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About Utah: Billy McGill — basketball king in Utah, but the rest of the story is a downer

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Billy McGill's autobiography, published by the University of Nebraska Press, was released in November.

Billy McGill’s autobiography, published by the University of Nebraska Press, was released in November.

University of Nebraska Press

SALT LAKE CITY — For any longtime fans of University of Utah athletic history who are thinking they’d like to read Billy McGill’s newly released autobiography, “Billy ‘the Hill’ and the Jump Hook,” I have a recommendation: don’t.

Some legends are better left alone. This one, for example. And I’ll tell you why.

It’s a sad story, and not sad like in a good blues-song sad, just sad — and made all the sadder because it’s McGill telling the story, in first person.

Actually, even that’s not entirely true. An English lecturer from California Lutheran University named Eric Brach is McGill’s co-author, and Brach liberally sprinkles words like “abattoir” and “inured” and “coda” and “Quotidian” and “apoplectic” throughout the text, making McGill sound like some English lecturer from California Lutheran University.

Sadder still.

The only part I knew about Billy McGill’s life was all triumph. I was 10 years old when he came to the University of Utah from Los Angeles in 1958 as a 19-year-old freshman. He was the first African-American to play basketball at the U., but I didn’t know that. All I knew is he was king of Utah basketball when basketball was king in Utah.

He was the first black person I remember ever consciously paying any attention to. His exploits indelibly shaped my favorable impression of African-Americans. I remember being surprised later on when I read in the paper about the University of Mississippi not allowing a young black man named James Meredith to enroll in their school. Why not? I wondered. African-Americans were cool. They were sure welcome at the U. of U. For me, it all went back to Billy McGill.

To this day, college basketball in Utah has not seen his equal. Not Jimmer, not Bogut, not Miller, not Ainge, not Chambers (Jerry or Tom), not Estes, not Ferrin. In McGill’s three seasons at Utah — freshmen didn’t play varsity back then — the Utes won 72 games and lost 14. They went to the Sweet 16 his sophomore year and the Final Four his junior year and were 23-3 his senior year in 1962 and might have won it all if a Ute player hadn’t accepted a plane ticket from a booster and gotten the school banned from the national tournament.

Fifty-one years later, McGill still holds most of the major scoring and rebounding records at Utah. His career average of 27.0 points per game has never been seriously challenged, and his 38.8 points per game as a senior isn’t just the best by a Ute, it’s the best by any center in NCAA history and topped by only two players ever (guards Frank Selvy and Pete Maravich, three times). He is one of only 21 players in NCAA Division I history to score 60 or more points in a game — by virtue of the 60 he dropped on BYU in 1962 in Provo. And how many players do you know who invented their own shot — in McGill’s case, the jump hook?

The Utes retired his No. 12 jersey almost before he played his last game, after which the NBA drafted him No. 1.

After that, well …

In a five-year pro career that can best be described as chaotic, McGill played for nine franchises — five in the NBA and four in the ABA. He was still a scoring force — he averaged a career 10.5 ppg in just 17 minutes per game — but his defense was equally offensive, made to look all the more porous in a nine-team league where two of the starting centers were named Russell and Chamberlain. Teams kept trading him or waiving him until at the age of 30 he was out of the game entirely.

It is one of life’s ironies that McGill thought he could find a second life in basketball when in 1971 the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association hired Ladell Andersen as its head coach, the same Ladell Andersen who had coached McGill when he was an assistant on Jack Gardner’s staff at Utah. McGill asked for a tryout, but Andersen declined, knowing McGill’s liability as a defensive center.

“He really was a sweet kid, I loved him,” said Ladell, who’s 84 now and retired, when I reached him at his home outside St. George. “We lived on his offense when he was at Utah but, yeah, defense wasn’t even part of his repertoire.”

Long sequel story short, McGill couldn’t handle life after basketball. At least not very well. He became a wandering drifter, homeless at 30, estranged from the world, unable to sustain relationships, helpless at finding work, living, barely, on unemployment checks and what he could panhandle.

He blames his demise, however self-induced, on a long litany of factors, including but not limited to an injured knee, inept doctors, racism in and out of basketball, clueless coaches, disagreeable teammates, the mean streets of L.A., lack of a father, an unkind stepfather — anything and everyone but him. His inability to play defense never comes up.

The homelessness, thankfully, doesn’t last forever. Eventually he finds work, a good wife, and a semblance of normalcy.

But the blaming and the bitterness is unending.

That’s the bulk of the book. After the meteoric rise the narrative is one lengthy lament.

Those years at the U. I remember as a kid, turns out that was as good as it got. It’s as if Billy “the Hill” McGill expected life to continue to be a full-ride after that, like college was. The truth is, everybody gets cut from the team, sooner or later. The man who could shoot a jump hook over Wilt Chamberlain never figured that part out.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com