By Peter Goldman
Sport, November, 1977
“You get what your hand called for.”
—The Sayings of Leon Hillard
Somebody showed me in the papers a while ago where Leon got what his hand didn’t call for. The headline jumped out at me first—EX-GLOBETROTTER IS KILLED BY WIFE—and then, sickeningly, the picture: the black gnome face with the eyes of a kid who knows a secret and a smile as stealthy as sunrise in the ghetto. Leon Hillard. The story told how he got messed up with his Sandra. Yelled at her, chased her downstairs to her mama’s, kicked open the door and walked into a .38 slug coming out. There were a couple of perfunctory paragraphs about how he played and later coached for the Harlem Globetrotters for 15 of the years between 1951 and 1972, and how he was deep into youth work in Chicago when he died at 45. His whole life story took up half a column. What more is there to write about a dude who only used to be the Second Baddest Show Dribbler on The Road?
So Leon Hillard, a man of a thousand sayings, had it wrong for once: His hand called for better than what he got. His name, to be sure, has got lost down some back highway of our memory. Mention the Globetrotters and an older fan will come back at you with Goose Tatum and Sweetwater Clifton; a kid with Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal; both generations with the apparently ageless Marques Haynes. Leon? He played a lot of his years in Marques’s shadow, and a lot more bojangling around what he called the little in-between towns with the Trotter second company while Marques and Curly played Front Street. You can hardly find him in authorized Globetrotter history now—he parted that badly with them. They didn’t even send flowers.
“I’m not really happy, man, but what the hell. You got to be out here six months on The Road, y’know. Ain’t no sense in makin’ it difficult.”
But the old Globetrotters remember. Leon knew the Trotter thing better than practically anybody—learned it from Tatum, the moody master, in the 1950s and taught it to a new generation of schoolyard brothers in the ’60s and ’70s. How to read a crowd from the murmur before you even hit the floor. How to get ‘em buttered by getting that ball hot—hopping hand-to-hand or hand-to-floor so fast it never wants to cool down. How to drag yourself out with your soul all bruised and legs all floor-burned, and still make people laugh. How to survive “The Road”: The short bread, the long bus rides, the ennui of playing the same game every night, the funky phone calls home and back. “Leon had the real rhythm of it,” said Bobby Hunter, his friend and Trotter protégé. “If the world had to start up again on the moon, you’d have to have somebody with the book on farming, y’know? Well, Leon would’ve been the one with the book on the Globetrotters.”
And more; Leon had kinds of magic you can’t do with a basketball. He could get streetcorner basic—stern, he liked to say—about issues of money and dignity; he walked out on the Trotters twice, and helped foment a player strike against them in 1971. Leon crazy, some of his less impudent teammates whispered. A gangster. Got an attitude. But once the deal was down, he greeted a day like an old friend, with a lopsided grin and a line of pavement-wise chatter. “Was never hushed-up today and ha-ha tomorrow,” he told me once. “People asked me, ‘Leon—how can you be happy all the time?’ And I told ’em, ‘I’m not really happy, man, but what the hell. You got to be out here six months on The Road, y’know. Ain’t no sense in makin’ it difficult.’”
When the Trotters retired him off The Road and back to the streets he came from, that was the attitude Leon took with him. His business was franchised fast food, but his thing was kids—most recently and promisingly with a Chicago-based foundation called Athletes For Better Education. Leon could talk a Blackstone Ranger out of gangbanging or charm a junkie off his jones. “’Cause they know I know what I’m talkin’ about,” he guessed. “I’m tellin’ ’em what they’re doin’ around the corner, and they can’t figure that out. ‘Mr. Hillard, how you know that?’ Well, I been around that corner when I was their age—that’s how I know.”
Leon’s corner was on Chicago’s West Side, where the northbound Chickenwing Express out of Arkansas had deposited his folks early in his boyhood. He came up poor, hungry, scrawny and, like most of the brothers on the block, “a little anti-white”—the whites in his young experience consisting mostly of creditors and cops. He first picked up a basketball when he was 14, in some Y or Baptist gym or somewhere, and he learned to put it down as an act of survival. “Guys in the neighborhood used to muscle me around. Beat up on little guys. So I learned this dribblin’ thang. Did what I saw Marques do, or what I thought I saw. Make that ball your trick.”
