SI Vault
William Barry Furlong
November 26, 1962
Utah's sensational Billy McGill moved into professional basketball this season with more expectations than any other rookie, but the hard pro play and the hard pro life have him sitting on the bench
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November 26, 1962

Not Mixin' Or Manglin'

Utah's sensational Billy McGill moved into professional basketball this season with more expectations than any other rookie, but the hard pro play and the hard pro life have him sitting on the bench

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During the night, the season's first snow had fallen. "And I don't have any antifreeze in the car," said Bill McGill. He worried the Austin Healey 3000 into a parking space near the Chicago Coliseum and eased his 6 feet 9 inches out of it like a beach chair unfolding. "This is a West Coast car," he said, touching the soft top and white body. He glanced down Wabash Avenue and its grotesquely gangling symbols of big-city life—the power lines, the telephone poles, the "L" tracks just to the west—and for a moment it looked as bleak as Bill's experiences in Chicago. "Sure wish I was back home in Los Angeles," he said softly.

At that moment, Billy McGill was going through a crisis of confidence. In less than seven weeks he had been transformed from a serene and storied college player—so highly regarded that he had been the first draft choice in the entire NBA—to a shaken skeleton who could hardly even get into a game with the team that drafted him, the Chicago Zephyrs. At the University of Utah last season he was widely considered as unstoppable as a glacier. He averaged 38.8 points per game and his one-season total of 1,009 points had been bettered in college by only two players—Frank Selvy (1,209) and Oscar Robertson (1.011). His college coach called him the "greatest offensive center in the history of college basketball." A rival coach who once assigned three men to guard McGill said, "We did great; we held him to 41 points." But since he joined the Zephyrs last September the appreciations of Bill McGill have taken on a new tone.

"He plays like he's a stranger to the game, like he's in a fog," says one front-office man with the Zephyrs. "He just doesn't seem to have the moves," says another. McGill was benched for the first three games of the season, finally played 12 minutes in a fourth and has spent most of the time since on the bench. "You wonder," he said cheerlessly, " 'Am I this bad?' You get to thinking, 'Maybe I am.' "

What happened to Bill McGill has happened before to youngsters taking the giant step upward in sports, whether in baseball or boxing, basketball or football. Only with McGill it happened harder and had been expected less. For three years he had been honored and acclaimed at Utah. Yet he never developed the vast reserves of ego, of arrogance, of happy conceit that sustain other men in their dark hours.

The first time that Utah Basketball Coach Jack Gardner snapped at him during a workout, McGill's performance collapsed. "Would it be better if I took you to one side after this, where the rest of them can't hear?" asked Gardner. McGill nodded, and thereafter Gardner approached McGill about his flaws most discreetly. Even as a senior, McGill was so self-conscious that the school's athletic department made it a policy of allowing photographs—other than action shots during games—to be taken at a time and place when nobody, not even his teammates, would be present. In college Bill's play—easy, graceful, filled with the �lan of vast success—hardly mirrored this dark torment of uncertainty within him. Today it does, and the sight is a hard one for those who saw McGill as a college player to believe or understand.

It was known all along that in the bone-rattling ballet that is professional basketball McGill could hardly play his old college position: center. At 207 pounds—the most he has ever weighed—he is much too light; at 6 feet 9 he is none too tall. Moreover, the Zephyrs had—in 235-pound, high-scoring Walt Bellamy—a center who moves through the congress of flying elbows like a tiger with a toothache.

What the Zephyrs needed was a forward who could pour in shots from the outside with drumbeat regularity. The Zephyrs thought that McGill would be the man. Their last-place finish in 1961-62 gave them the first draft choice, and McGill was it. "All summer," says Jack McMahon, the new, thorough and demanding Zephyr coach, "I prayed he'd be spectacular."

All summer McGill labored to answer McMahon's prayers. The most drastic change he faced was one of orientation. Throughout his career McGill played with his back to the basket. Now, as a forward, he had to learn to play while facing the basket. Where once he shot with an almost instinctive knowledge of where the basket was located behind him, now he had to fake, maneuver and drive while looking at the basket. He also had to develop the complex moves of a forward—the constant alertness of defense, the drive for the basket when he didn't have the ball (in contrast to the schoolboy custom of driving only when you have it), the pinpoint-accurate passing, the neat, clean economy of shooting. (In the Brobdingnagian world of pro basketball the apogee of the art is not the long, sweeping, picturesque hook shot of the college player—at which McGill was masterful—but the dunk shot snapped through the nets like a letter thrust into a mailbox.) He worked hard, as he always has at his game, even practicing for a while with the Lakers in Los Angeles. He felt loose and confident in these workouts. "I thought I was learning pretty well," he recalls. On September 10 he reported to the Zephyr training camp in Burlington, Wis. "Mentally, I was ready to go," says McGill. "I was eager."

McMahon watched, eager too, at first, then fearful as McGill let himself be pushed around, neither fighting for position nor rebounding. "In this league," says one of his teammates, "to play forward or the pivot, you've either got to be very strong to fight for the ball or, if you're not, you've got to be an exceptional jumper." In a lamentably short while it was apparent that McGill was neither strong nor a jumper.

Quickly the word got out: "He's a wonderful shot, but he kills you on defense." His critics drew up a catalog of horrors about McGill: he dribbled too high, he couldn't get to the backboards for rebounds, he was easily faked out on defense, he looked cautiously for a spot on the floor from which he could loose his delicate, arching shots. This last fault was critical, for it gave the pros the half second needed to smother the shot before it ever got off.

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