As a reporter in North Carolina in the early 1960s, Professor Emeritus of English Robert Cole wrote a series of articles detailing the racial mistreatment of Cleo Hill, the first graduate of an historically black college or university to be drafted in the first round by an NBA team.
After a solid start during his rookie year with the St. Louis Hawks, “Hill was benched about a quarter of the way into the season and then released,” Cole said. “He never played in the league again.”
“The generally accepted explanation for this unusual use of a player is that it was done to satisfy veteran southern white players who did not want [Hill] to stick with the team,” Cole said.
Hill’s tragic story was one of several retold in the ESPN documentary Black Magic, which chronicled the struggles black basketball players and coaches faced during the Civil Rights Movement in America. The film’s researchers used Cole’s articles from the 1960s as the basis for the segment on Hill.
Hill was “probably the greatest player of his time, black or white,” said sportswriter Howie Evans, while basketball analyst Billy Packer said Hill was a forerunner to Michael Jordan.
“I broke the Cleo Hill stories in the Winston-Salem Journal based on a strong source relationship I had developed with him when he was a spectacular player for Winston-Salem State Teachers College,” Cole remembered.
Hill played in the NBA during the era of a strict “quota system,” according to the Black Magic Web site. Once the Hawks cut him, he was “blacklisted” by other team owners.
“In those days, the NBA was believed to unofficially limit each team to two black players,” Cole said. “The Cleo Hill affair was one of several events that led to racial changes in the league.”
More information about the ESPN documentary can be found at http://espnblackmagic.secondthought.com/.