He was just 18 when Abe Saperstein, the founding genius of the Trotters and still the reigning monopolist in black basketball talent, bought him straight out of high school for $350 a month. His mama had to sign the contract and see him off in his tatty backstreet clothes to catch up with the second unit in Johnson City, Tenn. Leon arrived green and scared among men old enough to be his father—“my grandfather, man”—and jealous enough to freeze him back to the ghetto if they wanted. So he faded into the scenery, shy, silent, grinning his sly grin. “Put myself in a likable way, y’know?” Worked on his game, tappy-tapping the ball in a thousand hotel room floors until the guests downstairs howled for the house detective and his own arm hurt from his fingertips to his shoulder. Heard, saw, and spoke no evil. Who, me? Don’t know nothin’.
So the old Trotters adopted him. Called him “Junior.” Bunked him with Sam Wheeler, the gifted road-company clown who might have succeeded Goose except that his skin was too light and his dunking hand was missing two and a half fingers. Got him off hot dogs and onto beefsteak to flesh up his frame—a skinny 5-foot-7 1/2 then, a wiry 5-foot-11 even in his prime. Tutored him in show basketball when it wasn’t yet all show—when you might still roll into a town all road-weary and find a home team heavy with ringers sitting in their locker room with all the lights out just to scare you. Hipped him to the etiquette of life with Abe—call him “Skip,” and laugh at his jokes, and never ever beat him at bid whist. Admitted Leon to the pleasures of life: Sipping, smoking, balling, betting, jiving away the long hours on the bus. Even saw him off to church on Sundays under the wing of a seriously religious teammate—“although,” Leon told me, smiling, “that’s really not The Road. Y’know?”
His real mentor was Tatum, a shambling clown with coal-house skin, saucer eyes, a slappy walk, and a seven-foot wingspan affixed improbably to a 6-foot-3 body. Goose was two men, Leon always thought—like Pagliacci. Brooding, dark, and dangerous as a thunderhead until the moment they put on “Sweet Georgia Brown”; then, a brilliant black-in-blackface anachronism masking his wounds and his rages behind a stretchy minstrelman smile. He was mostly a loner on The Road, out of his own preference and the respect of his teammates for his violent temper. But Goose took to Leon, because Leon was likable and—just as important in Tatum’s jealous eye—he wasn’t Marques Haynes. Goose made Leon and Sam Wheeler his designated drivers, in a Fleetwood he bought from an uppity white dealer in Nashville for $9,000 in pennies. He let them tag along on his night prowls, sometimes buying out a whole nightclub for an evening just for them. He took his women in bunches, and then, when he had sent them home, kept Leon up to dawn just talking. “Teachin’ me show business. Tellin’ me tales of black.”
What Leon never learned was going along.
Leon listened and learned. He rifled Goose’s trick bag and, by imitation, mastered it. He cased entertainments from the Ice Capades to the Folies Bergère for what he could borrow. Timing. Movement. Precision it down. And he ripened his own game. He flung up rainbow-high two-hand setshots when Abe, a stubborn traditionalist, was around, and funky little one-hand jumpers when he wasn’t. Leon set the beat for the rhythm section—the backcourt cats hopping the ball around a tight figure-eight weave and into the hole for Goose or Meadow or whoever to play with. He got his show dribble down to no worse than a bounce or two behind Marques, and good enough for Front Street when Marques cut out on his own. Different, too—streety and jazzy. “Marques was like a melody—da da da dum dee, da da da dum dee,” Sam Wheeler said. “Leon was more like a rhythm piece—ditdidditdadadaditditdada.”
