March Madness recalls the feats of Bobby Joe Hill

With all the March Madness now commanding attention, and not excluding the tsunami of ignorance from the White House, it was surprising to see Jerry Harkness in the crowd in Atlanta when his alma mater, Loyola University of Chicago, defeated Kansas State to move on to NCAA basketball’s Final Four.

Loyola, the current “Cinderella Team,” hadn’t been to the Final Four since 1963, when Harkness, captain of the team and a native of Harlem, was one of the stars of that championship team.

In 1966, there was another “Cinderella-like” team—Texas Western. When the team, starting five Black players for the first time in a championship game, defeated the legendary Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky squad, it was such a remarkable event that Hollywood grabbed the story. “Glory Road” the movie was released in 2006, although it failed to capture the obstacles the players and the coach had to overcome to gain the victory.

Seeing Pat Riley, who played on that Kentucky team, in the audience reminded me of the stories I had heard in Detroit about Texas Western’s star and top scorer, Bobby Joe Hill. Tyrone Bobby Joe Hill was only 5-feet-10, but he was a skillful dribbler and a deadly shooter. Born June 12, 1943, he was a point guard who starred at Highland Park High School. The school was located in a small enclave within the borders of Detroit.

Watching films of the game (and you can see segments of the game on YouTube) is to witness Hill’s leadership and command on the court in that historic game. Almost from the game’s start he made his presence known, twice stealing the ball from the Kentucky guards and converted them into easy layups. That was typical of his style during his high school days and throughout the NCAA tournament. In the championship game, he was the high scorer with 20 points, although during interviews he never missed an opportunity to cite his teammates—Harry Flournoy, Willie Worsley, Nevil Shed and David Lattin. He also offered praise to the coach Don Haskins, who refused to buckle to the racist comments that often followed the team.

Hill often told reporters that he was sorry that the issue of race overshadowed what the team accomplished. “That whole year was about the team,” he said. “I didn’t look at any guys as Black or white.” The team’s record of 28-1 was led by Hill, who averaged 15 points a game.

Later when asked about the achievement, Haskins said, “I guess I really didn’t give much thought to it, and I didn’t give a lot of thought to it before we played Kentucky for the national championship. I just thought about beating them. I really didn’t know until after the game, and I got bushels full of hate mail, how important that game was. All I did was play my best people. It was that simple.”

For a very brief moment, Haskins was the coach at the University of Detroit, but that was more a flirtation than a marriage and soon he was back in El Paso. His ultimate destination, however, was the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Texas Western, now the University of Texas at El Paso, has not returned to such glory, but this team has left its mark on the history of the game. When the film about that momentous occasion came out, Hill had been dead four years (he died Dec. 8, 2002), so I am not sure of the extent to which he had a chance to see any of the early rushes from the film with Derek Luke portraying him.

After college, Hill remained in El Paso, later marrying his college sweetheart and retired as an executive with El Paso Natural Gas. Hill was 59 when he died of a heart attack, and the university flew its flags at half-mast to honor his memory. He was the first of the “fabulous five” to die and he’s buried at Restlawn Memorial Park in El Paso.