March Madness

During the late 1950s, Cleo Hill and Al Attles waged a friendly battle on Newark’s basketball courts. They had no idea they’d pioneer a new era in the NBA or play pivotal roles in Black Magic, a new ESPN documentary.

The late-winter chill may be easing, but basketball fanatics care only about a round-the-clock succession of televised games as colleges big and small compete for national championships. Coaches, players, and supporters live and die with every 40-minute passion play, knowing that each game could be the season’s last. Ask most of them about the greatest contests in history, and they’ll recount their team’s most lasting victory or devastating loss.

Virtually no one points to the college basketball game played more than 60 years ago in an empty YMCA in Durham, North Carolina. Or that it was played at 11 am on a Sunday, while everyone else was in church, to protect the identities and safety of the all-white Duke team and the all-black North Carolina Central squad. The players had never faced opponents who didn’t look like themselves. In the end, Duke got walloped. Neither the winners nor the losers were allowed to tell a soul.

A decade after that secret game in North Carolina, two Newark players, Al Attles of Weequahaic High School and Cleo Hill of Southside, made local headlines for their stellar play. But in those days black players weren’t scouted by colleges, they didn’t play in summer showcase camps run by sneaker conglomerates, and they never considered skipping college to join the National Basketball Association. Still, there was an outlet for good black basketball players from the northeast—attending schools in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a conference of historically black colleges and universities, most of which were situated between Maryland and Tennessee.

“My father went to Morgan State, but growing up in Newark, we only heard about local schools,” says Attles. “Back then, Seton Hall was our school. I wanted to play at St. John’s, but that didn’t work out. So I heard about an opportunity at North Carolina A&T. I didn’t consider the context of the situation. I had never been south of Philadelphia.” When Attles was a senior, a group of A&T students had staged the first sit-in, at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, to protest the store’s refusal to serve African-Americans. Their arrests triggered sit-ins throughout the south.

“It was a confusing time,” Attles says. “Athletes were told by student organizers not to participate in the sit-ins because they were afraid we wouldn’t be able to tolerate the physical and verbal abuse in a truly non-confrontational way.”

Nearly 50 years after witnessing the birth of America’s civil-rights movement, Attles and Hill are thoughtful, genteel men who have seen much and betray little anger at what they and their peers endured. They  figure prominently in Black Magic, a four-hour documentary that will air March 16 and 17 on ESPN, which partnered with co-producers Dan Klores and former New York Knicks guard Earl Monroe, a Winston-Salem State star in the mid-1960s. The all-sports network will show the first part of the film immediately after it covers the selection of the 65 teams that will compete for the 2008 NCAA Division I-A basketball championship—a part of Americana, if you can affix that quaint term to the yearly event worth roughly $1 billion in ad revenue, merchandise, illegal betting, and earnings of potential NBA stars.

The film traces the civil-rights movement through the experiences of players at the CIAA schools and through integration in college and the NBA. Offering perspective against the historical backdrop of America in an era of change, the film shows Attles and Hill taking two different paths to success.

“When I headed south, I changed my whole outlook,” Attles says. “I had been a lazy student. But I promised myself I would graduate in four years. I majored in physical education and history and made the honor roll. To this day, the trophy I am most proud of is the smallest in my house. As a senior, I had the highest GPA of all the school’s athletes, a 3.3. It’s what I worked the hardest for.”

Attles understands the urge for young players today to jump to the NBA quickly. “How do you tell LeBron James not to go pro right away?” he asks. “Those can’t-miss players get huge paydays and can study full-time when they retire. Michael Jordan and many other players got their degrees after they finished playing. But it’s the guys like me, the majority of good college players for whom there is no guarantee about a career, who need to be serious about their educations.”

While the odds against being drafted by the pros are astronomical, making the NBA was tougher in 1960. With only nine teams, and only ten players per squad, job opportunities were nearly nil. “I found out that I got drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors when I read the paper the day after the picks were made,” Attles says. “I had gotten a teaching job at Robert Treat Junior High in Newark. But I went to training camp. I figured I’d be there for a week, come back to school, and play in the old Eastern League on weekends­­—the money wasn’t great in the NBA back then—but the league was changing. With the 24-second clock, with Boston’s fast-breaking team dominating, teams needed to keep pace. No team had more than four black players, because some owners didn’t think white fans would appreciate the new game. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. With a black star in Wilt Chamberlain, we had the luxury of playing the new game and we had a supportive owner in Eddie Gottlieb. Of course, he wasn’t always so supportive, but he realized his mistake and allowed us to change with the times.”