What Leon never learned was going along. He fell into a kind of love-hate thing with Abe—tight with him and his family, but never at the expense of his own pride. He beat Abe at cards. (“Man, you ain’t supposed to do that,” his roomie Sam told him, but Leon did.) He hooted at Abe’s attempts at coaching—instructing the Trotters, for example, to slow down the great George Mikan in an exhibition game by yanking on his pants. He sat stone-faced among the peals of black laughter at Abe’s gags. (“Look at this oscar here,” Abe would say, annoyed. “Didn’t get the joke.”) He kept bogarting Abe for better money, and when it wasn’t forthcoming he walked away from the Trotters. Twice. In 1958, for a year with a breakaway team organized by Goose; in 1960, to start his own road club, thinking Goose’s successor, Meadowlark, would follow. “Can’t live without us, man,” Leon said. “Cut off the head and the body will die.”
Only Meadow didn’t follow, and without him Leon and his partner Ducky Moore and their Harlem Ambassadors lasted maybe a year and a half. He had a time of it anyway; once, from a backwater town somewhere, he sent Abe a picture postcard of some cartoon cannibals stewing a missionary, with his own scrawled caption: “Thanks for the family recipe.” But taking on the Trotters was more than Leon could manage, or afford. He had become a family man—had married Sandra, his neighborhood sweetie, and fathered the first of his three sons, and he finally had to throw in his hand. Folded the Ambassadors and drifted off with other road clubs, sometimes for shorter wages than Abe paid. What he wouldn’t do was go back to the Trotters. Not until they begged him—he carried their come-back telegram around like a card of identity—and not until Abe was dead.
He had gone out smoking, a rebel kid with a Chicago rep, waggling a finger right in Abe’s round-eyed face while his teammates scattered for shelter. But all the years of The Road buffed him smooth and broadened him. He would come home summers from Paris or Tokyo or someplace, a West Side brother with a bistro list and an acquaintance with good cognac, and would find the same old dudes sipping wine on the same old corner as if they had never moved. Leon discovered then the distance he had traveled from them. He saw in their eyes that they were dying there, and he didn’t want to die with them.
So Leon came back to the Trotters and their mini-conglomerated new Chicago management a different man—road-wise, polished, bilingual in backstreet and front-office English. “Not ghettoish, y’know—sophisticated.” He did a year show-dribbling, and then the new crowd with the custom leisure suits and the State Street attaché cases made him a player-coach. Handed him the second company, the International Unit, a low-dollar, low-spirited assortment of egos, cliques and attitudes, and told him to whip them into shape.
Nothin’ from nothin’ is nothin’.
And Leon did. He got dazzling shows out of the team’s veteran star, Showboat Hall, exploiting Boat’s genius Trotter hands and working around his mercurial humors. He taught his own game to Pablo Robertson, a playground hero out of Harlem and Loyola, and helped make him a star at the risk of his own future as a player. He got his guys on speaking terms with the white opposition, and—almost as difficult—with each other. He put on one marvelous season, the kind old Trotters talk about like wine-sippers admiring a ’62 Lafite Rothschild. “Chanting them on like a witch doctor,” one teammate remembered—hop it now, down in, back out, on the money, bang!
He did almost too well—got himself promoted against his easy nature to the big team and the staticky company of Meadow George Lemon, by then Goose’s successor as clown prince on the court and autocrat of the locker room. Leon handled the Lark Question by accepting him as given, and concentrated instead on bringing along the younger Trotters—the sassy asphalt stylists from Harlem and Brooklyn and Chicago’s South Side with their superfly games and their flashpoint sensitivities. Leon know what time it is, they told each other, and he hipped them to it. The game and the life. The wisdom of The Road reduced to a thousand sayings:
Send some home on payday.
Chase them messy gals all night if you want, but stay out of the papers, and save 40 good minutes for me and the customers.
If you got a game, play it. But none of that eye-rollin’, Stepin’ Fetchit stuff—got nothin’ to do with the rest of black people and it demeans you.
If a dude makes a mistake, leave him alone—you think he want to look bad in front of 10,000 people? I made mistakes, and I been here.
Do it right and you won’t have to do it over. What goes round comes round.
You get what your hand called for.
Nothin’ from nothin’ is nothin’.
