Essex County College remembers, honors basketball trailblazer Cleo Hill Sr.

NEWARK, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. and Essex County College President Augustine Boakye dedicated the Essex County College Cleo Hill Sr. Physical Education Building on Friday, May 27. A native of Newark, Hill was the first player from a historically black college or university to be drafted by an NBA team in the first round. After his professional playing career, he became a successful men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Essex County College.

“Naming buildings or conference rooms and erecting plaques and statues has been our way of paying tribute to the men and women who have influenced the development of Essex County or our society. Cleo Hill Sr. is one of those people who deserve to be remembered for their place in history and naming the Essex County (College) athletic building after him is a fitting memorial,” DiVincenzo said. “Mr. Hill made history as a collegiate and professional basketball player, has been inducted into several halls of fame, and enjoyed a successful career as a teacher, basketball coach and athletic director at Essex County College after his professional career ended.”

“We are forever grateful for this honor,” Cleo Hill Jr. said about the building being named after his father. “My father was passionate about basketball, he was passionate about winning but what he was most passionate about was grooming young men for their life after basketball.”

“Mr. Hill dedicated his life to Essex County College. He remains with all of us today and his message to us is ‘If you are given any gifts, it is to help other people,’” Boakye said.

Born and raised in Newark, Hill Sr. attended Winston-Salem State College, now a university, where he led his school to two consecutive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships in his junior and senior years. At the time of his graduation, he was the second all-time leading scorer in school history and regarded as one of the best young basketball players in the nation.

His athletic prowess on the basketball court was recognized by the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks, which drafted him in the first round — and eighth overall — in 1961. The historic draft pick made Hill Sr. the first player from a historically black college or university to be drafted in the first round. Unfortunately, he faced a great deal of adversity during his one year with the Hawks, ultimately being benched when white players complained about his scoring and after he protested against segregationist practices in NBA cities.

After playing several seasons with the Eastern League, Hill Sr. joined Essex County College as a teacher and men’s basketball coach, and then later as the athletic director. He enjoyed a successful coaching career, winning 489 games in 25 years and leading ECC to three Region 19 championships. More importantly, he was a mentor to generations of students.

“Isn’t it amazing that he was able to save so many lives because of his misfortune?” said Louis Grimsley, a captain of Hill’s 1973-74 basketball team, referring to the racism Hill encountered while playing in the NBA in the 1960s. “He saved me as a little boy by teaching me the game of basketball and he saved me a second time when he encouraged me to enroll in Essex County College after a serious injury.”

“For many young men, Cleo Hill was a mentor and role model. On the basketball court he taught teamwork and discipline; off the court he showed his students and players how the game could earn them scholarships and help them further their education. In the process, he influenced a multitude of young men who became community leaders, elected officials, entrepreneurs and professionals,” said Essex County Commissioner Rufus I. Johnson, who had Hill as a coach and joined with DiVincenzo to petition the college to name the athletic building after Hill.

Hill Sr. was elected to the CIAA Hall of Fame in 1994, and posthumously elected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017 and the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. He died in 2015.