Dick Harmon: Late BYU star Gary Hill remembered for passion, friendship
Gone is the legendary Hall of Fame coach Stan Watts. Gone is his chief assistant and recruiter Pete Witbeck. And this past week the 1966 NIT championship BYU basketball team laid to rest for the first time, a player, one of their own, a star guard and forward, Gary Hill.
He died at age 67 in the month of March Madness just two weeks before his birthday.
“We’ve lost these coaches, but this is the first time we lost a player,” said one member of the famous team.
Hill’s passing signaled the solemn acknowledgement of his teammates' mortality. Once seemingly invincible, this past week these men, now in the twilight of their years, somberly witnessed one of their strongest laid to rest.
They once captured a lot of emotion and history with their 97-84 win over NYU that March in Madison Square Garden. They were a fast-breaking, high-scoring, high-flying squad comprised of some the greatest basketball players the school had ever fielded: Jim Eakins, Orville Fisher, Craig Raymond, Neil Roberts, Dick Nemelka, Jeff Congdon, Jim Jimas, Steve Kramer, Bill Ruffner, Randy Schouten, Ken James and Hill.
They won the NIT when it was a very big deal, center stage. They won the WAC three times. They never lost to their rival Utah. When they pushed the ball up the court, it was like trying to defend a tsunami on a beach.
Writing in Sports Illustrated of this BYU crew at the time, Bob Ottum said:
“The 12-man lineup is really two teams — one of them the intact freshman crew from last year that beat all comers in the mountain country while averaging 109 points a game. The first string is faster and better. Play in the six-team Western Athletic Conference has not started yet, but already Jack Gardner, coach of archrival Utah, says BYU will win the title. He does not mean it, but at least he says it. So much for first place. Who will come in second? 'Well,' says Gardner, 'I'll pick BYU's second team.'"
Neil Roberts and Hill arrived in Provo at the same time, the summer of 1964. Both Hill and Roberts came from small towns and became best friends and roommates. They spent their first summer on campus working on the Richards P.E. Building and Ernest L. Wilkinson Center. They practiced on the court through blisters and ankle sprains, and when it came time to hoist up the NIT trophy two years later, they were front and center, soaking it all in like they’d conquered the world.
By the end of their careers, the late Salt Lake Tribune sports writer Bill Coltrin labeled Roberts and Hill “The Gold Dust Twins.”
“Gary was a passionate, caring person, friendly to everyone and everyone liked him,” said Roberts, who now lives in Boise but owns the Player’s Sports Grill in St. George, where he coached basketball at Dixie College.
“Gary was very competitive on the court, a great scorer and he played his tail off,” said Roberts. “He expected the most out of himself and others around him.”
Nemelka, now retired after 40 years as an attorney, said he doesn’t know if he’s ever met a more pure shooter in college or professional basketball than Hill. “I did see pure shooters in the pros but Gary was certainly right there with them. A lot of guys have to work at it but he was a natural pure shooter, in my opinion.”
Nemelka remembers Hill as a person who was extremely competitive on the court but a man who could leave that fire on the court and be a regular guy in real life. “At his funeral, I was talking to a lot of his buddies and we all agreed he was very cool headed off the court. A lot of guys carry that competitive nature with them outside of athletics. Gary wasn’t like that. He was even-tempered and easy to be around and very easy to be a friend.”
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This is part one of a two part series on the late Gary Hill, a member of the 1966 NIT championship basketball team. In this installment, Harmon focused on Hill's collegiate career. In the next installment, Harmon will focus on Hill's high school basketball career.
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