SALT LAKE CITY — The knee that betrayed Billy McGill reminds him every day of what might have been. But Wednesday was about good things that happened to him, too.
The occasion was the Utah-Arizona basketball game, an event befitting the former University of Utah All-American. As part of the halftime ceremony, McGill was introduced as a new member of the Pac-12’s Hall of Honor. It’s an elite group: Sean Elliott, Gary Payton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Reggie Miller, to name a few. McGill is only Utah’s third, following Arnie Ferrin and Keith Van Horn.
So Billy the Hill was the center of attention, one more time. He walked gingerly to a spot a few feet from the baseline, as the video screen highlighted the silken jump-hooks that made him a No. 1 draft pick in 1962.
The crowd gave him a short standing ovation.
“In my case, I had that jump-hook,” McGill modestly noted. “I hit that thing pretty good.”
Good enough that one night he scored 60 points. Three other times he scored 50. But no story is complete without the addendum: he never did thrive in the pros, a victim of size, defensive deficiencies and a permanently damaged knee.
The mild-mannered Los Angeles native has struggled to find himself ever since.
Utah, too, has struggled in recent years. Last week it won just its second Pac-12 road game ever. But then the Utes followed with a blowout loss to UCLA. On Wednesday the road wasn’t a worry, but No. 4 Arizona was. The Wildcats opened a 12-point lead in the first half and hung on for a 67-63 overtime win. When McGill was playing, Arizona wasn’t a problem. The Utes met them once, in their first game of 1961-62, and won 71-62 in Tucson.
Since then, playing the Wildcats has been anything but a day in the sun for the Utes. They have lost eight straight since beating the Wildcats in the 1998 NCAA tournament.
All too often for the Utes, there just weren’t enough stars.
If there is one thing that has vexed them on the road this season, it’s that they haven’t had a true deliveryman down the stretch. Delon Wright has uncanny ability to slash to the basket. Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge have landed fine perimeter shots, late in games, making Utah a respected team for the first time in several years.
None is money in the bank.
Three Utah players scored in double figures on Wednesday, but none more than 13.
“In my day, basically, I guess I was kind of the man,” said McGill, who sat beneath one of the baskets in a folding chair. “It was kind of straightforward. But I don’t know. I think it’s kind of evaporated.”
McGill says there are players such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant who are clearly the best players on their teams, but the one-man shows are dying. (Even they have Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade for backup.) He credits at least some of that to the fact the talent level is so deep nowadays.
“There are so many players, and all the players now are really equal. There’s a LeBron or Durant, but other than that all the teams today, anybody could come up with the last shot or whatever,” McGill said.
It’s not like Utah has a terrible offense. It is 30th in the country in scoring. The aforementioned three Utes each average double figures. But which one takes the shot at the end is debatable. On Wednesday the Utes had their chances, both from the floor and at the free throw line.
When the Hill was around, there were no such questions. He averaged 38 points in 1961-62, almost as many as this year’s best three players combined.
Committee basketball has its merit, but who doesn’t want a superstar?
That’s been a Utah issue since Andrew Bogut left. Maybe next year it will be Loveridge or Wright. But for a school that produced Mike Newlin, Jerry Chambers, Ticky Burden and Keith Van Horn, it seems odd not to have one designated player shouldering the weight.
“That guy is slowly evaporating. (Teams are) trying to make some players the man and he’s really not the man,” McGill said.
McGill seems resigned to how the game has changed.
“There’s not just one option any more,” he said. “That’s just what I kind of see.”
I’m hoping he’s wrong about that.
What I’d like to see is someone who, with a few seconds on the clock, makes sure everyone — coaches, teammates, opponents and fans — knows who is getting the call. I want it pared down to a 1-on-1 game, or maybe even 1-on-5.
Then I want to see the next Billy McGill take it from there.
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