ABOVE PHOTO: Basketball legend Sonny Hill speaks with Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant ahead of a basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers in 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Sonny Hill is a national treasure. And he’s all ours.
By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
Of all the great names in Philadelphia basketball, there’s only one man who’s not only seen it all, but can also give you a detailed account of what happened.
If you want to know anything about Philly basketball legends like Wilt Chamberlain, or even someone like Gene Banks, legendary basketball impresario Sonny Hill is your go-to guy. You don’t need your smart phone.
“Nowadays we just Google, but before Google, there was Sonny Hill,” said radio talk show host Mannwell Glenn. “Ask him anything about anybody, he knows. His memory, I wouldn’t bet against him.”
Hill can truly say that he is Philadelphia’s “Mr. Basketball.” He’s been a coach, and a mentor, started summer league basketball for pros, collegiate players and high schoolers, and has been a broadcaster and an ambassador for the game.
It meant a lot to Glenn and others to see Hill broadcasting the NBA on CBS with legendary sportscaster Brent Musburger.
“That was a big deal for us to see Sonny Hill as a CBS commentator,” he said, “ and we knew listening to him that he knew more than Brent Musburger,” Glenn said.
When you listen to Hill’s Sunday morning show on WIP, you get a history lesson on sports and on a variety of different subjects. With his 80th birthday a little over a month away (July 22), Hill’s intellect is still as sharp as his suits, said former Philadelphia Eagle and WIP host Garry Cobb.
“Sonny embodies the best things of the city,” Cobb said. “He connects with people. Sonny has a way about him. On my way to church on Sunday mornings, I’m listening to Sonny. Without Sonny, it’s not really Sunday in Philadelphia.”
But Hill’s top topic is basketball, a place where his imprint is outsized. From his own Sonny Hill League to the Baker League, Hill has been intimately involved in the development of local players by allowing them to matchup against some of the best in the nation.
“You can’t measure that depth of what (the Sonny Hill League) means to this town, “Glenn said. “So many young men and women have gone through his league, his program, have listened to his mentorship, he stewardship. Sonny has always been about making a difference for young people. That’s how this whole Sonny Hill League began.”
Hill, who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, started the Sonny Hill Community League in 1968 as a response to gang violence and unrest in the city. More than just a league for the sport of basketball, the Sonny Hill League has grown into a program where young people can get life skills that will be useful to them outside of basketball.
Prior to stating the Sonny Hill League, Hill organized the Charles Baker League back in 1960 as a summer league for pro and collegiate athletes, most notably Chamberlain and Temple legend Guy Rogers.
Local tennis coach Ann Koger, the first woman to referee in the Sonny Hill League, praised Hill’s approachability despite his high visibility around the city and throughout the country.
“The one thing that I was impressed about Sonny Hill was that he does not hold himself as aloof,” Koger said. “If he recognized you, even if he forgot your name, he would come up and say hello.”
Koger said she enjoyed refereeing men’s games in the Sonny Hill League at Temple’s McGonigle Hall and starting refereeing games in the Sonny Hill League in 1981.
Her gender was irrelevant to him, Koger said.
“Sonny probably said that she could handle it,” Koger recalled. “It was an honor to work in that league. The Sonny Hill League was so revered that I thought I had died and gone to heaven and to work with all that basketball talent that’s come out of Philadelphia.”
But in terms of basketball talent, Sonny Hill outshines them all.
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