AMES, Iowa--Sam Hill took full advantage of the opportunities provided for him while a member of the Iowa State basketball team from 1983-87. Athletics opened many doors for the Chicago native, and he is trying to convey that message to young kids in his current job. For the past six years Hill has been involved with a youth-based organization in the Chicago area called “Use Sports, Don’t Let Sport’s Use You!” The service teaches life skills and gives guidance to kids on how to positively use sports to their advantage and avoid the negative aspects of sports.
“We started this organization about six years ago where we go into the Chicago Public Schools and work with them, local YMCA’s and other youth organizations,” Hill said. “What we do is teach kids life skills and leadership skills; how to be a leader and not a follower. Proper nutrition and the importance of using sports and not letting sports use you. What we mean by that is that it is okay to play basketball or football, but use that to your advantage. If you can get a college scholarship at a NAIA school or Division I school like Iowa State and go on and get your degree in a field of study that is going to suit you, then you have used sports.”
Hill used to be the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Indiana and also worked for the Chicago Urban League after playing professionally for seven years. He has carried over his experiences working with kids into his current job.
“I’ve always had a passion for working with kids,” Hill added. “I used to have my own basketball camps and I wanted to expand to be able to help more kids as far as the importance of sports and life skills. There was always someone there for me when I was a kid to help me, so I feel it is my obligation to give back. Actually, it is not a job for me. It is a passion, so I really have a lot of fun doing it.”
Hill was an instant fan favorite in his time at Iowa State. The 6-9 center was a staple in ISU’s starting lineup in the mid-80s, helping turnaround a once dormant program into one of the most exciting squads in the Midwest. With his mobility and old-school left-handed hook shot, Hill recorded 972 points in his Cyclone career, a total that ranks 27th all time. ISU qualified for the NIT in his freshman season and made its first NCAA appearance in 40 years when Hill was a starter the following year (1984-85), as Hill posted career-high averages of 10.1 points and 7.3 rebounds. Hill and his teammates were the pioneers of Hilton Magic and always felt they were on the cusp of something special.
“Beating Iowa three out of four years and beating Kansas all four times in Hilton, those were great memories,” Hill added. “My sophomore year we went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in decades and played Ohio State. We were definitely thinking we were on the cusp of doing some big things. I think it really helped Iowa State from a recruiting standpoint.”
Everything came full circle for Hill and the Cyclones in 1985-86. ISU recorded a then-school-record 22 wins and advanced to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen after knocking off Big Ten Champion Michigan in the second round. It was a bittersweet victory for ISU and head coach Johnny Orr, who left Michigan for Iowa State in 1980.
“Another great memory was going to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.” Hill said. “Beating Miami (OH) on (Jeff) Hornacek’s bomb and beating the University of Michigan when they had (Roy) Tarpley and all those guys.”
The Cyclones then faced off against North Carolina State in the Regional semifinals in Kansas City. ISU fell to the Wolfpack, 70-66, but Hill’s second-half effort aided the Cyclones to a furious comeback that fell just short. Hill scored 15 of his game-high 21 points after intermission on an array of hook shots which prompted legendary NC State coach Jim Valvano to say after the game, “he was the second-coming of George Mikan.”
“Actually, Jeff Grayer was killing them in the first half, and then I went to work in the second half,” Hill said. “North Carolina State had a really good team and they were huge. Chris Washburn had the first eight or 10 points on me. He could jump so high and he was killing me. It is funny now, but it sure wasn’t then. I told Coach Orr, ‘Hey man, take me out of the game. Put somebody else in.’ But coach calmed me down a little bit and the second half I started shooting my hook shot and my jumper. I think we only lost by four points, but they had a good squad.”
Hill would be the first to admit he was a role player as a Cyclone. However, when your teammates were Jeff Grayer, nine-year NBA player and U.S. Olympian, Jeff Hornacek, 14-year NBA player and NBA All-Star, and the legendary Barry Stevens, ISU’s second all-time leading scorer, there is no shame in that statement. He still keeps in touch with a number of his former teammates and they will reunite this summer in Ames for a great cause. Hill, Grayer, Hornacek, Ron Virgil, Lafester Rhodes and a handful of former Cyclone stars will be in Ames, July 20-21, for the “ISU Hilton Magic All-Star Celebrity Basketball Game,” a two-day celebration in memory of Stevens, an ISU All-Century team member who passed away in February after a heart attack.
“I am honored to have been Barry’s teammate and friend and am excited to come back to Ames,” Hill said. “Barry and I had a running joke. Before each game he would come up to me and say, ‘Hey Hillbilly- he called me that - you get the ball early in the game but remember, before the end of the game, I want the ball.’ We had an understanding, that I get shots in the first half, but at the end of the game, he’s the man.”
“Barry was like a big brother to me,” Hill added. “He meant more to me than basketball. Whenever my program was hosting a seminar in Chicago, Barry would always come for free. In return, whenever he was coaching or having a clinic, I would come. That is the type of relationship we had.”
After all of these years, Hill is still amazed about the rabid and loyal fan support from the Cyclone faithful. He tasted a hint of nostalgia a couple of years ago when he was back in Ames with his buddies when ISU honored the 20th anniversary of the 1984-85 Cyclone squad. He tried to explain to his son what Hilton Magic was all about. He had to see it to believe it. Mission accomplished.
“The 20-year reunion we had two years ago was probably the highlight of my career at Iowa State,” Hill said. “I think it was better than going to the Sweet Sixteen. Just to see all of those guys and to see the love that Iowa State has for past players. We did an autograph session and there was a line outside around the concourse. I was sitting next to Barry and we were talking about it. Some of the pictures and memorabilia that we were signing, we had never seen before. Barry was like, ‘Sam, look at this picture,’ and I had never seen it before.”
“I brought my son with me because I wanted him to experience the love that the Cyclone Nation had for us and its players,” Hill added. “I told him one of the greatest times of my life was going to Iowa State. I told him, ‘when I take you to Ames with me, you will see what it really means to be an Iowa State Cyclone.’ I gave him a camera and he was taking pictures during the autograph session of the line and how it wrapped around the outside. He couldn’t believe it, he was like ‘Dad, you’ve got to be joking.’ It was a great experience.”
For more information about Hill’s “Use Sports, Don’t Let Sports Use You!” organization, log onto the website madeforchicago.com. Fans can purchase tickets for the Barry Stevens All-Star game through Ticketmaster (ticketmaster.com) or by calling the Iowa State Center box office at 515-233-1888.