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Basketball: A Love Story

Blackballing in the NBA kept Cleo Hill from becoming a star

In early 1960s, teams had limits on number of black players and how good they could be

Blacklisting of the African-American athlete isn’t a new phenomenon in sports, writes filmmaker and basketball historian Dan Klores.

The Peabody Award winner believes the NFL has blacklisted Colin Kaepernick — just as the NBA did to Cleo Hill, the great 6-foot-2 scorer from New Jersey, more than five decades ago.

Do I understand Colin Kaepernick and other black athletes? You bet. Do I support their freedom to kneel? You bet. Does it make me, a white man of 68, slightly uncomfortable? It did for a bit, but in a spiritual sense, yet I kneel with them too.

America is about freedom of choice, freedom to question, freedom to stand up for what one believes is fair, freedom to put my right hand over my heart, to make our statements, to learn and grow and reflect and change and talk. That’s what I was doing in 1972 (or might’ve been ’73) on a quiet afternoon in Madison Square during the playing of the national anthem before the first of a holiday tripleheader. A few years after I had gotten out of the Army, I was anti-war — the Vietnam War, to be specific. I was sitting behind the basket, protesting when a “Suit” spat on the back of my neck.

Is Colin Kaepernick the best quarterback in the world? No. But you’re not going to tell me he isn’t better than Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez or Eli Manning. (Yes, Giants fans — Eli Manning.) So if you don’t believe that a bunch of billionaire NFL owners haven’t conspired to keep this young, proud man from earning a living, then get a grip, ’cause you’re living in a delusion.

Kaepernick is on trial, but the jury he faces is bigger than 12, and from the commissioner on down they are hardly his peers. Yet what folks aren’t talking about is that the blacklisting of the African-American athlete isn’t a new phenomenon in sports; it’s as old as the quotas that defined all three major professional leagues and colleges from the previous century.

Not surprisingly, only football hasn’t progressed much in spite of the fact that athletes of color have electrified the sport since the days of Marion Motley, Jim Brown, Lenny Moore, et al. But football “owners” control their hired hand commissioner. Roger Goodell’s own father, a U.S. senator from New York, had the courage to stand up against the Vietnam War. These guys are a bunch of self-important egomaniacs.

Basketball, the sport of the underdog, has its own sordid history.

Throughout the first decade of the NBA, each team limited its roster to one or two black players. And until the advent of unstoppable forces of nature — Russell, Elgin, Oscar and Wilt in the late 1950s — those handful of other black players, no matter how gifted, were ordered to play in a regimented style.

For those who made noise and weren’t superstars, like Kaepernick, a special gift, a “blacklist,” would arise, and nowhere was this more egregious than the crimes committed against Cleo Hill, the great 6-foot-2 scorer out of Newark, New Jersey.

Hill was the most electrifying guard not named Oscar Robertson of his day. He graduated from Winston-Salem Teachers College, a historically black college, in 1961 and became the first player from a black school to be drafted in the first round by an NBA team, the St. Louis Hawks.

If you believe there is a thread from the gifted artists who played with flair and often above the rim that changed the nature of the sport as I do — from Elgin Baylor to Connie Hawkins to Earl Monroe to Dr. J to David Thompson, Michael, Kobe and LeBron — then Hill fits right in.

He wound up at “the black school” because the overwhelming majority of white colleges, referred to as “majority institutions” in the late 1950s and early ’60s, were alien to the African-American household. He flew and twisted around and above the rim, shot hook shots with both hands from the corners and jump shots from deep with both hands, and crossed over at will. He averaged 25.4 points per game for Clarence “Big House” Gaines. His performance led the St. Louis Hawks organization, far from a city and culture open to “difference,” to take the “chance” and grab him with their No. 1 selection.

St. Louis was late to desegregate. Its roster, the organization, the stands, the local hotels and restaurants were white.

A few years before, St. Louis drafted but traded another young black rookie, William Felton Russell. They weren’t quite comfortable breaking their “zero black” quota and shipped him to the Boston Celtics. The owner, Ben Kerner, like many of the early entrepreneurs in the league, loved the game but ruled with an iron, stubborn hand. During one early Celtics-Hawks championship series in the late ’50s, Boston coach Red Auerbach actually punched Kerner out on the floor before the game. Auerbach, at the urging of Boston star Bill Sharman, asked the refs to measure the rim, thinking it a little low. Sharman was right, Auerbach gloated; Kerner threatened him, Red belted him. True story.

St. Louis was late to desegregate. Its roster, the organization, the stands, the local hotels and restaurants were white.

In Russell’s first NBA game in St. Louis, he noted he was the “only black in the entire building.” The Hawks, who defeated Boston for the 1958 title, were a terrific team led by three Southerners: Bob Pettit out of LSU, the 6-5 rough-and-tumble offensive machine; Cliff Hagan out of Kentucky; and the 6-11 slow-but-opinionated center Clyde Lovellette, a Kansas All-American who was from rural Indiana.

The latter, according to a young rookie who split his time between active duty in the Army Reserve and with the team, Lenny Wilkens, “had some issues with blacks.” All three, however, loved the ball, loved to shoot, which posed a problem for them when, during the brief exhibition season, Hill lit up one opponent after another. The flamboyant rookie didn’t endear himself to his veteran teammates in other ways as well because he wasn’t shy or low-key. During pre- and post-practice games of HORSE he would “forget” to be quiet and humble in the face of their “greatness” and had the nerve to take the single dollar bills he was winning.

Soon, a few vets approached coach Paul Seymour, an ex-player and hardened competitor, and demanded Hill do what any freshman guard had to do, let alone a black youngster, and get them the ball — meaning shoot less, touch it less or sit.

Seymour, incredulous because he knew his team could win big with Hill said, “No way.” The vets, it remains unclear exactly which ones, then spoke to Kerner. He acquiesced, agreed and ordered Seymour to bench the rookie. When the coach refused, Seymour was fired, and Pettit, at 23, became the player-coach.

Hill knew the truth, but lost. There were no lawyers coming his way to sue the owners. There was “shame,” the stain of collusion by a bunch of powerful men.

Hill, scoring machine, sat for most of the year, lost his confidence, had few local friends and averaged 5.5 points. The Hawks faltered, finishing fourth in the Western Division. The next season, Hill was cut. Done. All NBA owners made certain that no team added him to a roster. There he was, the new Oscar, unemployed, blacklisted forever. The only explanation given to him was that he wasn’t good enough. Complete and total nonsense. A lie, designed to protect their closet view of the world and humiliate a youngster.

Hill played some in the Eastern League, but his spirit and heart were broken. Eventually, he returned to New Jersey, taught school and coached at Essex County Community College, where his teams won 455 games during his 25-year career.

I interviewed him about 12 years ago, when directing my film Black Magic, in the basement playroom of his modest home. He had a bunch of trophies and his story. His distress was obvious but reserved. He was robbed. A child in trauma.

Hill knew the truth, but lost. There were no lawyers coming his way to sue the owners. There was “shame,” the stain of collusion by a bunch of powerful men, basketball folks who closed the door on a winner. Basketball folks who should be ashamed.

Last year, 28 months after he died at the age of 77, Hill was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Five or six years after Hill left Winston-Salem, “Big House” found another gem out of a Northeastern city, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, from Philadelphia.

The old-timers rave about the Pearl, but House and others would smile, “You should have seen Cleo!”

True, we hardly saw enough of Cleo Hill — because he dared to be different, to stand for something. Like Colin Kaepernick, whom we all owe a hug.

Dan Klores is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker. His latest work, “Basketball: A Love Story,” is currently running on ESPN.