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

Published: Monday, Jan. 6 2014 10:07 a.m. MST

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.

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