Leon coached with skill and played with Indian-summer magic—well enough to bring the halftime jugglers and trampolinists back from their dressing rooms to watch him do his thing in the third quarter. What he lacked was a certain entrepreneurial regard for bottom lines, and the distance they require between boss and employee. A lifetime of short checks and tall promises had left him incurably suspicious of every management he ever played for—even when he became part of management himself. His view of proprietors was something like his rule for defensing a dude trying to shake-and-bake his way past you to the basket. “Don’t look at the cat’s feet, man, ’cause he’ll shuffle on you and get away. Stand back and look at him. It’s survival.”
That stand-back distance, subversive for a player, was downright seditious for a coach. Leon encouraged the help to demand money for value, and hassled the front office for bonuses for them. Once, he even said no. He had just dragged into Dayton at three or four in the morning, the players bus-weary and heavy-eyed, and there in the hotel lobby was the local promoter sweating and fidgeting over his sluggish ticket sales. “Leon,” he said, “you got to put five or six of the guys out on the corner at eight in the morning and do a little clowning—I got a TV crew lined up.” Leon stiffened, knowing it would get him in trouble and not caring. “’Cause, see,” he said, “all the time in the years before, the promoters thought the Globetrotters was machines. And we had to act like machines, and I was a part of that. But this time I made a decision.” He chuckled. “A major decision. I looked back at the guy and said, ‘I can’t help you.’ I said, ‘The men are tired.’ I said, ‘You got to sell your tickets. What we do is come in and do your show.’”
The time finally came when Leon figured you don’t even do that—when he and his main man Bobby Hunter and a couple of fellow heretics led the elves out on strike against Santa Claus. Mutinies had been tried before on the Trotters, and Abe had always got the jump on them, dispensing a hundred or so here, shuffling a roster there, once sacking practically his whole team and hiring a new one. So Leon moved stealthily. Sophisticated. He talked to the players, one by one, then in little midnight black caucuses. “Y’know, if we stopped tomorrow, they can’t get no white Globetrotters.” He got them a downtown white labor lawyer. He and Hunter collected their grievances and then their signatures on union pledge cards—everybody’s, in the end, except Meadowlark’s. And finally they dispatched the news to the management, with their ultimatum: “By this date and time, if we do not be recognized as a union, we will not be performin’.”
This time, to their own surprise nearly as much as management’s, the Trotters were serious—dead serious enough to fold the show one night in Port Huron, Mich., and hunker down in their motel for most of a prime-time month in the late autumn of ’71. It was only that first day Leon reminisced about with any real pleasure—the guys painting up their picket signs and peeping out through the venetian blinds at the arena across the street. “People was flockin’ there, and we was laughin’ all up our sleeves—they thought it was a Globetrotter joke.” After that it was a siege, a dozen black guys in a motel spending their last checks and watching each other’s eyes and wondering if they would wilt before the guys in the leisure suits.
They won, sort of—got their players association recognized, and doubled the average annual wage to something over $30,000, and pried loose some concessions, including meal money and premium pay for doubleheaders. But their victory, and their union, lasted roughly the three-year life of their first contract. Old faces started disappearing, all for reasons accepted in professional sports as sound. Showboat Hall was pronounced too old at 45; Pablo Robertson flunked his team physical; Bobby Hunter, the union president, got beat out of his job in training camp; some bad-ass city kids were cut for economy or supplanted by new recruits from the Southern black colleges. And Leon? Leon was one of the first to go. He couldn’t cut it as a player any more, they told him, and the coaching jobs were taken by Meadow and Marques. They sent him home to Sandra and the boys with $14,000 in severance pay, but no pension. He never looked back.
Nothin’ from nothin’ is nothin’.
But he did bring something home from The Road—a vocation for kids that he discovered on a Trotter tour a world away from home. “It was Africa—North Africa,” he remembered, “and I learned a lesson there. From some kids, orphan kids, the oldest one about 12 years old. Not even brothers or sisters or anything—wasn’t no parent over them. Just kids like you see dogs in the street, wanderin’ around, tryin’ to survive. For each other.” Remembering them, Leon’s eyes began flooding, and his voice thickened. “And it just opened my mind, y’know? ’Cause I didn’t know things then about humanitarianism.
