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

Published: Sunday, Jan. 5 2014 10:00 p.m. MST

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

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