Stanley Hill: College Basketball Trailblazer

Stanley Hill looked around the Hynes Athletics Center and smiled. On the visitor’s bench was Fairfield University’s men’s basketball coach Sydney Johnson. At the scorer’s table was Iona College athletics director Eugene Marshall, Jr. Both men are black. The Iona and Fairfield rosters, like so many others, are filled with black student-athletes. Hill, more so than most, notices. A lot has changed since he played college basketball.

Hill, a 1959 Iona graduate, was in New Rochelle last Friday night to accept the inaugural Trailblazer Award, named after him. At halftime of the Feb. 24 Iona-Fairfield game, he spoke about The Game That Never Was and why Iona was a special place.

Here’s the story: Iona travelled to Owensboro, Kentucky, for a holiday tournament. On January 1, 1957, the Gaels lost to tournament host Kentucky Wesleyan. The next day, Hill, Iona’s lone black player, and his teammates were prohibited from entering a pool hall because of Hill’s skin color. It was a sign of what would come later that night, when the University of Mississippi forfeited rather than compete against a black player (Iona was credited with a 2-0 victory). The order to sit out came directly from the Mississippi governor and was administered by the Ole Miss coach. “We had no idea that was going to happen on the court,” Hill said. “We went out there ready to play.”

Hill contrasted his experience that day to the environment at Iona. “Iona College has always had a tradition of greatness. When I came here in 1955, Coach (Jim) McDermott accepted me, President (William) Barnes accepted me, and my teammates were great. I saw what kind of people they were here at Iona. They taught you values. They cared about you.”

Iona honored Hill for his “instrumental role in helping to bring civil liberties and social awareness to the forefront of American culture,” praising his “exemplary valor in the face of adversity.”

“It’s a great honor,” Hill said of the award. “I feel very humble about it. It’s a team effort. We stuck together down in Kentucky. We didn’t waver. Coach McDermott was great; he kept us together. Even after the terrible racial act by the Governor, we went back to our room and the Mississippi players came to apologize. It meant a lot.”

Mr. Stanley Hill being interviewed at the Iona game. (Credit: ICGaels.com)

In 2001, when Iona was matched-up with Mississippi in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, stories about the 1957 incident appeared in a few newspapers. As a result, the Governor of Mississippi and the Chancellor of Ole Miss learned about the dark hour in the school’s history. The two men, hoping to at least partially right the wrong of their predecessors, invited Hill and his wife, as guests of the state of Mississippi, to attend the game in Kansas City.

“It was a great honor to be invited out there,” Hill said. “I was proud of the accomplishment that was made by Mississippi. There was progress being made. Even though we [Iona] lost by one-point, it was a great experience. The Chancellor was a very decent man. My wife and I still send him Christmas cards.”

Sports have often been a vehicle for change in society, and Hill’s story is yet another example. For decades, Hill served as the director of the largest labor union in New York City, fighting for equal rights. “I always kept it in my mind,” Hill says of the ’57 incident. “In my field of labor, I always remembered to respect everybody.” While it took 44 years, at least two Mississippians did their best to do the same.

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