D espite recovering from an injury to his shooting thumb that required surgery, the difficulties of travel due to COVID-19 and myriad other factors in the life of an NBA player during the league’s most complicated season ever, George Hill made it to San Antonio. On Feb. 5, when Wilbert Drash was laid to rest in San Antonio, Hill made sure he stood with Wilbert’s wife Gloria to say a final goodbye.
This unlikely connection between Hill and the Drashes dates back to 2008, when a black city kid from Indianapolis arrived in San Antonio to begin his NBA career and stumbled into the lives of a white ranching family who lived and died by the Spurs. The couple took in a raw urbanite and made him their honorary eighth grandchild; even Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich referred to the Drashes as Hill’s grandparents.
For the three years Hill was in San Antonio, “Wil” and Gloria stood courtside at Spurs games, eagerly waiting for the 62-minute mark on the countdown clock during pregame warmups. That’s when Hill broke from his pregame routine and dashed over to give his second family a hug.
“When I was a rookie, it was pretty much my first time outside of the city that I grew up in,” said Hill. “This family took me in like I was theirs.”
The relationship was just what Hill needed at that time in his life.
A BEAUTIFUL CONNECTION
GEORGE HILL HAD never met either of his own grandfathers. In fact, they were so far out of the picture that neither of his parents had met them either. That missing generation of men, along with the street life that can engulf communities across this country, was the broken reality of what Hill saw around him during his formative years growing up in inner-city Indianapolis.
The most prominent elderly male figure Hill did have in his life was his great-grandfather, Gilbert Edison. Describing Edison as a handsome man who loved to dress, Hill recalls talking sports and listening to his great-grandfather’s childhood stories as they sat together. Hill bought Edison a new deck of playing cards every two days because after 48 hours of solitaire, the over-shuffled cards bent into an unusable “U” shape. They shared a beautiful connection, even with the age gap.
Despite the allures of fast money and street fame pulling his peers into orbit, Hill stayed on track thanks to mentors like Edison, an older cousin named Albert Germany and some of his basketball coaches. That focus on the sport he loved granted him access to compete against some of the country’s brightest up-and-coming talents throughout Hill’s career at Broad Ripple High School and along the AAU circuit.
Some of the most competitive action, however, came on quiet days with no fans in the stands. The likes of Zach Randolph, Josh McRoberts, the Zeller and Plumlee brothers, Eric Gordon, Jeff Teague, Gordon Hayward, Gary Harris, Courtney Lee, Rodney Carney, Robert Vaden, Mike Conley and Greg Oden all shuffled through Indianapolis pick-up games, forming a fiery crucible for any Hoosier teenager to battle.
“It was fun summers,” Hill said. “Before all the open runs you see in Los Angeles now, I think Indianapolis had some of the best open gyms in the summer.”
Yet while many of Hill’s standout rivals attended prep schools and were whisked away as the next anointed stars to come out of Indiana, Hill felt himself on the periphery of that circle. Even with shoeboxes full of letters from colleges angling to get him to be a part of their over-stuffed recruiting classes, Hill was never recruited by two of the major schools in his own backyard – Purdue University and Butler University.
One local coach, Joseph Price, did maintain a consistent presence in the early 2000s and kept his eye on Hill. Despite being nearly 40 minutes away, Price made the drive to watch the lithe, slinky point guard with a soft shooting touch go to battle against Indianapolis’ best.
“He just always came to my games and always told me that I’m going to be good,” recalled Hill, “if you just keep working.”
Toward the end of Hill’s high school days, Edison became sick and wound up in the hospital. Though Edison had the energy to try to leave his room on his own because the nurses wouldn’t give him one of his precious Snickers bars, Hill recognized that he likely didn’t have much time with his most cherished role model. Concurrently, Price had recently accepted a coaching job at a local college, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Hill’s heart was in Indianapolis, yearning to be close by to his family and ailing mentor. It all coalesced with the right words from Edison.
“My great-grandfather always told me, ‘You go where you’re wanted, not where you’re tolerated,’ ” Hill said. “I knew that (Price) had always been on me and I knew that he wanted to help coach me. So, I gave IUPUI a chance.”
Hill concluded his senior year at Broad Ripple by averaging 36.2 points per game, the fifth-highest single-season average in Indiana high school history. Though Edison passed away before getting the chance to see Hill play at IUPUI, his great-grandson rewarded his advice, kept his commitment and made the most of the experience at the little school that often stands in the shadow of other Indiana behemoths. Hill was named Summit League Player of the Year in 2008, when the Jaguars came within one game – a loss to Tulsa’s Oral Roberts University – from securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
CITY SLICKER GOES COUNTRY
JUST OVER A YEAR removed from its last NBA Championship win in 2007 and on the heels of a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs selected Hill with the 26th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. A self-described “little baby” compared to the rest of the veteran-laden Spurs roster, the city slicker Hill was suddenly thrust into the heart of the Lone Star State. He needed some guides to the new terrain and found them in Wil and Gloria Drash.
