William Randolph (Sonny) Hill organized his first summer basketball league in 1960 for selfish reasons. Hill, at the time a flashy 5'9" guard in the old semipro Eastern Basketball League, wanted some high-caliber off-season competition. "I've always been an organizer," says the flamboyant Hill. "So I picked up the phone and got in touch with our guys." "Our guys" included Philadelphia pros Guy Rodgers, Ray Scott, Hal Lear and Wilt Chamberlain. A league of stars was born. Now, 31 years later, Hill's Charles Baker Memorial Basketball League is a Philadelphia institution.
Since 1968 the Baker pro league has had an equally top-notch amateur adjunct. The Sonny Hill Community Involvement League is a 47-team octopus of an organization that does more than just offer competition. With its tutoring programs and career-counseling department, the Sonny Hill youth loop boasts a college admission rate of 85% among its players.
And what players! Lionel Simmons of Sacramento and Jerome (Pooh) Richardson of the Minnesota Timberwolves both played up the ladder—junior high, high school and college—of Hill's summer program. So did L.A. Clipper guard Bo Kimble, the late Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers and even Tyrell Biggs, the heavyweight boxer. In just over two decades some 10,000 young people have filtered through the Hill Community system.
And it all began so that Hill could sharpen his own skills. Back in 1960, his four-team pro league debuted on the heat-seared concrete outside the Moylan Rec Center at 25th and Diamond streets in a tough North Philly neighborhood. In the mid-'60s, the league moved to the basement of the Bright Hope Baptist Church at 12th and Oxford, and was formally named for the recently deceased Charles Baker. Baker, a fan but not a player, was Lear's uncle—everyone at the playgrounds knew him as Unc. As a city commissioner, Baker had had a lot of contacts and had been able to help Hill get the necessary permits for his fledgling league, and Hill memorialized Baker in turn.
July 28, 1991
The Baker League quickly established itself as the country's top off-season showcase for pro basketball talent, a standing it retained for years. "Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker, Hal Greer, Wali Jones, Jim Washington, Bill Melchionni, Clifford Ray, Willis Reed, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free, Joe Bryant—that was the Baker League," says Hill, 55, as he sits in his West Philadelphia "basketball office," a cozy, unassuming den decorated with trophies, yellowed newspaper clips and photos. "I can't even begin to name all the great players who've been in our league. Earl Monroe dropped out of an NBA tour of Japan just to come play. Of course, times have changed. The pro teams think their players will get hurt in these leagues—they see only dollars running around on the court—and it's harder for us these days. But players like Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley—these guys used to play just for the love of the game. Bill Bradley says that we saved his career."
Senator Bradley says exactly that. The former Princeton and New York Knick star remembers returning from England in 1967, upon completing his Rhodes Scholarship, and discovering that his basketball skills were badly rusted. "An abysmal failure" is how Bradley describes his rookie year in the NBA. The following summer he was working as a volunteer for the Urban League in Harlem when Hill called and invited him to come down for some Baker League competition. "I used to take the train to Philly," says Bradley. "We played in the basement of that church. I was still trying to play guard, and Sonny was very positive. He told me I could do it. That was an important summer for me in terms of restoring my confidence, getting back some of the skills I had lost, getting the chance to go against great players like Earl Monroe and Wali Jones, and, above all, making a good friend."
If the Baker League's fame rests upon its big-name players, Hill is just as proud of some less-renowned alumni. Mike Bantom, a former St. Joseph's star and pro journeyman with the Suns, Pacers and 76ers, now works in international marketing for the NBA. Calvin Dixon, George White, Kevin Boyle and Glenn Fine are all graduates of both Hill's system and Harvard. "That's got to tell you something about the character of what we do and about how we do it," says Hill. "You tell me what programs in the country have that kind of impact. None."
