“With the first pick in the 1962 NBA Draft, the Chicago Zephyrs select, Bill McGill, center, from the University of Utah” and the crowd went wild! Confetti and the celebratory aroma of champagne stain the air as lifelong dreams and hundreds of hours in the gym are realized in mere seconds. The 6-foot 9-inch African American center who hailed from Los Angeles, California. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, McGill was once known as “one of the greatest of all time”. Spectators would gawk in awe as McGill would display his now world-renowned jump hook shot, that would both dazzle opponents as well as National Basketball League team owners. To many in society, receiving a free education due to an athletic scholarship and becoming an instant celebrity after being drafted to the NBA are accolades to truly celebrate over and one would assume that with his athletic frame, such accomplishments would come easily but, that was not the case. McGill faced many challenges both during and after his basketball career; these challenges included systemic racism, crippling depression as well as financial instability.
McGill would go on to have an outstanding career at the University of Utah basketball team. In his three-year stint with the team, He was able to become the school all-time leader in rebounding and second as the all-time scorer with 2,321 points according to Sports Reference. Most players today are not able to obtain that many points if they were to stay for the full four years at a university. McGill’s college stats are impressive but are much different than draft prospects of today as the rules to allow freshmen in college to enter into the draft has made it so that players don’t have 3 to 4-year college careers anymore. McGill was the first black player for the University as well as its first black All-American.
In 1962, Bill McGill was selected as one of the top players in the region and joined the U.S. basketball team to compete at the world basketball championship according to The Chronicle. His college career boasted stats that have not been matched to this day and was the reason as to why he was nominated into the region’s hall of fame. Hidden behind the fame, stats, and accomplishments on the court were what McGill described as pressure to live up to expectations while being ridiculed and stared at, as recorded on his biography “The Hill and the Jump Hook”. The burden of being the first African American player at The University of Utah and the racism and bigotry that followed was not able to derail McGill from highest scoring center in NCAA history.
Circumstances and values have changed and are vastly different now from what they were in the 1960s. Racism and discrimination towards people of color was as regular as going to church on Sunday mornings in Utah. Racism and discrimination did not make any exceptions, especially for the up and coming basketball superstar at The University of Utah. From his collegiate career on “The Hill” to his days in the NBA and ultimately to his days on the streets without a home, the life of the one they called “Bill the Hill” was something to be admired.
After his groundbreaking career at The University of Utah, Bill McGill was drafted first overall to the Chicago Zephyr’s but was halted for a moment by ongoing knee problems that occurred in both high school and college according to McGill’s bibliography. While in the NBA, McGill would find himself in the position that he was unfamiliar with; McGill bounced around from team to team in the NBA which caused the young man to begin to feel out of place. In a documentary of McGill’s life called “How Top NBA Draft Pick Ended Up Homeless” by BCC, he was quoted saying that he felt depression and anxiety due to the fact that he was unfamiliar with how to handle both the national fame as well as money management. These feelings of anxiety and depression, crippled McGill and ultimately led him to his next chapter of life.
That next chapter of life for McGill was unfortunately filled with drug abuse, alcohol, and homelessness. He blamed his off the court issues on several things but the two things that McGill noted that were the most impactful were: 1. Never finishing his degree while in college. 2. His inexperience with financial and real-world life after his NBA career according to LA Times. He was forced to live on the streets of his hometown Los Angeles and had to bathe in local laundromats and sleep at bus stops. Before his death in 2014, he encouraged young college athletes to both learn more about life after sports as well as pioneer the beginnings of research on athletes and depression.
Bill McGill was an accomplished athlete. The stats and all of the accolades are ones that can hardly be replicated nor beaten. All-American status, NBA #1 overall draft pick and instant celebrity are titles that are now associated with McGill. Unfortunately, titles such as homeless and “NBA bust” are also infused with his legacy. A promising career that never blossomed into what it could’ve been were replaced with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt as he walked the streets of his hometown as one without a home. He would not let this be the end of his story as McGill was able to find help and finish his life the only way he knew how, with a jump hook.
Paul Solomua Toala was a senior at the University of Utah. He was a member of the football team and majored in communication studies and minored in Spanish.
“McGill, Green on World Roster,” Daily Utah Chronicle, April 3, 1962.
“Billy McGill,” SportsReference.com.
“#40, Bill McGill,” NBA Stats.
“Utah basketball: Utes pioneer Bill McGill dies at 74,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 12, 2014, 1.
“Billy McGill has difficult time with life after basketball,” Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011.
Kenny Brown and Regan Morris, “Billy McGill: How top NBA draft pick ended up homeless,” BBC, January 16, 2014.
Billy McGill and Eric Brach, Billy “the Hill” And the Jump Hook: The Autobiography of a Forgotten Basketball Legend (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).
Speckman, Stephen. “A Book for Life,” Continuum, Spring 2014.