From the Hill to the Valley
by Billy McGill and Eric Brach
From the Hill to the Valley is the story of Billy ‘the Hill’ McGill, the only #1 NBA draft pick ever to come out of Southern California and the man who broke the color barrier at the historically all-white University of Utah. He set a still-unbroken season record by scoring 38.8 points-per-game as a center in his senior year of college, but he first made a name for himself as a high-schooler by inventing the jump-hook, a shot he first unleashed in a pickup game over the outstretched arms of a young star named Wilt Chamberlain.
This is the first chapter of Billy’s story.
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Chapter 1. The beginning.
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It’s September, 1939 when I’m born on a ranch in San Angelo, Texas. Ranch isn’t quite right; it’s a big old house with a shed out back and a little creek running down by its edge. Mama Sadie keeps vegetables out back – collard greens and turnip greens and that – and in the shed, John Henry keeps a couple of animals. All the neighbors keep animals. They’re not running wild over the place, but we all keep enough to eat. Have to.
It’s my grandmother’s ranch, my mother’s mother’s, and I’m left in her care – in the charge of Mama Sadie – when, after I emerge choking through red clay soil, my mother leaves me to make her life in California.
I’m too young to feel abandoned. This is just how it is. Mother goes. Mama Sadie raises me, with help from my aunt Gloris Jean. Alongside the animals and the neighbors who live down the street – we can holler for them, and see their house easily enough – it’s just the three of us and Mama Sadie’s husband, Mr. John Henry. Mr. John Henry’s not my biological grandfather, and what happened to him, I can’t say; I just know that by the time I come around, Mama Sadie’s living with Mr. John Henry, and that’s that.
My father, whom I don’t know, is in California with my mother. Without him around, I look up to Mr. John Henry. But he isn’t much of a talker, or much of a warm man, either. He does have arms like sledgehammers, which I take for funny the moment I learn the old spiritual, and I watch him kill pigs like this: he slams them twice in the forehead with the flat part of the head of an axe. The first shot sends the pig sprawling to the ground, stunned and broken, and the second one finishes it off. The man grew up in the country, and he can wring chickens‟ necks off with one hard twist of his wrist. But that’s too gruesome a thing for a little kid to aspire to do, so I spend most of my time with Gloris Jean.
Gloris Jean is a good bit older than I; she was already in her teens when I was born. She’s beautiful – the prettiest person I’ve ever seen – and so sweet that I take to her instantly, following her everywhere she goes. When she walks into town, I’m at her heels; when she has chores to do, I cling to her ankles and I listen to her sing. At night, when I’m scared, it’s Gloris Jean that I run to. Gloris Jean fixes my plates of pork and greens at meals. When I come indoors from playing all day, Gloris Jean is the first person I want to tell.
After John Henry kills a fattened pig, he carries it into the shed and trusses it. Freshly slaughtered pigs are pink and also brown, dirty from having thrashed in the mud and caked with matted blood and hair. The dead pigs, he slits through the throat and, hanging them from a hook, bleeds them out into a bucket. The red liquid heat pools and congeals, and as the pig stares out at the world with ice-dead eyes the hue of skimmed milk, John Henry slits its belly and guts it, pulling out the innards onto a low table to sort.
One time, I sneak in to watch him working the carcass, and I bring a few other kids in to peek. Mama Sadie catches me, and she yells for Gloris Jean – Gloris Jean, whose job it is dole out the punishment along with the love; Gloris Jean, who’ll catch me and spank me on my bottom with a wooden spoon.
Mama Sadie yells for Gloris Jean, and she comes a running after me, alternately yelling and cajoling. I know what’s to come, and I duck and dodge but I’m expecting her to catch up and give me what I’ve got coming. Only this time, she doesn’t. This is unusual, and I know it: I’m a little kid, a child just barely old enough to go to the bathroom alone, but this teenage girl – this nascent woman already mostly grown – can’t seem to snag to me. I escape.
“He must have got it from his father,” intones John Henry when he’s told the news. “Athletes in the blood.” My ears perk up, and I’m sent off without any supper, but I don’t care. No one ever mentions my father, and I’m desperate to learn more about him. Who is he? What did John Henry mean?
I’m curious, and I plan to ask Gloris Jean, but I never get the chance. Not long after, she says she feels sick, and she gets to lying down quite a bit. Whenever I ask her to come outside, to play, to walk with me into town, she says that she can’t, that she’s tired. She stops joining us at the table, and one night, Mama Sadie leans over and says to Mr. John Henry, as though I’m not there, “Dorothy is coming to get Billy Junior.”
Dorothy: my mother, my real mother. It’s a concept I love, but visions of her in my life are mere shadows: a passing smell, a pair of legs under the table during a holiday visit to the ranch. She comes when Gloris Jean leaves us, and I’m too young to be told why – why my mother is now, suddenly, ready for me, and why, just as quickly, Gloris Jean is gone. They take her away, though, lying down and peaceful, and I’m glad to see that she’s resting comfortably and with her eyes closed. I’d hate to see them wide open, staring cloudy and blue, with her body trussed and bled, caked with mud and her innards spilled out into a bucket.
I’m five years old.
My mother arrives, vibrant and beautiful as I remember her and like a grown, carved statue of my aunt. With her shiny hair and soft skin, I quickly find I like to nestle into her.
“You love me, right, Billy?” she asks one day, and I nod yes.
“Good,” she says, “because you’re going to come with me.”
“Where,” I ask.
“To California,” she says. “To Los Angeles.”
“Why?” I want to know.
“Why? Why, to live!”
It slowly dawns on me that my mother is taking me to go with her, and I don’t know if I’m excited or scared. San Angelo is all I know, and I don’t know what moving means. Can I take my pillow? Will I need to bring socks?