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Name your gym after groundbreaking player, officials urge N.J. community college

A community college gym in New Jersey could have a new name – if local leaders get their way.

County officials have suggested the administration of Essex County College rename the school’s gymnasium after Cleo Hill, Sr. – the first ever first round NBA draft pick from a historically Black college or university, and a longtime basketball coach at the Newark school. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and County Commissioner Rufus Johnson made the suggestion in a letter sent to the college earlier this month, the county announced in a release last week.

“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,” DiVincenzo said in the release.

In their announcement, county officials argue Hill’s accomplishments on the court and influence in the community make him a good candidate for the dedication.

“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,” Johnson said in the release. “In the process, he influenced a multitude of young men who became community leaders, elected officials, entrepreneurs and professionals.”

Hill grew up in Newark, and was an All-State player for the city’s South Side before becoming an All-American at Winston-Salem State University (formerly college) in North Carolina. He made history in 1961 when the St. Louis Hawks picked him during the first round of the NBA draft.

He was only on the team for a year, playing during the early days of integration in the sport and during a time of heightened racial tensions on and off the court. Hill was reportedly frozen out of plays by teammates, was benched and eventually cut by the Hawks. But the skilled player still made his mark as a high scorer and a talent during his time in the NBA. Analysts have attributed his rocky NBA career to racial tensions, but in 2008, Hill told the Star-Ledger he thought the clashes with veteran teammates were because he was scoring too many points, taking shots and opportunities away from them.

After the NBA, Hill went on to play several seasons with the Eastern League, and then to a 25-year career as a teacher, men’s basketball coach, and eventually athletic director at Essex County College. He was a winning and highly decorated coach, earning accolades like his inductions the CIAA Hall of Fame, National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame.

Hill died in 2015 at the age of 77.

In their announcement, county officials noted a remodeling project currently happening at the Essex County College gym, saying the name change could be added to a list of other renovations, including new flooring and improved lighting. School officials did not respond to a request for comment, and the extent, timing, and cost of the project were not clear.

Officials did not outline exactly what steps the school would need to take to officially rename the gym, but county spokesman Anthony Puglisi said the college should be able to carry it out without adding any additional cost to the current renovation.

In its announcement, the county said the college is reviewing its proposal. A school spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Deion Johnson may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DeionRJohhnson