Cleo Hill wasn’t so lucky. “I could shoot from all over the court,” Hill says. “Hook shots from the corners, either hand, jump shots, fast breaks, dribbling with both hands. It was all completely natural to me.” Black Magic’s recovered clips of Hill’s Winston-Salem days prove him to be a spinning, scoring precursor to Earl Monroe, who  would rewrite Hill’s records at Winston-Salem. “It was an exciting time, because our team, and the CIAA in general, brought the fastbreak style of basketball,” says Hill, who averaged more than 23 points a game during his career.” Before we knew it, we were playing before standing-room-only crowds. White people even started coming to the games. But it was still kind of a novelty.”

In 1961,  the St. Louis Hawks made Hill the eighth overall pick—the first CIAA player ever to be selected in the first round. He joined a team that had three stars—Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, and Clyde Lovellette—and had lost to the mid-dynasty Boston Celtics in the previous year’s finals. Hill thought he’d have a slot since point guard Lenny Wilkens had to take the year off to fulfill his military service.

“I went into camp thinking that I’d be another scoring option,” Hill says. “Our owner, Ben Kerner, ordered our coach, Paul Seymour, to have me pass the ball to the top three guys.” At first, the team didn’t like a rookie taking all the shots. “Early in the preseason, we were playing the Celtics in Lexington, Kentucky,  and I was denied entrance to the hotel restaurant,” Hill recalls. So Bill Russell, who had also been turned away, called a meeting and all the black players from both teams sat out. When we got back to St. Louis, the newspaper columnists wrote that I should be suspended and fined for insubordination.

“Over the course of the season, Coach Seymour told me to shoot more. That didn’t go over well. On the court, Kerner kept telling Coach to bench me, and he wouldn’t,” Hill says. “Coach got fired, Pettit took over as player/coach, and I got benched. I went back to school, did my student teaching, and came back to camp ready to go. Three days in, our new coach, Harry Galatin, came over and said, ‘Hey, I hope you’re a good teacher.’” 

Hill called his old coach, and Seymour reached out to his NBA contacts. No team would pick him up, so Hill went with the American Basketball league, which quickly folded. He returned to St. Louis but missed Newark, so he called the superintendent of schools, who had been his elementary school principal. “I got a great job in the Newark School District, and I played with a few teams in the Eastern League,” Hill says. “I actually made more money than some NBA players. It was a guard’s league so the competition was good. I couldn’t watch the NBA for awhile, but I am not angry. Those guys didn’t want to play with me. I’ve had a great life, but it’s because I was prepared for a life after basketball that I could go on.”

Hill served as coach and athletic director at Essex County College for 25 years, compiling a 489-128 record. “We had the highest-scoring game ever, when we scored 210 points against Englewood Cliffs, and we have the lowest scoring game, when we beat Ocean County College 8-4.” He and his wife, Ann, live in Orange. Their daughter, Kim, recently graduated from FIT; son, Cleon, is a NJ Transit conductor, and Cleo Jr., coaches at Cheyney University. Hill works for the Newark Public Schools after-school development program. “It gives kids an outlet for recreation, education, personal development, and cultural enrichment,” Hill says.

Forty-eight years after being  drafted by the Warriors, Attles is still employed by the team. He moved from Philadelphia to Oakland after Gottlieb sold the Warriors for $850,000 in 1962 . “My wife, Wilhemena, our two children, and I have been living in a section of Oakland called Montclair. When we were all kids in Newark, we all wanted to move to Montclair. I got the biggest kick out of telling my old buddies that I’d finally made it to Montclair.”

Attles was a defensive-minded guard, playing for eleven years and averaging eight points, three rebounds and three assists in the NBA. He retired and took over as coach, becoming the first CIAA player to lead a team in the NBA. He coached the team for twelve years and led the Warriors to a title in the 1974-75 season. (Roselle Park native Rick Barry was his top scorer.) He also served as the team’s general manager and now works as a community-outreach director.

“I never wanted to coach. I knew that I could get myself to do what was necessary to win a game as a player, but I had no idea if I could do it for twelve players. I did it for 30 games when the team fired George Lee. I was player/coach and figured that at the end of the year, I’d open a coffee shop that I’d been working on starting in Journal Square in Jersey City. Wilhemena told me I should give it another shot, and it was the best thing that ever happened.”

“These kids today can run and jump, but are not fundamentally as good as we used to be, nor can they shoot as well,” Hill says. “There isn’t a premium placed on shooting. We make a big deal out of it when a kid hits a five-foot hook shot? Please. I was making them from fifteen feet!

“I do wish more top players would decide to go to historically black colleges,” Hill says. “There’s a social aspect, an educational commitment to these colleges and universities because not every player is a legitimate pro prospect. Integration opened the doors for kids of any color to go anywhere. With scouting the way it is today, the NBA will find you. But most importantly, you’ll be prepared for your entire life, not just basketball.”

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