Eric Brach is a lecturer in English at California Lutheran University and worked with Billy McGill on his book, Billy “the Hill” and the Jump Hook: The Autobiography of a Forgotten Basketball Legend (November 2013).
I met Billy McGill in the spring of 2010, just before completing my graduate education at the University of Southern California. In truth, I hadn’t heard of him or his story before then. I didn’t know that he had been the No. 1 pick in the 1962 NBA draft. I didn’t know that he’d been the first to integrate the basketball team at the University of Utah, nor that he had been such a star that the team retired his number before he’d even left the school, paving the way for athletes (and students!) of all races to find a place at that school. I didn’t know that Billy invented the jump hook, nor did I know anything of the struggles he’d had to face as a youth coming up in the pre–Civil Rights Act era.
I also didn’t know that Billy had been trying to find a way to tell his story since the New York Times published a piece on him back in the early 1980s. He had been trying to tell his tale for about as long as I had been in alive.
Of course, all of that came in time, as did so much more. Over the four years that I was lucky enough to get to know and work with Billy, I learned that he was a family man – that he loved his wife, Gwen, more than he could ever say, and that his children and grandchildren served as a source of constant joy and pride. I learned that he thought fondly of Utah, and that recollections of his days on the hardwood playing for his alma mater were among his most cherished memories. He treasured his teammates and he welcomed his fans. Generations of Ute faithful stepped forward to shake his hand, and fathers recounted to sons the tales of Billy’s exploits on the basketball court. These all offered him great pleasure.
Plato said that you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation, and that may be true – there’s no doubt that everyone who shared the floor with Billy during his playing days has a story to tell. I believe that the time I spent talking with Billy and helping him craft a manuscript from the recollections of his youth offered a clear view into the life and mind of a truly unique individual – one whose legacy lives on in game film, in sporting lore, in a beloved family, and, at last, in a book as well.
Billy McGill was a fighter. He worked hard. He spoke little, preferring to let his actions speak for him. No cenotaph can ever fully capture the life of an individual, but I hope that the book he completed will continue to delight his fans for a long, long time to come.