t asking for a dollar; I wanted a job. But there was nothing for two years.”

Davis, the former Dodger outfielder, owns a beer distributorship in Los Angeles. McGill, who had first made a reputation while playing junior high school and high school basketball in the area, thought he could do well as a sales representative. “Davis said there was nothing,” McGill said. He paused, as if he did not want to continue. “This is tough for me. I told him, ‘Willie, I’ll even clean out the bathroom.’”

McGill (right) flicks the original jump hook.

McGill’s mother and stepfather lived in Los Angeles, but he said he did not want to impose on them. He collected unemployment checks, amounting to $65 and $70 a week, as he recalls. Literally, for a while, he had no home.

“I slept where I could,” he said. “I slept in laundromats, vacant houses, anywhere. Late at night, I would be walking the street and see a pack of dogs. I was just like them. And was telling myself, ‘You’re Bill McGill.’” For a month, he was employed as a maintenance man in a large office building. He was grateful for the job and was making $84 a week working the night shift. Then he was fired.

“My supervisor,” McGill said, “wanted me to mop the lobby, and she said I was sweeping the mop the wrong way. I begged her to give me a chance, to learn the fundamentals like I would show her on a basketball court.

“You know, once, I was on my hands and knees scrubbing a floor on the fourth floor when the supervisor came up behind me with a security guard. The guard says, ‘Hey, I hear you’re a basketball player.’ God, here I am on my hands and knees, and he says that.”

McGill was back on the street. He called Walter Kennedy, then the NBA commissioner, asking whether he had any pension funds due him. He did not; he had not played long enough. “I called collect,” he said, “and I had to look around for a dime.

“I was very close to doing something wrong. I had all the excuses in the world to hit someone. I would hitchhike, and I would walk trying to find a job. I could have gone off the deep end. But I didn’t, and it must have been my upbringing. I grabbed for something deep that I did not know I had. I was being put to the ultimate test.”

McGill said he is shy, a loner who never had many friends. Brad Pye, Jr., a sportswriter for a Black newspaper in Los Angeles, was the one man he had confided in. Pye helped find him a job. “I work for Hughes Aircraft,” McGill said. “I work in an office, making calls trying to expedite parts and asking about delinquent purchases. I’ve been there since 1972.”

McGill said he earns $210 a week and most of that goes to a credit union which pays his bills. He takes home $45. He is married, and his wife also works for Hughes. He said she brings home about $130.

“Once I started working there, I tried to get back into society,” McGill said. “I met my wife at a dance. Her name is Gwen, and she is a fantastic woman. We have two boys, nine and 10, and I feel like they are my own. I don’t call them my stepsons.” The children are by his wife’s previous marriage.

They live in a two-bedroom apartment in Baldwin Hills. “They call it, ‘The Jungle,’ but it isn’t that bad,” McGill said. “My wife has done a nice job with it. The rent is $185 a month.” They have no telephone.

McGill has achieved a great deal, and yet, he knows it is only a beginning. He said he does not want to be complacent, to accept what he has now as payment enough for what he has been through. 

“I am working, and I have a beautiful family,” he said. “Nothing can be hard for me anymore. I learned that when you are all right in here [he pointed to his heart], and then obtain material things, it’s fine. I have no material things, but I’m all right in here. I can go to a store and buy food. But every man wants to better himself.”

As a teenager, Bill McGill was wondering what all the fuss was about. He began reading of his basketball exploits while in junior high school. Then, at Jefferson High School, the colleges began making their pitches.

“As a kid, my life was studies and basketball,” McGill said. “Basketball was a natural thing. I was shy, a humble person. I was a high school All-America, but I never knew how I looked to others. When I look back, I can see maybe if I was more aggressive and spoke out, things might have been different.”

He grew up in a Los Angeles ghetto and chose Utah because he wanted to get away. He said he was a good student, majoring in sociology. As a youth, basketball had helped keep him out of trouble.

Oh, there was one time when he and some friends hopped over a fence and stole some soda from a grocery store. They were caught by the police, and McGill—who was 14—was driven home. “I thought that was a major catastrophe,” he said. “I got whipped by my mother.”

He recalls his college years fondly, calling them “four beautiful years.” Then basketball began to dominate his life. He did not earn a degree; at the time, it did not seem necessary.

Professional basketball, however, can provide a traumatic awakening for a player who had dominated the game at the college level. In his rookie season with Chicago, McGill felt bitter and disappointed when he sat on the bench and averaged only 7.2 points in 61 games. 

Early in the 1963-64 season, McGill was traded to the Knicks for Paul Hogue and Gene Shue. Playing for coach Eddie Donovan, McGill had his best pro season. He averaged 16 points in 68 games as the starting center. He lived in the Bronx and drove to games. He was making $12,000.

But the following year, the Knicks drafted Willis Reed and Jim (Bad News) Barnes. McGill was sold to St. Louis for a second-round draft choice. 