“ ’Cause, see, these kids followed us. Came up behind you and kind of touched on your elbow, and when you turned around, they’d be pointin’ at their mouths, goin ahhhh! Ahhhh! And people had told us not to give ’em nothin’—‘They’re thieves, they’re this, they’re that.’ But they followed Sam Wheeler and me to this restaurant—had an open door where you could just go in and see out on the streets. And these kids sat out there on the curb watchin’ us eat, y’know, and we felt really bad.
“So when we left the restaurant, they followed us back, and we gave ’em some money anyway, in spite of the fact that they told us not to. We got back to the hotel and went up, and we was watchin’ them out the window.” Leon sniffled loudly. “And they disappeared—we didn’t see ’em for 15 or 20 minutes, and then they came back. Sittin’ on the curb. They had went to the store and got bread. Meat. And they set there, and this 12-year-old, he divided that bread and that meat into seven pieces. They didn’t argue—‘Well, you got more than me!’ Just divided it. Survivin’ for each other. And I started thinkin’—those kind of kids, y’know, and if they could do that why couldn’t we do that?” He was weeping now at the memory. “I always stay away from that,” he apologized, “but it had a lot to do with my life. Made me want to have somethin’ to do with kids’ lives.”
So Leon went back to the corner, to compete with the dope dealers, the gang-bangers, and the storefront Marxist-Leninists for souls. For a while, he answered too many freelance distress calls from too many community groups and playground workers and plain messed-up families. “He was always moving 50 directions at once,” Hunter remembers, “and 10 minutes late for everything.” It was almost as if he thought he could go one on one against death. Once, a lady with a kid on heroin called for help; Leon talked to the boy for four hours, made a few phone calls, and had him in a withdrawal clinic before the night was out. Another time, a street blood came at him with a piece, and Leon kung-fued him with words. “I mean, man, just shoot me, ’cause I’m tellin’ you what’s real. You done went to the movie and think you’re Superfly or somebody, and I’m tellin’ you where you gonna end up at—one-to-five, boy, a dollar a day, and then you either gonna be dead or wish you was dead, ’cause you gonna be a vegetable walkin’ around in these streets.” The blood backed off.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
It took Leon until his last year or so to get his act really together—to connect his streety wizardry with people organized to make it last. He tried for a while with the Abe Saperstein Foundation, but it got nearly as heavy working for Abe’s ghost as it had been working for Abe. So he cut out, along with Bob Love, then Chicago’s reigning black NBA hero, and Chick Sherrer, a close white pal who used to organize basketball camps for the NBA, and they started AFBE—Athletes For Better Education. The centerpiece of their year-round program was a two-week summer getaway for kids off the block, basketball plus saturation three-R academics plus Leonology 101–102—those rudimentary arts of life and survival known more formally as citizenship.
Leon didn’t live long enough to get it really grooving, and his heirs at AFBE are left with their might-have-beens. Like the time at the first camp when one kid stole something from another, and the staff called all 125 campers together for a late-night meeting. Love was there, and Artis Gilmore of the Chicago Bulls, and a bunch of college All-Americans, but it was Leon who handled the problem—talked on nonstop for an hour about manhood and responsibility. Survivin’ for each other. “And he just captured the entire audience,” Sherrer remembers. “I mean, like nobody rustled, nobody made a noise, nobody got up to go to the bathroom. And at the end of the discussion, the kid who took whatever it was got up, tears in his eyes, and said, ‘I took it.’ And gave it back and apologized, and the whole camp just burst into applause.”
