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2006: Hill's brilliance gone in a flash

Editor's note: This story originally was published Sunday, January 8, 2006

It was an unremarkable 14-12 season.

Wichita State was a good basketball team in 1966-67, two seasons removed from the Shockers' only Final Four. Nothing more.

Jamie Thompson and Warren Armstrong were All-Missouri Valley Conference players. Senior Melvin Reed was forced to play center, though undersized at 6-foot-5. Ron Washington, Ron Mendell and Lillard Harris were better-than-aver age role players.

The Shockers finished third in the powerful Valley that season at 9-5, behind Louisville and Tulsa.

But if there's a season in 100 years of WSU basketball that makes you ask "what if?" it's 1966-67.

What if Simmie Hill had been a Shocker?

Some think if the 6-foot-8 Hill had played that season, which was the plan, another banner would be hanging from the Koch Arena rafters. A big one.

-- -- --

Hill was heavily recruited out of Midland, Pa., where he and Norm Van Lier, who later was a standout guard for the Chicago Bulls, led their high school team to a 25-0 record and 1965 state championship.

Forty years later, the old basketball fans around Pittsburgh still talk about that team. And the young fans hear the stories.

It was, by all accounts, one of the two- or three-best high school teams in Pennsylvania history.

"Simmie was the star of that team, even Van Lier would say that,'' said Ray Hoppa, Van Lier's backcourt mate on the team. "You saw Simmie coming up as a kid and you said, 'Who is this kid?' He was a very, very, very special player.''

Next to Lew Alcindor, a prep legend at Power Memorial in New York, Hill was the most-recruited big man on the East Coast in 1965.

He visited West Virginia, Bradley, Bowling Green and Wichita State.

A former WSU football player, Pittsburgh native Barney Silverman, convinced Hill to consider the Shockers.

Hill did more than consider.

He and Van Lier visited the WSU campus in the spring of 1965. Because both players were borderline academically, the university's administration told basketball coach Gary Thompson he could sign only one of them.

Thompson picked Hill.

"Simmie definitely has the potential to become a superstar,'' Thompson told The Wichita Eagle in May 1965, after Hill signed a letter of intent.

-- -- --

Thompson knew he needed a big man. The Shockers had been undersized since losing 6-10 Nate Bowman and 6-7 Dave Stallworth during the 1964-65 season.

The 1965-66 Shockers were 17-10 without a contributing player taller than 6-5. They had no inside presence to battle the likes of Louisville's Wesley Unseld, Bradley's Joe Allen, Saint Louis' Rich Niemann and Cincinnati's Rich Roberson.

With Hill delivered, Thompson had a surprise for the rest of the league.

"I'd rank Simmie probably in the top five that we ever recruited to Wichita State,'' said Thompson, who coached the Shockers from 1964-71 and now is retired and living in Arizona. "Very strong and very quick. He could have played anywhere.''

Newcomers from high school were ineligible to play varsity basketball in 1965, but Hill made a huge splash for the Shockers' freshman team during the 1965-66 season. It started with his debut, when he scored 47 points during a win over Independence Community College.

"(Hill) is the best ballplayer I have ever seen, bar none,'' Independence coach Dee Ketchum said after the game.

Mendell, a freshman teammate of Hill, said he thought the 20 points he scored in that game were impressive - until he saw Hill's statistics.

"I don't want to use too much hyperbole here, but from having been around Simmie and played with him, he would have made a substantial contribution to WSU basketball,'' said Mendell, who lives in Wichita. "Physically, he was on a par with any of the great Shockers of all-time. He was there with Xavier (McDaniel), (Antoine) Carr and Stallworth. He was that good.''

The Roundhouse was often close to being full for the second half of freshmen games, which were played as varsity prelims and started at 5:45 p.m. The buzz was about Hill, who could score from anywhere on the court, handle the basketball, rebound, pass and, when he put his mind to it, defend.

"Our freshmen that year gave the varsity a competitive game every day in practice,'' former Shocker assistant coach Ron Heller said during an interview last week.

Hill looked like the second coming of Stallworth, WSU's former All-American and most storied player. They were roughly the same size, had the same build and shared the same basketball skills.

With each game Hill played, anticipation grew.

Wichita State fans imagined how he would bolster a 1966-67 varsity team that would include Jamie Thompson, Armstrong, Reed, Washington, Mendell and Harris.

"With Simmie and (Armstrong) in the lineup, you would have had two of the better 10-12 players in the country,'' Mendell said. "I think it would have been a phenomenal team.''

Gary Thompson, who was chastised by some for not keeping the program at the highest level after Ralph Miller departed for Iowa in 1964, saw Hill as a player who could help return WSU to its glory.

"Simmie could have changed that time in Shocker history,'' Thompson said.

Instead, history stood still.

-- -- --

After eight games of a 15-game freshman schedule, during which Hill averaged nearly 30 points and 12 rebounds, his season was finished.

As good as he was on a basketball court, he did not pay attention to his classroom requirements. So by the second semester of his first year, Hill was academically ineligible.

That didn't surprise his high school coach, Hank Kuzma.

"Going so far away, to Wichita, I think it was a mistake for Simmie,'' said the 78-year-old Kuzma, who lives in Steubenville, Ohio. "He needed to be under a little more supervision. You have to push Simmie, work Simmie.''

During Hill's senior year of high school, it was generally accepted he would go to Bowling Green and join former high school teammate Nick Aloi. There, he would have replaced center Nate Thurmond, one of college basketba ll's best players.

"Simmie would have fit right in,'' Kuzma said. "But I never tried to talk him out of going to Wichita. Nobody ever asked me.''

His talent made the academic risk worthwhile for the Shocker coaching staff.

"We crossed our fingers on Simmie,'' Heller said. "We tried to help him in any way possible, making sure he got to class. He was a great kid with a good attitude. Very polite, very humble. Really, Simmie didn't know how good he was. But he just couldn't cut it in the classroom.''

Hill transferred to Cameron (Okla.) Junior College in Lawton with the promise of returning to WSU. He was a juco All-American, averaging 25.8 points as a sophomore.

"We certainly think he'll be back,'' Gary Thompson told The Eagle in January 1967. "We expected him to be - that's the reason we sent him there in the first place.''

But it wasn't that easy.

The recruiting process opened again, and this time even more schools were involved. Hill eventually enrolled at West Texas State and became one of that school's greats.

"I rank Hill with Alcindor,(Elvin) Hayes and Unseld,'' West Texas coach Dennis Walling said before Hill's senior season in 1968-69.

In two seasons at West Texas, Hill averaged 26.3 points and 11.3 rebounds.

-- -- --

Hill was drafted by the Chicago Bulls but instead went to the American Basketball Association, where he spent four seasons with Miami, Dallas, San Diego and San Antonio, averaging 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Hill, 59, lives in Wilkinsburg, Pa., and could not be reached for comment.

That's OK. Everyone who saw him play and remembers those times has lots of comments.

And questions. Such as, what if?

"He was the missing link for that 1966-67 Shocker team,'' said Jamie Thompson, who led WSU to its only Final Four and was a senior that season. "He had unbelievable talent. He was a 6-8 kid who could shoot it and do really just about everything.''

It's not out of the realm to think Hill would have been the difference in the Shockers finishing third in the Valley that season and winning the championship.

Mendell thinks with Hill, WSU would have gotten into the 23-team NCAA Tournament.

"And been a contender,'' he said. "The potential of Simmie Hill playing at Wichita State for three years - the potential of that was outstanding. I still shed a few tears over that. That could have made a difference in my life.''