The central lesson of the Hill leagues is that basketball is a game, nothing more. Life's challenge isn't whether you can reverse-dunk, it's what you can do when your basketball days are over—whether they end at high school graduation or after a long NBA career. "We use basketball as a vehicle to reach young people," says Hill. "We're not really concerned about what kind of basketball player a person's going to be. We're concerned about what kind of human being he's going to be."
Hill, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, has practiced in his own life the work ethic he preaches to others. After graduating from Northeast High in 1955 he attended college for two years and then joined the Eastern League. In 1960 he took a job in the Lit Brothers warehouse in Philadelphia and shortly thereafter became a union organizer; he is still the elected secretary-treasurer for Warehouse Employees Teamsters Local 169. In 1964 he and his bride, Edith, moved into a modest West Philadelphia row house, where they live today. In 1969, when his 10-year career in the Eastern League was on the wane, Hill began moonlighting as radio analyst for the 76ers. From 1974 to '78 he was an NBA commentator for CBS television. Today, he hosts a weekly talk show on Philly's all-sports radio station, WIP-AM.
All this time, Hill has taken on various free-lance assignments as well. He is, for example, business manager for Richardson, the Timberwolves' point guard.
Hill does his summer-league work at the basketball office, on the ground floor of a three-story building that is owned by the league and is directly across the street from his house. On the office phone Hill constantly hustles for corporate sponsors and donations. "We're running a million-dollar operation on a $150,000 budget," he says. Contributions from the likes of Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Bill Cosby and Chamberlain, who is still one of Hill's best friends, help to underwrite Baker's seven teams and Hill's 47, all of which now play in the air-conditioned comfort of Temple's McGonigle Hall.
The Sonny Hill Community Involvement League is actually three different entities: a summer-long boys' competition in four age-group leagues, an annual women's double-elimination tournament and a series of free clinics in five inner-city neighborhoods. On top of this, Hill and Temple head coach John Chaney, yet another Baker League alum, have, for 19 summers, codirected a sleepover basketball camp for paying customers.
The 50 coaches and 100 others who work the Sonny Hill League are, along with Hill himself, volunteers. "What makes the league great are those coaches," says Al Taylor, a Philadelphia attorney and former Sonny Hill Leaguer. "They follow the kids throughout the year. They support you both in terms of basketball and life."
Bill Joyner, who has run the organization's tutorial and career-development programs since their inception 16 years ago, typifies this dedication. "We accept any kid who wants help," he says. "Parents come to us whose kids aren't even playing in the leagues. Sonny believes that if we start working with a child—any child—in the fifth grade, and he stays with us through high school, then he should be able to go to college."
If there is a rap against Hill it concerns this outspoken confidence. Some say the size of his organization is outdone only by the size of his ego. Boston Celtics assistant coach Don Casey, who first met Hill when Casey was coaching at Temple, says the criticism is unfounded. "Sure, he's got a shtick," says Casey. "Sonny's up-front style causes some people to think ego. But someone had to step forward to get the kids' attention. Sonny may stick out his chest, but someone has to do it. And Sonny backs up everything he says."
That's a lot to back up. Consider this proclamation from Hill: "When I talk to our young people, I'm the adult in charge. There are not many adults in charge anymore, not even in the households.
"Are we tough? Yeah. Are we disciplined? Yes. Is it my way or the highway? You bet."
You bet, is right: Hill League players are barred from participating in rival programs. "I expect loyalty," says Hill. "We start with these kids when nobody is looking at them. When they move on to our high school program and some Johnny-come-lately gets interested in them, I expect them to remember what we've done for them. I don't need people to pick and choose what part of the program they want." To run a clean system and avoid the exploitation other camps have been accused of (SI, July 15), Hill says he must maintain firm control. "You don't hear about scandals with Sonny Hill basketball," he says proudly and defiantly. "When there are rumors about summer programs that had stuff going on, it was in New York or Chicago or L.A. But I run a hands-on program. And there ain't nobody messing with my program."
Tom Starner is a free-lance writer who lives in Philadelphia.