During the 1964-65 season, St. Louis traded him to Los Angeles. He was home, but it did not matter. He was not getting an opportunity to play much. He had become a journeyman. And he was keeping a secret. 

“I hurt my left knee in high school,” McGill said. “And it was in a cast for a whole summer. But I didn’t have any operation. It would swell up, but I wore kneepads so no one could tell. And I would never say anything. It was insecurity.”

McGill thought he would be released if he told the various team doctors about his knee. So, on roadtrips, he would look in the directory for the name of a physician and make an appointment. The doctor would drain the knee, and McGill would pay him. The secret was well-kept.

“No one knew, not the coaches or players,” he said. “It still hurts from time to time. It seemed that on the nights when my knee was tight, that was when I would get a chance to play.”

McGill sat out the 1965-66 season and worked for a youth foundation. In 1967, the San Francisco Warriors signed him to a contract. He came to camp prepared, having lifted weights to add 25 pounds. He said he impressed Nate Thurmond, then the Warriors’ center. Rick Barry was there then, before his jumped to the ABA. However, it was the presence of Bud Olsen who spelled McGill’s demise. Olsen was the team’s top draft choice and a center.

“One day their owner, Franklin Mieuli, came to a scrimmage, and I was really doing well,” McGill said. “I turned and looked at Mieuli, and he’s bouncing Olsen’s kid on his knee. Nate told me when I got cut that it was a shame. And Bill Sharman, the coach, told me I should be making $100,000 in this league. That was the day he cut me.”

McGill played for Denver of the ABA during the 1968-69 season and averaged 12.8 points in 78 games. The following season, Denver signed Spencer Haywood, and McGill was on the move again. He played for Los Angeles and Dallas of the ABA the following season and also spent time in the camp of the Pittsburgh Condors. It was to no avail. He was earning $10,000 a season.

“I wish I could have come out of college in the last eight years,” McGill said. “On my credentials alone, I would have been paid $2 million.”

He is making his comeback now, and if he is not prosperous by other people’s standards, then he is a rich man in his own mind. Two weeks earlier, a friend at work gave him a number to call. It seemed that some television people were looking for tall men to play the part of basketball players in a beer commercial.

McGill got the part. Happy Hairston, formerly of the Lakers, and Marv Fleming, who played for the Green Bay Packers, are in the commercial, too. “I’m in the background,” McGill said. “But you can see me there. It will be showing in April.”

He will be paid for it, although he does not know how much. For McGill, it is a step in the right direction. There was a time when he did not know whether he ever would be pointed that way again. Hopefully, he won’t get lost again.

[At the end of 1977, the Newsday editors asked Pete Alfano to share with readers his most-memorable assignment of the year. Maybe covering the Super Bowl? Filing stories from he NBA playoffs? Nope, it was meeting Billy McGill. In this column, published on December 25, 1977, Alfano explains why his encounter with McGill touched him so deeply.]

It is unfortunate that some of the assignments that touch you the most or stick in your mind are those that deal with other people’s misfortune. But every time I tried to think of my most memorable moment of 1977, I kept coming back to Billy McGill.

I just spent two weeks covering the American Conference championship and the Super Bowl and another week with the Knicks who were on a West Coast trip. That meant dealing in Oakland with a team that had an armed guard patrolling its locker room. It meant being shepherded with hundreds of other reporters through Super Bowl week practices by the NFL, when few complained because they were being served two breakfasts a morning (the NFL was fattening us up for the kill), and it meant dealing with the tender psyches of Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo and Co.

There was the winner’s locker room and the gloom of the loser’s locker room, but there also was a “loser’s share.” Someone like Billy McGill always reminds you there is no loser’s share outside the locker room.

McGill is a one-time All-America basketball player who was drafted in the days before the multi-year, million-dollar contracts. He was the nation’s leading scorer in college, but Billy the Hill never was more than a marginal player as a professional. He played or had tryouts with 10 teams in two leagues. He was broke and lived in vacant buildings. He worked as a janitor and was fired for not using a mop the correct way. But he didn’t beg, borrow, or steal. He didn’t give up, and finally, he got a modest job working for Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles. After a credit union takes its share, Billy McGill brings home $45 to his wife and two boys.

I had arranged the interview over the telephone, and we met in a Los Angeles hotel lobby. While he was waiting for me, the Knicks returned from practice, and it was difficult for him to look at them. He talked to me as if we had been friends for years. He wanted his story told, not only because someone might remember him and have a better job to offer, but because it showed that not all athletes drive off into the sunset in a Rolls Royce.

Then this tall, thin man with the melancholy voice said goodbye, to send him a copy of the story, and drop in for dinner the next time I was in Los Angeles. The next night, the Knicks would sit downcast in their locker room, mourning too many turnovers against the Lakers.

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