The indomitable Cleo Hill passes

CIAA and Winston-Salem State basketball legend and icon Cleo Hill died Monday in Orange, N. J. after a short stay in a hospice facility. Hill was 77. Hill, a Newark, N. J. native, was one of the first true superstars in black college basketball following in the tradition of those who had gone before him like Sam Jones of North Carolina College (now N. C. Central) and Dick Barnett of Tennessee State.

Hill was a prolific scorer and all-around great playing for legendary coach, Clarence “Big House” Gaines at what was then known as Winston-Salem Teachers College or “TC” for short. He averaged 25.4 points per game during his career at WSSU totalling 2,488 points in his four seasons, then a school record later surpassed by Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. Hill dazzled CIAA fans with his array of hook shots, left-handed or right-handed, bank shots and with his extraordinary leaping ability. He was a two-time CIAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (1960 & 1961) while leading the Rams to back-to-back tourney titles.

And like Jones and Barnett, he was a first round NBA Draft pick going to the St. Louis Hawks with the eighth pick of 1961 NBA Draft (See STAT CORNER). He was only the fifth black college player to be selected in the first round when there were only eight teams in the league. “I could shoot from all over the court,” Hill told the makers of the documentary Black Magic about the roots of black college basketball. “Hook shots from the corners, either hand, jump shots, fast breaks, dribbling with both hands. It was all completely natural to me.”

Black Magic’s recovered clips of Hill’s Winston-Salem days prove him to be a spinning, scoring precursor to Monroe, who would rewrite Hill’s records at Winston-Salem. “It was an exciting time, because our team, and the CIAA in general, brought the fastbreak style of basketball. Before we knew it, we were playing before standing-room-only crowds. White people even started coming to the games,” said Hill. Unlike Jones and Barnett however, the 6-1 Hill played only one season in the NBA. Joining a team with established white stars in Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, and Clyde Lovellette doomed his chances.

“I went into camp thinking that I’d be another scoring option,” Hill says. “Our owner, Ben Kerner, ordered our coach, Paul Seymour, to have me pass the ball to the top three guys.” His coach continued to play him and was eventually fired with Pettit becoming the player/coach. Hill was benched. He averaged 10.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists in his lone NBA season.

“I went back to school, did my student teaching, and came back to camp ready to go. Three days in, our new coach, Harry Galatin, came over and said, ‘Hey, I hope you’re a good teacher.’” He returned to Newark, got a teaching job and played with a few teams in the Eastern League. Hill served as coach and athletic director at Essex County College for 25 years, compiling a 489-128 record and helping a lot of kids along the way.

His son, Cleo Hill Jr., who has been a head coach at Cheyney University and Shaw University, has been with his father since his contract at Shaw was not renewed in April. The younger Hill told the Winston-Salem Journal, “He touched a lot of lives when he was a coach and there was a steady stream of his former players coming to see him in the hospital over the last month or so. We’ve all been touched by the outpouring of support.”

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