Billy “The Hill” McGill was the University of Utah’s first college basketball player to be drafted as the No. 1 pick overall in the NBA draft, and the eighth African-American athlete taken No. 1 overall in NBA draft history. (Witucki) McGill was a phenom while at Utah (1959-1962), scorching the stat sheet and leading the Utes to a final four appearance. McGill’s time at Utah was glamorous as he topped national sports headlines and was widely known as one of the top college basketball players in the 1960s. After a short stint in the NBA, McGill left the league and soon found himself homeless. He would regret not getting his degree from the University of Utah up until he died in 2014. (Goon) Unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar to college athletes across the United States of America. (Welch) Especially when it comes to basketball and football players.
Billy “The Hill” McGill was a six-foot nine-inch center from Los Angeles, California. McGill was someone who showed lots of potential in high school and eventually decided to attend the University of Utah for his college athletics career. McGill was a standout for the Utes in his freshman and sophomore seasons but was still a talent with lots of potential yet to be uncovered. After flashes of bright spots throughout his first seasons at Utah, McGill burst onto the scene in 1961 showing the world that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Expectations were sky high heading into the 1961 season as Billy “The Hill” McGill was heading into his final year as a Ute. In January of 1961, The Daily Utah Chronicle reported that Head Coach Jack Gardner said Billy McGill was among the best in basketball. Gardner wasn’t the only person to take note though, as national news outlets and NBA teams were also noticing. Teams and fans were going to have their eyes on McGill during the season, not only for his dominating performances, but also for school records that people were excited for McGill to break.
The upper classmen took on the lower classmen in the University of Utah’s annual red vs white game in November of 1961. This may have been an exhibition game, but this is where fans were able to get their first glance at what McGill could become through the 1961 season. The Daily Utah Chronicle writer Joe Ribotto brought McGill’s 50-point effort to life as the Utes created opportunities for him to showcase his skill in the teams opening matchup. McGill also showcased his rebounding skills with 26 on the night.
Utah’s big man was just getting started. Throughout the 1961-1962 season, McGill would continue to have monumental games and inch his way closer to the University of Utah’s record books.
McGill’s most famous game as a Runnin’ Ute came when his team needed it most, scoring 60-points in an effort against in-state rival BYU. In February of 1962, The Daily Utah Chronicle writer Dave Smith described McGill’s performance as “blistering” as he scored 19-points in the final 12 minutes of play to lead the Utes to a 106-101 victory.
Astronomical scoring games seemed to come easily for McGill, especially in crucial games. In March 1962, The Daily Utah Chronicle writer Norm Sheya put an emphasis on the importance of McGill’s 50-point performance that solidified the Skyline Conference Championship for the University of Utah. He would lead the Utes in scoring during Utah’s 19 point victory over Wyoming. This conference championship would allow a spot for the Utes in postseason play.
In his final year at Utah, McGill not only broke records. He shattered them. In March 1962, The Daily Utah Chronicle writer Dave Smith expounded on the records that McGill set during his time at the University of Utah. This list included most field goals made, best field percentage, most total points, and most points per game average.
McGill would find his name at the top of many NBA teams wish lists towards the end of his senior season. When draft night finally rolled around, his name was the first one called. In May 1962, The Daily Utah Chronicle writer Ernie Witucki was among the first to report that McGill had been selected as the number one overall pick in the NBA draft by Chicago. The signing of the contract would bring a close to a career where McGill scored over 2,000 points as a Ute and held almost every basketball record in the Skyline Conference.
The top of the mountain had finally been reached, and McGill accomplished what he had originally set out to do. Becoming the top draft pick and starting an NBA career is what most athletes could only dream of. It had now become a reality for the kid from Los Angeles. Sometimes though, dreams don’t always turn out as planned.
McGill’s life in the NBA started off well, signing a two-year contract to play for Chicago. He would eventually be traded to the New York Knicks where he would make a few appearances before being traded to the St. Louis Hawks which eventually led to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Although McGill was once the top pick in the NBA Draft, he struggled to find a team that would sign him for more than a few seasons at a time. The ABA would come calling in his final two years as a pro before McGill decided to retire. In February 2011, The Los Angeles Times writer Jerry Crowe wrote a story on how McGill had really struggled since leaving the University of Utah for the NBA. He didn’t have a degree, and when the NBA didn’t go as planned, he became homeless and had a difficult time finding somewhere to land on his feet.
This is an all-too-familiar story to many college athletes who leave school early to take their shot at professional sports. In 1999, Welch Suggs of the Chronicle of Higher Education did a study on graduation rates of college athletes. Suggs found that men and women who played basketball and football had the lowest graduation rate of other collegiate sports. Something that the NCAA requires is for college athletes to take part in one season of collegiate athletics before entering the NBA draft. Unfortunately, this means that kids go to college without the mentality to graduate before moving on to professional athletics. Instead, they attend college and get by in order to enter the NBA draft as quickly as possible.
Billy McGill died in Salt Lake City in July 2014. He was 74 years old. The Salt Lake Tribune writer Kyle Goon paid tribute to McGill after the basketball star’s death by talking to his former teammates. One teammate, Jerry Pimm, described McGill as “one of the greatest players I’ve seen or been associated with.” McGill is survived by his wife, Gwen, and his grandson, Ryan Watkins.
The tragedy of Billy “The Hill” McGill shows the importance of getting a college degree before looking for professional work. It’s always important to have a backup plan in place for any profession, but especially if the route of professional sports is taken. Injury, performance issues, and failing expectations are among the many reasons why professional sports have a high chance of not working out. Before college athletes take off for greener pastures, they should consider getting their degrees so that just in case things don’t work out, a backup plan is in place.
Brayden Ramsay graduated from the University of Utah in December 2019 after majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism. He was on the sports desk at the Daily Utah Chronicle and plans to continue his education by earning a master’s degree in sports management.
“Jack Gardner: ‘McGill is Basketball’s Best.’” The Daily Utah Chronicle, January 26, 1961, 4.
Joe Ribotto, “McGill Tanks 50 Points As Utes Whip Frosh 150-126,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, November 28, 1961, 4.
Dave Smith, “McGill Scores Sixty for Conference Mark,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, February 26, 1962, 4.
Dave Smith, “Utah’s Record Smasher Faces Final Battle,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, March 2, 1962, 5.
Norm Sheya, “Utes, McGill Leave Skyline with Victory,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, March 5, 1962, 1.
Ernie Witucki, “It’s Settled — McGill Signs Chicago Packer Contract,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, May 15, 1962, 4.
Suggs, Welch. “Graduation Rates Hit Lowest Level in 7 Years for Athletes in Football and Basketball.” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 1999.
Crowe, Jerry. “Billy McGill Has Difficult Time With Life After Basketball,” Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011
Goon, Kyle. “Utah basketball: Utes pioneer Bill McGill dies at 74,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 12, 2014