Leon for the first time had it all—all, that is, except time. He lived out at the edge and knew it, going anywhere, confronting anybody, caring and not caring what happened to him. “I’m gonna go violently,” he began saying. “There’s too many things out here I can’t control.” He and his mother were close, in that bonding common to black families, and when she died last year, he dreamed one night that he was going, too. Felt a cleansing steal over him, and saw her standing in the room smiling at him, and suddenly he was face down on the floor, coming awake hollering, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
What he didn’t see was where death was coming from. He knew what The Road can do to a family—had seen too many of them come apart over the short bread, the long absences and the seven-day, uptown-Saturday-night atmosphere. He had come back to Sandra with a worldly estate consisting of less than $1,000 a year for all those years away and the mortgage on their two-flat in a fading South Side neighborhood. His youth work couldn’t pay the bills, and even when he got his Lemmy’s hot dog franchise going on a federal loan secured by his own sweat, economics remained a source of tension in the family. And so did the habits of The Road. Globetrotter men tend to spend their summer furloughs on their best behavior, Leon once told me, because Globetrotter women “know what he been doin’ out there.” The trouble comes when the men can’t leave the life behind—and the gossip attending Leon’s death was that he couldn’t.
There was talk of another woman; of Leon banging the bottle, though no one who knew him well saw or believed it; of quarrels over love and money so bitter that the Hillards, once devoted, started talking about divorce. The official investigation did not scratch much deeper than the chatter. The fatal shooting of one black person by another is known in the argot of Chicago criminal justice as a nigger disorderly, and there was no evident reason to question Sandra Hillard’s story. Yes, she told the police, she and Leon had argued till she walked out on him and took refuge with her mother downstairs. Leon, she said, phoned down and threatened mayhem unless she came home. She didn’t, and, as she told it to the police, Leon came storming after her, splintered the door loose from its jamb, and, silhouetted in the empty frame, stopped a slug fired by his own wife from his own gun. It was, under the law, a justifiable homicide—deadly force in self-defense against deadly force.
They gave Leon Hillard a funeral, and everybody came. Or almost everybody; the Globetrotters’ home office, since reconglomerated into Metromedia in Los Angeles, kept its silent distance, and only a couple of its currently employed hands showed up. But Bob Love came to help bear Leon’s pall, and Ernie Banks, and Bobby Hunter, of course, and Old Sweets Clifton, now a cabbie in Chicago, and a lot of people nobody but Leon ever heard of. In his eulogy, Chick Sherrer mentioned how I had asked Hunter who was Leon’s best friend; Hunter had automatically answered that he was—then reconsidered and guessed that there would be a lot of competition. There was. The friends of Leon Hillard overflowed the funeral and filled a hundred cars going to the graveyard, seeing Leon to the end of The Road.
Postscript: Peter Goldman (b. 1933) “may have done more to explain America to itself, week in and week out, than any other journalist of his generation.” Those words appeared in the final print issue of Newsweek to describe the man who spent 45 of the magazine’s eighty years contributing to its pages. Goldman wrote more than 120 cover stories on subjects ranging from civil rights to Vietnam to Watergate. After leaving the staff in 1988, he continued to contribute to the magazine for another two decades. “Knowing, insiderly, vaguely literary and yet unassuming” is how fellow Newsweek veteran Howard Fineman described Goldman’s voice. The image of “Goldie” pacing the halls on a Friday night, searching for a narrative thread in reports from correspondents in the field, struck another colleague as looking like “a one-man funeral cortege.” Yet by daybreak Goldman would rise from his Underwood, having pounded out the lead story for that week’s national affairs section. Thirty-five of his covers came on what was known as “the race beat,” as did his 1973 book The Death and Life of Malcolm X. “It occurred to me that the Harlem Globetrotters would be a good metaphor for race relations given their odd place in American lore,” said Goldman, who began shopping a book proposal with the working title The Last Minstrel Show. But no publisher offered the advance necessary to do the job. When word reached him in 1977 that one of dozens of ex-Globetrotters he had already interviewed, Leon Hillard, had been shot dead, Goldman dusted off his notes and produced this piece for Sport. It’s a profile of a man who was to the Trotters what Goldman was to Newsweek: largely anonymous, devoted to the institution, gaited for the long run.—Alex Wolff
[This piece also appears in Basketball: Great Writing About America’s Game, edited by Alexander Wolff and published by Library of America. Copyright © 1977 by Peter Goldman.]