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Fran Blinebury

A Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2008, Sonny Hill has carved out a hoops legacy in Philly.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Diminutive Hill makes big impact on game in Philadelphia

Posted Feb 23 2012 9:41AM

Back in the day, not long after the first meetings on the basketball court, they were just a couple of teenagers relaxing on a living room floor to pass summer days in West Philly, sipping lemonade, talking about girls, talking about music, talking about all the things that spill out of young boys' heads.

Wilt Chamberlain would grow into the 7-foot giant who would break all the records and establish an unmatched level of individual dominance in the NBA. Sonny Hill would never grow taller than 5-foot-9, yet through the years his influence on the game and on lives has been sizable.

After graduating from high school in 1955, Hill attended Central State (Ohio) University for two years, and then took his running, leaping, high-energy game to the old Eastern League for several seasons. An unspoken quota system for black athletes kept him from getting a chance to play with his buddy Chamberlain in the NBA. But it didn't stop Hill from playing and becoming a force in the game he loves.

In 1960, Hill started working in a department store warehouse in his native Philadelphia, soon after became a union organizer and eventually was elected secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 169, a post he held for 34 years. In that same year, Hill founded the Charles Baker Memorial Basketball League, now the oldest continuously operating professional summer league in the United States.

"It started out just as a way to organize off-season summer games for myself and a lot of the guys like Wilt, Guy Rodgers, Hal Lear and Ray Scott," Hill said. "We were always playing at different places all over town and everybody was always on the phone and scrambling. I thought we needed to get established."

The four-team league began playing outdoors on the concrete court of Moylan Rec Center on the mean streets of North Philly at 25th and Diamond later moved to the basement of Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th and Oxford. Over the years the league has grown and many of the biggest stars in the NBA -- Wilt, Rodgers, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe, Darryl Dawkins and World B. Free were regulars in the Baker League.

In 1968, the Sonny Hill Community Involvement League was born, an organization that not only includes roughly four dozen youth basketball teams, but also career-counseling and tutoring programs.

"During that summer of '68, gang warfare was a big problem all over the country," Hill said. "Kids were dying. Neighborhoods were being torn up. So I decided to put my name on a league that would get some of kids who would be in gangs to focus their efforts on basketball.

"I talked to people all over the city. We got truces established. If a kid was found crossing a rival gang's turf and he said he was going to play in the Sonny Hill League that got him a pass. At first it was a diversion for those kids. Now over the years we've grown into program that gets kids off the streets, gets them learning and gets them a chance to lead productive lives."

In more than four decades, the Sonny Hill League has touched literally tens of thousands of boys and girls in Philadelphia. Yet every time you peel away another layer of the onion, there is more to its founder, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008 as a recipient of the Manny Jackson Human Spirit Award.

Hill, 75, remains one of the staunchest defenders of the record and the reputation of his friend Wilt, who died in 1999.

"Let me just tell you that for all of those people through the years who have said Dippy -- and that's what we called him -- did all those great things and set all those records because he didn't have real competition, well, I'm here to tell you they couldn't be more wrong.

"I'm not even going to bother to defend an era that included some of the greatest players in NBA history and Dippy averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds in the 1961-62 season. I'm going to tell you outright that if he played today, he would be able to put up those numbers and some that are even better. Look at the way the rules of the game have changed. Look at how they've gotten rid of so much of the physical part of the game that used to be accepted as normal. If defenders couldn't put two hands and maybe a knee or two into Dip's back like they did then, nobody playing today could even think about stopping him.

"The greatest thing that ever happened to the NBA was David Stern. As commissioner, he has sold the league as entertainment -- and great entertainment -- all over the world, and that's a good thing. But in terms of the competition, don't insult Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell and Sam Jones and Guy Rodgers."

It is those kinds of strong opinions and his outgoing personality that enabled Hill to break another barrier when he became the first black national commentator on NBA games for CBS from 1972-77. He had started in broadcasting with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1969 and continues to host a weekly radio show on WIP-AM in Philadelphia that began in 1987.

Hill's goal is to educate as much as entertain on the radio. In a recent series of programs for Black History Month he has focused on white men who have made a difference in the black community. Two that he always admired were the late Red Auerbach and John Wooden.

"Earl Lloyd was the first black play for Red in the NBA with the Washington Capitals and Sam Jones was the first player from a black college ever drafted in the NBA's first round," he said. "That was all Red's doing. He was also the first to put a starting lineup of five blacks on the floor in the NBA -- Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders and Willie Naulls.

"Coach Wooden, who was like a father to me, told me that the greatest basketball team he ever saw was the black New York Renaissance and he taught me about a lot of those players. When he was coaching at Indiana State, before he went to UCLA, he had a team that had qualified for the national (NAIA) tournament. The team had one black starter and he was told that he would not be permitted to stay in the team hotel. So Coach Wooden chose to stay home and not play.

"When we talk about people who make a difference, I never want to overlook the fact that changes in history are not always made by just the under-class themselves. You need people to help."

Two teen-aged boys used to drink lemonade on hot summer days and swap dreams. Wilt Chamberlain quite literally became a giant in his sport. Sonny Hill has always found other ways to stand tall.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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