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Cleo Hill, black college basketball pioneer, dead at 77

Black college basketball lost a legend Monday morning. Former Winston-Salem State Teacher’s College star Cleo Hill, one of the best players in CIAA history and a first-round NBA Draft pick in 1961, died Monday morning according to the Winston-Salem Journal. 

Hill was 77 years old.

The Newark, New Jersey native was the first superstar for Hall of Fame basketball coach Big House Gaines in Winston-Salem, averaging 25.4 points in his college career, helping the team claim back-to-back CIAA titles in a time when ACC schools wouldn’t touch black players.

Hill is perhaps best remembered for his disappointingly short time in the NBA. He played just one season in the league after being selected eighth overall in the 1961 NBA Draft. His high-flying, high-scoring style ran afoul with several of his teammates, including Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan, and ultimately got Hawks coach Paul Seymour fired because he refused to bench him.

“It tore my heart out to see the way they were treating the kid,” Seymour told the AP after being let go by the Hawks. “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way they treat him.” 

“He was a fabulous player at Winston-Salem, he was coached by one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time, Big House Gaines,” Sonny Hill said in an interview. “But wrong place, St. Louis, wrong time because black players were just starting to come into the league with more numbers.”

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