William Randolph (Sonny) Hill organized his first summer basketball league in 1960 for selfish reasons. Hill, at the time a flashy 5'9" guard in the old semipro Eastern Basketball League, wanted some high-caliber off-season competition. "I've always been an organizer," says the flamboyant Hill. "So I picked up the phone and got in touch with our guys." "Our guys" included Philadelphia pros Guy Rodgers, Ray Scott, Hal Lear and Wilt Chamberlain. A league of stars was born. Now, 31 years later, Hill's Charles Baker Memorial Basketball League is a Philadelphia institution.
Since 1968 the Baker pro league has had an equally top-notch amateur adjunct. The Sonny Hill Community Involvement League is a 47-team octopus of an organization that does more than just offer competition. With its tutoring programs and career-counseling department, the Sonny Hill youth loop boasts a college admission rate of 85% among its players.
And what players! Lionel Simmons of Sacramento and Jerome (Pooh) Richardson of the Minnesota Timberwolves both played up the ladder—junior high, high school and college—of Hill's summer program. So did L.A. Clipper guard Bo Kimble, the late Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers and even Tyrell Biggs, the heavyweight boxer. In just over two decades some 10,000 young people have filtered through the Hill Community system.
And it all began so that Hill could sharpen his own skills. Back in 1960, his four-team pro league debuted on the heat-seared concrete outside the Moylan Rec Center at 25th and Diamond streets in a tough North Philly neighborhood. In the mid-'60s, the league moved to the basement of the Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th and Oxford, and was formally named for the recently deceased Charles Baker. Baker, a fan but not a player, was Lear's uncle—everyone at the playgrounds knew him as Unc. As a city commissioner, Baker had had a lot of contacts and had been able to help Hill get the necessary permits for his fledgling league, and Hill memorialized Baker in turn.
The Baker League quickly established itself as the country's top off-season showcase for pro basketball talent, a standing it retained for years. " Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker, Hal Greer, Wali Jones, Jim Washington, Bill Melchionni, Clifford Ray, Willis Reed, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free, Joe Bryant—that was the Baker League," says Hill, 55, as he sits in his West Philadelphia "basketball office," a cozy, unassuming den decorated with trophies, yellowed newspaper clips and photos. "I can't even begin to name all the great players who've been in our league. Earl Monroe dropped out of an NBA tour of Japan just to come play. Of course, times have changed. The pro teams think their players will get hurt in these leagues—they see only dollars running around on the court—and it's harder for us these days. But players like Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley—these guys used to play just for the love of the game. Bill Bradley says that we saved his career."
Senator Bradley says exactly that. The former Princeton and New York Knick star remembers returning from England in 1967, upon completing his Rhodes Scholarship, and discovering that his basketball skills were badly rusted. "An abysmal failure" is how Bradley describes his rookie year in the NBA. The following summer he was working as a volunteer for the Urban League in Harlem when Hill called and invited him to come down for some Baker League competition. "I used to take the train to Philly," says Bradley. "We played in the basement of that church. I was still trying to play guard, and Sonny was very positive. He told me I could do it. That was an important summer for me in terms of restoring my confidence, getting back some of the skills I had lost, getting the chance to go against great players like Earl Monroe and Wali Jones, and, above all, making a good friend."
If the Baker League's fame rests upon its big-name players, Hill is just as proud of some less-renowned alumni. Mike Bantom, a former St. Joseph's star and pro journeyman with the Suns, Pacers and 76ers, now works in international marketing for the NBA. Calvin Dixon, George White, Kevin Boyle and Glenn Fine are all graduates of both Hill's system and Harvard. "That's got to tell you something about the character of what we do and about how we do it," says Hill. "You tell me what programs in the country have that kind of impact. None."
The central lesson of the Hill leagues is that basketball is a game, nothing more. Life's challenge isn't whether you can reverse-dunk, it's what you can do when your basketball days are over—whether they end at high school graduation or after a long NBA career. "We use basketball as a vehicle to reach young people," says Hill. "We're not really concerned about what kind of basketball player a person's going to be. We're concerned about what kind of human being he's going to be."
Hill, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, has practiced in his own life the work ethic he preaches to others. After graduating from Northeast High in 1955 he attended college for two years and then joined the Eastern League. In 1960 he took a job in the Lit Brothers warehouse in Philadelphia and shortly thereafter became a union organizer; he is still the elected secretary-treasurer for Warehouse Employees Teamsters Local 169. In 1964 he and his bride, Edith, moved into a modest West Philadelphia row house, where they live today. In 1969, when his 10-year career in the Eastern League was on the wane, Hill began moonlighting as radio analyst for the 76ers. From 1974 to '78 he was an NBA commentator for CBS television. Today, he hosts a weekly talk show on Philly's all-sports radio station, WIP-AM.
All this time, Hill has taken on various free-lance assignments as well. He is, for example, business manager for Richardson, the Timberwolves' point guard.