The Drashes invited Hill over for dinners, where he was instructed about life on a Texas ranch. Hill learned to ride dirt bikes, four-wheelers and go-carts. He was taught how to clean, take apart, load and shoot a gun, along with the finer points of not only hunting, but caring for animals. The experience and the introduction to a life so foreign from the one he left was mesmerizing.
“I always told myself after going there, if I’m blessed enough to have enough money that I wanted to own my own ranch,” said Hill.
Thanks to a 13-year NBA career, Hill has earned enough over time to buy his own 850-acre ranch in central Texas, where he cares for common American animals like white-tailed deer and horses but focuses primarily on tending to African safari animals like wildebeests, zebras and impalas, along with blackbuck and red lechwe antelopes. He enjoys fishing and hunting, but only hunts coyotes and wild hogs, which can be invasive and troublesome to his more exotic ranch guests.
“I just love to be outdoors,” said Hill. “I love to just be on the ranch and experience life.”
'STAND FOR HUMANITY'
HILL NEEDED THE RETREAT that his Texas ranch provided during the NBA’s two off-seasons in 2020. During the COVID-19-induced hiatus, the then-Milwaukee Bucks guard was hit hard by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He was one of the hundreds of NBA players who went into the bubble in Orlando with a focus on justice. When videos surfaced out of Kenosha, WI, of a unarmed black man named Jacob Blake being shot by police, Hill took a stand.
According to The Undefeated, Hill sat down with Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer and Milwaukee assistant coaches on the morning of Game 5 of Milwaukee and the Orlando Magic’s first-round playoff series, saying that he planned not to play that night. Recognizing the power of Hill’s leadership, the rest of his team followed suit, initiating an unprecedented conversation between players and the NBA Board of Governors to attempt to instantiate tangible change for racial equality in each NBA community.
“It was a very humbling experience. The bubble is not for me. It’s mentally not for me,” Hill said. “But I think what we did as a whole, as the NBA, really shocked the world. To stand for something, to stand for humanity, to stand for what this country is supposed to be about: freedom and love.”
“To stand for something, to stand for humanity, to stand for what this country is supposed to be about: freedom and love.”
“Treat everyone with the same respect that you want to be treated with,” Hill continued. “That's going to take a collective group of people to do it. There's not one individual that's going to change it. It's going to take multiple people getting out, learning who each other are and loving each other no matter what their political views or what their background is.”
A SPIRIT OF GOOD WILL
HILL MIGHT NOT have the unique perspective he does today if not for his relationship with the Drashes. Wilbert was born on a houseboat on the Atchafalaya River in Morgan City, LA, in 1946. He spent eight years in the Army National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War era before starting Eagle Drilling Company in San Antonio. He boiled crawfish and he grew a long, thick, white beard that crept up towards his rosy cheeks, making him a natural to dress up as Santa Claus around the holidays.
Any way you slice it, Drash couldn’t have been more different from Hill in terms of both demographics and experience.
Many communities around the United States are still segregated for historic and present-day reasons. So, like many Americans of all races, Hill grew up around people who mostly looked like him as he came up in Indianapolis’ predominantly Black Brightwood district. To create such a strong relationship with an older white couple who ranched in the sprawling back country of Texas, Hill had to live in their world and share his. The differences of race, socio-economic background and age vanished with a personal relationship and a spirit of good will.
“I genuinely think there’s a lot of good people out here, a lot of loving people, and sometimes I think it gets overshadowed by a lot of people that have hatred,” said Hill. “If we could start to teach people at a young age to love one another, no matter the color of their skin, their background, where they come from or what their financial status is, I think the world would be a better place.”
To get to where Hill wants society to go – to create a feeling of brotherhood and togetherness among people of all races – he’ll need to carry on the spirit of the Drashes.
It’s been a long road for Hill to find himself. It wouldn’t have been possible without Edison, Price and the Drashes. This upcoming offseason, when he sits on his Texas ranch, he’ll have plenty to think about – including how he can pay forward what he’s received and how to set an example of how people can cross divides as long as there’s love in their hearts.
“The things that I can continue to do are just walk through faith – by myself or with whoever wants to come along – but not change who I am,” Hill said. “And continue to respect everyone no matter the color of their skin or where they come from, and just to spread more love in the world.”