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"Before I knew it, Billy was bringing his boys from Wake Forest by every Sunday for a scrimmage," says Gaines. "No, there was never any fear in that little guard."
After leading the Rams to a 26-5 record and the CIAA tournament title in 1961, Cleo Hill became the No. 1 draft choice of the NBA St. Louis Hawks, owned by Ben Kerner, a bilious sort who chewed on paper his sycophants handed him as he watched Clyde Lovellette, Cliff Hagan and Bob Pettit, his three stars. Hagan and Pettit had led the Hawks to the 1957-58 NBA title. Four years later, Kerner wanted to keep his Big Three productive and win—in that order.
Marty Blake, now acknowledged as a swami when it comes to NBA talent, was then the Hawk business manager. "Cleo Hill was one of the greatest players I've ever drafted," he says. "I saw him jump center, at six-one, against a seven-footer from Tennessee State. He won the tap easily. He could jump and shoot any shot with either hand. He was ahead of his time. He came to us when we were slow and he wasn't. He'd be a sensation now."
"Oh, he was a sensation then," says Paul Seymour, the Hawk coach when Hill arrived. "The first day of practice, he caught Lovellette's hook shot in midair and came down with it. He was sort of naive, but a good kid, a super guy who should have been a great pro. Heck, he would have been a star if they hadn't fired me. That's the only sore spot I have with the NBA, what happened to Cleo Hill."
The Hawks were undergoing a transformation. Lenny Wilkens, the current coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, was a brilliant young guard then, but he was in the Army and available for spot duty only. St. Louis needed someone to play in his stead. Hill averaged over 18 points per game in the 1961 exhibition season, not even playing half of most games, laughing, scoring, blocking shots. The Big Three weren't laughing. Neither was Kerner. "He thought everyone would be pleased that he had such a wonderful game," says Seymour. Everyone wasn't. A guard, Al Ferrari, complained that the rook was taking shots from the old pros. Seymour took Hill under his wing. He and Hill would stay after the Hawks' practices and shoot two-handed set shots for hours on end. Seymour had a deadly set shot, and somehow Hill kept up with the older man. Seymour told Ferrari to come in early, as Hill needed to work on his defense against an old pro, one-on-one. Ferrari didn't get off a shot. Hill scored at will.
"A lot of them resented the way Seymour treated me," says Hill. "He was like a big brother to me. Once, this guy named Ed Conlin wanted to start some trouble and Paul came off the bench and started fighting him. The other players just looked and asked me if I was his son or something."
Hill had a no-cut contract that season with the Hawks. Gaines and some of the veteran players around the NBA persuaded him to stick it out. "Being able to play, and not playing, is one thing," says Hill. "Getting paid is another."
Hill went back to the Hawks' training camp the following season and faced competition from two guards, Charlie (Chico) Vaughn and John Barnhill. On the first day, Hill snuffed Vaughn's patented pin-with-the-off-arm hook shot, then scored on Barnhill at will. Vaughn and Barnhill later admitted that they were shocked when Hill was the first player released by new coach Harry Gallatin. "Harry told me I should go somewhere and teach the game to somebody," says Hill.
"Cleo just wasn't constructed," says Gaines, "to put up with hate."
All this was being played out behind a drawn curtain of history, but it was lifting. Just before Hill left Winston-Salem, a group of A&T students decided to protest the whites-only policies of the Greensboro lunch counters and ignited the sit-ins that became an integral part of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Williams, who was by now Winston-Salem's president, had gone to graduate school at Boston University with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Williams knew the storm was coming in the person of this gentle man. "Much racial conflict still hasn't been resolved," said Williams. "But back then...it was bitter conflict."