Monday, May 5, 2003
The tale of Billy McGill and the jump hook
By Bill Walton
Special to ESPN.com
The three teams (Lakers, Spurs and Kings) with the best chance of winning this season's NBA championship all have, as the foundation of their dreams, a nearly unstoppable offensive weapon whose repertoire is based on the jump hook. Many of us have etched in our minds the legendary stories of the days of Hall of Famer Hank Luisetti from San Francisco and his running one-handed shot and its impact on the evolution of basketball in the late 1930s. The roots of the jump hook also run through California albeit 15 years later.
It all happened one beautiful summer day in 1955 at the Denker Playgrounds in the inner-city of Los Angeles. Back then, the royalty of the basketball world would regularly gather at Denker for spectacular summer romps. Everyone was there, and the play on this particular Saturday was dominated, as it often was in those days, by a young, spindly high school freshman from L.A.'s Thomas Jefferson High School named Billy McGill.
Holding court was never a problem for Billy, even as a ninth-grader, and people would flock to the dilapidated gym whenever he played. As the pickup games stretched on and the crowd swelled, three college stars of the day found their way to Denker and immediately claimed "winners" -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Guy Rogers. The intensity ratcheted upwards as Russell strode onto the court, announcing to the assembled masses as he stroked his long jaw, "I'll take the young guy on my team," instantly recognizing the burgeoning talent of McGill.
The game started and people had never seen anything like it before. It was up and down and endless with explosive forays to the hoop by Russell, who was determined, confident and ever-present, Chamberlain, who threw it down like only he could and blocked everything in sight, and Guy Rogers, who controlled the ball and the game as if it were an extension of his mind. A pickup game for the ages, one might say.
And with the game, if not the fate of western civilization, in the balance, the wiry young teenage sensation, Billy McGill, drove the lane. The massive, hulking Chamberlain slid over to cut off the path to the hoop. Surrounded on all sides by Chamberlain, Rogers and the rest of their team, the now-trapped McGill was clearly in a jam. Gathering his momentum, McGill came to a two-footed stop in Wilt's huge shadow, the big man hovering over young Billy like a giant Sequoia Redwood. Leaping into the air with no idea about what he would do, yet also determined not to let Wilt send his stuff back, McGill positioned himself perpendicular to Chamberlain's expansive chest while protecting the ball perfectly from Wilt with his body, off-arm and head. He then flicked the sweetest, softest and the first "jump hook" over the grasping-for-air Chamberlain. As the ball swished through the net, a stunned world staggered to a stop. Time stood briefly still. Then Bill Russell broke the silence with the loudest cackle ever heard. The rest is history.
Billy McGill went on to become a legend. Starring as few ever had in Los Angeles, he was pegged to land among the best of the very best and certainly would have had it not been for a fateful game in his junior year. Still at Jefferson High, in a game one winter against Fremont High, Billy soared high above the crowd in the rarified air that only he could travel in. But then he tumbled to the floor, writhing in pain and clutching his knee. The doctors told him that he would never play again. They wanted to operate and give him an iron kneecap. Billy was scared and wouldn't let them proceed. He never told anyone else about his sore knee or about how its limitations changed the future of his game. The knee, constantly swollen, had to be drained daily for years by a doctor who was sworn to secrecy. This did not stop McGill from earning a basketball scholarship to the University of Utah as the first African-American to ever play for the former Runnin' Redskins (now known as the Utes). Having grown to 6-foot-9 by now and working incessantly on his game under the master tutelage of Hall of Fame Coach Jack Gardener, Billy added range to his jump hook -- shooting accurately out to 20 feet. He ultimately led his team to the Final Four in 1961, setting records that stand to this day. As a senior at Utah, McGill was the nation's top scorer despite still playing on one leg.
McGill was the NBA's No. 1 overall draft pick in 1962 by the then-Chicago Zephyrs, who quickly became the Baltimore Bullets. McGill was soon traded to the Knicks, where he played his best NBA ball. The New York media did not know what to make of his jump hook and it was regularly referred to as the "Kooky Hook." McGill sadly left the Knicks when New York acquired Willis Reed, but he found a new home in St. Louis. As a Hawk, McGill got to play with Bob Pettit, the game's greatest scorer. All of McGill's teammates, wherever he went, were fascinated by the new jump hook and wanted him to teach it to them, none more so than Pettit, who made it a staple of his own game. (Ironically, when Pettit became the first NBA player to ever score 20,000 points, it came on a jump hook.) As McGill suffered and struggled silently with his knee, he knew that at this point he was just barely hanging on. He did play valiantly for a short stretch with his hometown Lakers before bouncing around the ABA for three quiet years. And then it was over for McGill -- but certainly not for his jump hook.
|Billy McGill took his jump hook to Utah, where he starred for the Utes and became the NBA's No. 1 pick.|
We have come a long way in the nearly 48 years since Billy McGill shocked Wilt, Russell, Guy and the rest of the world at Denker. Today, every player works endlessly at perfecting McGill's contribution, or at least they should. The one-legged sky hook, glamorized by many then and immortalized by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is now a relic of the distant past. Today, it is the jump hook that has become the basis of every complete postgame. Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon dominated their respective decades in the NBA with McGill's unstoppable jump hook. Pretty boys, marketers and perimeter players can preen all they want, but this year's title is going to be decided by who has truly mastered the devastating force of the two-legged jump hook. Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Chris Webber: The ball is in your hands. You're on your way to the hoop, the defense is collapsing around you. Billy McGill did his job, inventing your way out.The rest is up to you.
McGill, now approaching middle age, still lives in his beloved Los Angeles, along with his beautiful and talented wife of 30 years, Gwendolyn. They have four children and five grandchildren and they have a lot to be thankful for. So do we.
And to this day, Billy McGill has never had his jump hook blocked.
||Today, it is the jump hook that has become the basis of every complete postgame. Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon dominated their respective decades in the NBA with McGill's unstoppable jump hook.
Bill Walton, who is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN.