Coach Leo Hill
Dick Heller receives KIT Life Time Achievement Award from Green Bay Packer great Willie Wood
IN DC BASKETBALL THERE WAS ELGIN BAYLOR AND WIL JONES AND EVERYONE ELSE FOLLOWED
When I think of March Madness it has nothing to do with basketball. I think of Dr. Leo Hill, Willie Jones and Dick Heller, the common denominator, each one went home to be with the Lord in March 2013. They were all DC Institutions and were Superstars in the Game Called Life. They touched hundreds of lives in the DVM and beyond. I owe each one dearly for my success in the community and in sports media. They loved me in spite of myself.
Dr. Hill’s coaching career began at Spingarn in 1952 where he taught and coached for 10 years. During this span of time Dr. Hill coached 9 championship teams: One in football in 1954, 2 in baseball in 1953 and 1957 and 6 and won 6 cross country team championships from 1955 to 1960. He taught me that the most important game being played in the world today was not football, basketball or baseball, it was the game called life. It was the only game being played where being called a Super Star had real meaning. In my early years as an athlete at Spingarn High School in Washington, DC I was a mess and trying my best to go to hell in a hurry.
My savior Coach Dave Brown allowed me to dress for the DC Public High School football Championship game against Cardozo High School at Griffin Stadium in 1955 (freshman) but I never left the bench. Poor grades and bad attitude were the deciding factors and two 6’5 wide receivers by the names of Dickie Wells and Charles Branch. I could barely see over the line of scrimmage but I could catch a football. Spingarn played Cardozo in the championship game and we tied 0-0.
The game was decided on a rule called Penetration. The rule states, “The team that crosses the other’s 50 yard line more frequently is the winner.” Cardozo was declared the winner.
When I finally got some decent grades I went out for the baseball team in my junior year. I made the team and earned the starting position in left field for a talented team that had promise. For some odd reason I thought I was the Willie Mays of high school baseball. Dr. Hill watched me run from under my hat and make basket catches on routine fly balls, steal bases without permission and swing at pitches that he signaled for me to take. It all came to an abrupt end in a game against Fairmont Heights High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
It was a close game with Fairmont Heights leading 4-3 in the bottom of the 7th inning. I bunted my way on to first base with 2 outs. I would steal second base successfully without the go signal from Dr. Hill. He called time out and came on to the field of play. He reminded me that our best hitter Donald “Cornbread” Malloy was at bat. Before Dr. Hill could get back to the bench I had stolen 3rd base. I dared not look his way.
Donald stepped out of the batter’s box and just stared at me. He fouled off the next 2 pitches and the next pitch I took off to steal home—I was out by a mile game over.
I remember sitting in the Spingarn locker room when Dr. Hill walked quietly up to me and asked me to turn in my uniform. He reminded me that there was only one Willie Mays and he played in New York City. Spingarn would go on to earn the right to play Wilson for the DC Public High School Championship. The game would be played at Griffin Stadium home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Senators and where the Negro League Homestead Grays played their home games. It was a stadium I dreamed of playing in one day. Donald Malloy never let me forget that Spingarn lost 5-4 to Wilson. He reminded me years later that the player who replaced me in left field made 2 errors that cost Spingarn the championship.
My junior year was a tough one. Coach Brown locked me on the school bus during half-time of a game against rival Phelps because I needed an attitude adjustment. Basketball Coach Rev. William Roundtree gave me my walking papers my senior year. It looked like I was trying to make my Middle School Principal William Stinson’s prediction come true. He told my mother, “He won’t live to get out of high school.”
It took years but I finally learned the lesson that my coaches first tried to teach me. The lesson, no one is indispensable and baseball like the game called life is a team sport. Thanks Dr. Hill.
Willie Jones was “One of a Kind” in DC basketball history. There was Elgin Baylor and Willie and everyone else followed. Elgin was like poetry in motion on the court. He could rock you to sleep. Willie was like an AK47 (mouth almighty) on the court no time to sleep—he had everyone’s attention.
If he had a basketball he would travel. He was a winner at every level, playground, middle school, high school and college. If he had been given the opportunity he would excelled at the pro level.
As a coach in DC he was second only to the legendary Red Auerbach. There are three coaches in the District/Maryland/Virginia (DMV) area who won National NCAA basketball titles, John Thompson, Gary Williams and Willie Jones.
Thompson and Williams were never in his class when it came to the Xs and Os of coaching basketball. Willie not only played the game at an extremely high level—he coached at an even higher level. He was a great recruiter because he had been there and done that. The young players loved him. He spoke their language (with many, many bleeps).
There have been many basketball discussions in pool rooms, on street corners, playgrounds, and the sports bars in DC. The topic: What if Willie had the talent that Big John had at Georgetown—how many championships would he have won? Every discussion I have heard it is unanimous, Willie would have won at least 3 National NCAA Championships.
The bottom–line, Georgetown is building a 60 million dollar sports complex on its campus in the name of John Thompson. This is a legitimate pay-off for putting them on the sports map and bringing in millions of dollars of revenue for the school and himself by any means necessary. The million-dollar question now is—can he save his son’s job?
Willie Jones put two universities on the basketball map, American University and UDC. But there will be no statures or sports complexes built in his name—which proves crime does pay.
What I will remember most about Willie is that he was flawed like most of us human beings but he was trust worthy to the point if he gave you his word you could carry it to the bank. He also took coaching seriously, especially when it came to his players. They were always first.
If you were a friend, he would go to war with you or for you. I am reminded of his co-worker the legendary athlete and coach Bessie Stockard when the UDC Administrators targeted her for dismissal from the school, it was Willie who went against the grain and testified on her behalf in court—she won.
He was like a brother to me. I could never stay mad at him. Whatever our difference of opinion, the next time we saw each other he would be joking and smiling like it never happen. A family member said it best, “You two where Kindred Spirits.” Thanks Willie.
Sports columnist Dick Heller was a class act. He was an officer and gentleman and a man of integrity. His word meant something unheard of in media today. He was a loyal friend and mentor to me for over two decades. Thanks to him I am still in the fight for truth in media and my eyes are still on the prize—our children. Dick was there for me and anyone else I supported. Especially, homegrown talent like Willie Wood (NFL), Earl Lloyd (NBA) and LA Dodger great Maury Wills.
Willie Wood was a benefactor after the NFL had blackballed him because he would not go along to get along during his NFL coaching days. There was some drug abuse by several NFL players on the team. He spoke out against the abuse and was not asked to return the next year. He was out of pro football for several years until the Canadian Football hired him as the first Afro-American Head Coach. Willie was voted one of the greatest defensive backs to ever play in the NFL. His coach, the great Vince Lombardi said, “Willie Wood is my coach on the field.” Still the powers-to-be shut him out of the NFL Hall of Fame. I went to Dick and brought him up to date. Willie was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1989 two years after some timely stories appeared in sports media outlets (radio and print) spearheaded by Dick Heller.
Earl Lloyd was the first black to play in the NBA in 1950. He was from Alexandria, Virginia and played in the CIAA (BHC). He was overlooked for his contributions in the CIAA and NBA. I turned to Red Auerbach and Dick. They took charge and suddenly there was a story on Page One of the Washington Times talking about the trials and tribulations of Earl Lloyd early NBA days. The photo on the page showed Earl and Red in a forum at the Smithsonian during Black History Month. In 2001, over fifty years later Earl Lloyd was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Thanks Red Auerbach and Dick Heller.
Dick tried his best to help our homeboy Maury Wills get his just deserts. Maury revolutionized offense in Major League Baseball. He made an art out of the stolen base. He made the fans forget about the homerun in the 60s. He was master of all he surveyed in ballparks around the country but his off the field antics of drugs and domestic abuse have been hard to ignore by the voters. He is still on the outside looking in as it relates to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Dick’s first love has always been baseball and he tried his best to get Maury inducted with a brilliantly written two page story in the Washington Times over a decade ago but “The Haters” have refused to budge. Dick, Maury never said thanks but I will.
Dick was not only a talented writer and editor but he was also a risk taker. He never sit on the fence to see whether it was safe to fall on one side or the other. He loved his hometown of DC and all of its sports teams but you could never mistake him for a cheerleader if the home team made a wrong move. He would take them to task. For example, in 1977 he exposed several Maryland University players for poor academic records during the watch of Charles Driesell, aka Lefty.
He gave the players and Lefty the kind of fame they could have done without. He published their names with photos and their academic records in the sports pages of the Washington Star. Talking about opening up a “Can of Worms.”
The university student newspaper, The Diamond Back followed Dick’s lead and published the player’s grade point average. Six players on the teams sued Dick, the Washington Star, and their own Diamond Back newspaper for invasion of privacy, publishing confidential university records and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The players sued for 72 million dollars in damages.
In 1979, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld a lower-court decision and ruled in the paper’s favor in the case known as Bilney v. Evening Star.
The court ruled “The Players had achieved the status of public figures solely by virtue of their membership on the university basketball team. Therefore, their possible exclusion from the team—whether academic or any other reason was a matter of public concerned.”
The decision continued: “Having sought and basked in the limelight, by virtue of their membership on the team. Appellants (i.e., the players) will not be heard to complain when the light focused on them on their potential imminent withdrawal from the team.”
Bilney vs. Evening Star remains an important case in the first amendment law and has been cited in legal proceedings, in text books and courses taught in media law.
Tim Kurkjian ESPN broadcaster who started his media career at the Star said, “Dick was a kind of mentor to the younger guys, I cannot stress enough how helpful he was and how patient he was with us.”
Dick Heller was not only a mentor to younger guys during his long and distinguishing career in print media. He was also a mentor, friend and brother to Old Guys like me. I am a better writer today thanks to Dick Heller.
I look at the sports media sitting at press tables, media newsrooms, talk show host and analyst they are “The New Jack City Spooks That Sit by the Door” and have blocked the door extremely well. They see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil and write no evil. All they care about is show me the money and “Look at me.”
Some even claim that it is okay to use the N word as a term of endearment. You would think that it would be names like Michael, James, Jason, Stephen, etc. leading the fight to right the wrongs of a Willie Wood, Earl Lloyd, Maury Wills and Spencer Haywood, but it was names like Dick, Rick Snider (Examiner) and Dave (McKenna, City Paper) kicking down the doors for other brothers of another color.
Coach Leo Hill, Willie Jones and Dick Heller—–we never could have made it without you (RIP).