Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


December 16, 2013

Life After Inventing the Jump Hook

Billy "The Hill" McGill was once the first overall pick in the NBA draft, but it was downhill from there.

Alex Eidman

Recently, ESPN aired a documentary on Lenny Cooke, the former high-school basketball standout who was at one time considered a better prospect than LeBron James. The sports world is littered with stories of the "shoulda-beens". Whether it's Marcus Dupree or Earl "The Goat" Manigault, hypothesizing the career trajectories of fallen legends makes for captivating narratives.

Eric Brach
"Billy figured the only way to get his shot over Wilt Chamberlain was a jump hook. After that, it was a lot of hard work and practice."

Eric Brach

Billy "The Hill" McGill fits right in this category. McGill set the NCAA scoring record while becoming the first black player at the University of Utah. He was drafted first overall by the Chicago Zephyrs (now the Washington Wizards) in 1962. But a high-school knee injury that never healed doomed McGill's career, and he wound up out of the league and on the streets a decade later.

McGill's story might have been lost to history if not for Eric Brach. The Los Angeles- based writer and professor at Cal State-Dominguez Hills connected with McGill. Their new book Billy "the Hill" and the Jump Hook: The Autobiography of a Forgotten Basketball Legend, examines the life of a basketball phenom who battled racism, catastrophic injuries and homelessness, in rich anecdotal detail.

In this interview, conducted via phone and edited for clarity, Brach discusses working with McGill, the art of digging up someone else's memories, and the effects fame can have on racism.

Gelf Magazine: How did you come to work on this project?

Eric Brach: In the summer of 2010, I was finishing my Masters at USC and a friend let me know that there was a former pro basketball player who wanted me to help him tell his story. I met up with Billy, and he found me to be both a professional and someone who didn't seem like a crook—so we got started working on the book.
I found out that Billy had started writing this in the '80s. He shopped it to the LA Times, his local church community paper, and The Sentinel, with no success, so he threw what he had in a box. Every few years he'd dust it off and remind himself that he should try and get it out there—he just had no idea how.

Gelf Magazine: How was it working with Billy? Much of the book contains recollections from 50 plus years ago. Was it difficult to jog his memory?

Eric Brach: It was really interesting. The trust level was there from the start, so that helped a lot. I'd come over to Billy's house, and he'd tell me stories, and lots of times I'd ask him for more details. Sometimes he'd give them, other times he'd say, "That was 55 years ago, you think I remember every little thing that happened that day?'" When this happened I'd often ask him to focus on remembering a different detail—the smell of the gym, the color of the rug in the room, and sometimes unlocking these sense memories would spark his timeline.
The other thing I did was pore over old newspaper clippings from New York and Los Angeles and Utah. I watched hours of game tape on Billy. It was an exhaustive process. So when there were large gaps, I'd fill in the scene as best I could. Sometimes he'd read it and say, "Wow this is exactly how is happened!" and other times it would be "Damn this is so far off base!"

Gelf Magazine: What's your connection to basketball?

Eric Brach: I've always been a sports fan in general, but I'm a stat-head at heart. In fact, I went really deep analyzing Billy's advanced metrics, measuring his performance on the court, how efficient a scorer he was, things like that. I only later realized that things that I'm really into might not make a particularly interesting narrative.

Gelf Magazine: Billy invented the jump hook—how did that happen? What is the legacy of that shot?

Eric Brach: The jump hook was a total fluke. The summer before his junior year of high-school, Billy went out to play with a friend on a court in L.A. It just so happened that Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Guy Rodgers were already shooting around. Billy ended up playing three-on-three with them. At one point in the game he was far from the basket and had picked up his dribble. Wilt was waiting for him to shoot to swat it into San Diego. Billy figured the only way to possibly get it over him was a jump hook. So he tried it, and it went in! After that, it was a lot of hard work and practice.
Billy could shoot the jump hook from 18 or 20 feet—it was unbelievable. For his time and the players in his era, it had a huge impact on the game. He taught it to Bob Petit when they were teammates, and Petit scored his 20,000th point on one. Now some guys like Dwight Howard do it regularly, but the paint is a lot more congested now, and if you go out just a few feet farther it's a three pointer. In Billy's time there was no three-point line. He's super proud of it—I mean, he single-handedly invented that shot.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think with the medical interventions we have now Billy's career could have been saved?

Eric Brach: I think his career would have looked different if he had played today. Billy broke his knee cap in high school. The only thing the doctor recommended to him was a rustable iron knee cap. Wearing that would have meant the end of his athletic career, so Billy said no way. Medical advances were so primitive in Billy's time. Now you have guys like Derrick Rose suffering devastating injuries and coming back a year later.
It's sad because he was playing through immense amounts of pain after that. After his first NBA game with Chicago, his knee filled with fluid. The next day he went to the doctor and got 250 cc of fluid drained—that's like an entire cup. The doctor told him to lay off it for three weeks, but that couldn't happen—Billy wrapped up his knee, put on a brace and was back at practice the next day.
Trying to recuperate, Billy ended up doing severe nerve damage to his feet and back. He had the equivalent of those guys in the '20s who got jake leg.
These days, Billy has a lot of trouble walking. When he came to speak at my college he could barely make it from the parking lot to the room he was speaking in. The BBC is doing a documentary on Billy and the book, which is great, and they came to L.A. to shoot some scenes. They wanted b-roll so they took Billy to a local park and asked if he could dribble around, maybe do one of his patented jump hooks. He looked at the crew like they asked him to freeze nitrogen.

Gelf Magazine: Billy's fall was precipitous. He didn't just wash out of the league, he ended up on the streets for a while. How does he look back on his life?

Eric Brach: Billy always says the thing he regrets the most is not graduating from college. He was in his second semester of his senior year at Utah, and he said, "What the hell do I need college for? I'm going to the NBA!" Not getting his degree kept him from a lot of potential jobs after his basketball career ended.
I think he also wishes that he had a better support system. His father was a boxer that never made it and got abusive with him. His stepfather did not care for him and actually kicked him out of the house when the money ran out. When he was on the streets, he tried to reconnect with the people he knew in the basketball world, but he didn't have much luck. Although the way he did get back on his feet was through a sports connection—a columnist who had been following him since he was a kid helped him get a job with Hughes Aircraft, which he had for many years.
When you speak to him, you can immediately tell he's upset at the way things turned out. But at the same time he realizes that things could have been a lot worse. At one point when he was at Utah he was held at gunpoint in a dorm room. He had been sleeping around with the guy's girlfriend. He knows he probably could have been one of the greatest scorers of all-time, but also realizes he could have died.

Gelf Magazine: There are lots of stories about black players in Billy's day encountering pretty vitriolic racism. What was Billy's experience at Utah?

Eric Brach: I was surprised to hear Billy's stories from his time in college. He was living in two separate worlds. On the court—he was beloved—he was an unstoppable force and was a school hero. Off the court, he was treated like a pariah. Salt Lake City was even more conservative back then—I mean the official Mormon doctrine in those days was that blacks were descended from filthy people. Billy almost got kicked out for openly dating a white student.
The local diner wouldn't serve blacks, but Billy said that a waitress there made an exception for him because of his status as a basketball star. That shocked me.

Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to

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- Sports
- posted on May 11, 14

He is a very passionate person always, though still traumatized nhwung return to the basketball court wearing pain, .. which is a good result for respect

Article by Alex Eidman

Alex is a graduate of McGill University and a contributor to

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