Sonny Hill to receive lifetime achievement award

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: January 10, 2014

ON THIS particular day, it hadn't happened yet, but then, Sonny Hill was out of his Philadelphia stomping grounds, sitting for a brunch conversation at the Hotel Du Pont in Wilmington.

Still, the day was young, and soon Hill would be out and about doing things in the community as he's done for nearly his entire life.

He was sure it would happen, because it has happened just about every day for more than a half-century.

"I know that I'm going to be going somewhere and somebody is going to walk up to me and say, 'Mr. Sonny, I played in your league.' 'Mr. Sonny, I went to your basketball camp.' 'Mr. Sonny, you spoke at my school and I want you to know that you have made a difference in my life,' " said Hill, 77, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, but is known throughout the nation for his work as a community activist and pioneering sports commentator.

Today, Hill, who is already a member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the fourth annual Comcast SportsNet Shining Star Awards dinner for his "extraordinary service to the Philadelphia sports community."

Over the previous 3 years, the awards have raised more than $650,000 for the March of Dimes.

One of the most recognizable faces in the Philadelphia basketball community for more than 50 years, Hill founded the Sonny Hill Community Basketball League in 1968.

If you were to do the math for 45 years' worth of kids going through the Sonny Hill League, which started with five teams and now has more than five dozen, you would be talking about hundreds of thousands of kids. And then when you understand that the league is about much more than basketball and includes tutoring and career-counseling programs, the extrapolation is endless.

"Sonny has created a number of community programs that have empowered youths to become successful on the basketball court, but, more importantly, to be successful in life," Shining Stars chairman Dan Finnerty said. "He has worked tirelessly to provide a safe haven for kids through his basketball league, and he embodies the mission of the March of Dimes for stronger and healthier children."

There are many types of honors, and over the years, Hill has received many.

But something is a little different about a lifetime achievement honor. That is not about an individual moment, but a lifetime of moments. That is about who you are as a person.

"It's not about me," said Hill, a Northeast High graduate who in 2008 received the Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. "It's about the people I have come from. It's the foundations I was built on. What we do is home-based, lot of love, lots of hugs, lot of structure.

"I use basketball as a vehicle to reach young people. Somebody else may use dance or music. The point is, I have something that youngsters want. A lot of them think I have a magic touch and can help them become the basketball player they want to be. And in a lot of cases, it has worked out that way. But I'm more about the other things.

"My philosophy wasn't to try and find the next great basketball player through my league. It was about finding young people and trying to help mold them into better human beings.

"What gives you more satisfaction, Mr. Sonny? Seeing one of your kids make it to the pros or college or the bishop or government official who tells you he played in your league? Maybe it's the guy who says, 'I fell down for a while, but I got back up and now, I'm trying to teach my youngster what you taught me and the league taught me growing up.' "

The core of the Sonny Hill League hasn't changed since it was started as a way to help curb the gang warfare that was epidemic in many Philadelphia neighborhoods.

"There is no arguing," he said. "Trunks up, shirts in, and the thing we learned back in my day - mouth shut. If you can't abide by my rules, you go home. And it works. Our youngsters need structure."

Hill, a 5-9 dynamo with serious hops, was well known in Philadelphia for his play in the old Eastern League and Charles Baker Memorial Basketball, which he helped establish in 1960 as the first professional summer league in the United States.

It was not vanity that led him to name the amateur league he started after himself; it was because his name was universally respected across the city.

"I was a basketball player who spanned the neighborhoods," said Hill, who has hosted a radio show on 94 WIP for more than 2 decades. "I played in both the black and white neighborhoods.

"We had teams that were playing from across the city, which meant you had to cross gang lines. Players would get stopped and people would say, 'Man, where are you going?' They would say they were going to play in the Sonny Hill League. The gang members would say, 'You can walk.' It still gives me chills to think about that. We never had any trouble."

Sonny Hill isn't just a name on the door. He goes to the games. Kids see him there and know he has made a commitment to them.

"It's not absenteeism," Hill said. "I've been doing this for 45 years and I've spent more than 95 percent of my time at the games. The kids see me and respond in kind."

The Sonny Hill League became the blueprint for community leagues that sprung up in other cities.

Basketball historians will tell you Hill had the skills to have played in the NBA. But in his era, the NBA had just integrated and there was still an unwritten quota on how many black players would be let in.

Still, he loved the game, and he knew he could use it to give back.

"I still can't believe that being born in 1936, I have been on this journey," said Hill, who became a color commentator for the 76ers in 1969 and became the first African-American national commentator on NBA games for CBS in 1972. "I could not have even thought about that. How would I even think that I'd have the impact I've been able to have?"


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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