This is a press release from Essex County. Press releases are official statements that have not been independently verified.
Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. announced a proposal to name the gymnasium at Essex County College after Cleo Hill, Sr. The letter outlining the proposal was signed by DiVincenzo and Essex County Commissioner Rufus I. Johnson and sent to Essex County College Board of Trustees President Marion Bolden and ECC President Dr. Augustine Boakye on January 11, 2022. A native of Newark, Mr. Hill was the first player from a historically black college or university to be drafted by an NBA team in the first round. After his professional playing career, he became a very successful men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Essex County College.
“Naming buildings or conference rooms and erecting plaques and statues has been our way of paying tribute to the men and women who have influenced the development of Essex County or our society. Cleo Hill, Sr. is one of those people who deserve to be remembered for their place in history and naming the Essex County College Gymnasium after him is a fitting memorial,” DiVincenzo said. “Mr. Hill made history as a collegiate and professional basketball player, has been inducted into several Halls of Fame and enjoyed a successful career as a teacher, basketball coach and athletic director at Essex County College after his professional career ended,” DiVincenzo said.
“For many young men, Cleo Hill was a mentor and role model. On the basketball court he taught teamwork and discipline; off the court he showed his students and players how the game could earn them scholarships and help them further their education. In the process, he influenced a multitude of young men who became community leaders, elected officials, entrepreneurs and professionals,” Johnson said.
In their letter to Dr. Bolden, DiVincenzo and Johnson state: “We believe now is an appropriate time to name the gym in Mr. Hill’s honor. A new floor is currently being installed and a variety of improvements are being made to improve lighting and modernize the facility. The dedication would forever link the college’s past to its present and shine a light on the struggles and achievements of one of the college’s most celebrated coaches.”
Born and raised in Newark, Mr. Hill attended Winston-Salem State University (formerly college) where he led his school to two consecutive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships in his junior and senior years. At the time of his graduation, he was the second all-time leading scorer in school history and regarded as one of the best young basketball players in the nation.
His athletic prowess on the basketball court was recognized by the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA, which drafted him in the first round (and eighth overall) in 1961. The historic draft pick made Mr. Hill the first player from a historically black college or university to be drafted in the first round. Unfortunately, Mr. Hill faced a great deal of adversity during his one year with the Hawks, ultimately being benched when white players complained his scoring and after he protested against segregationist practices in NBA cities.
After playing several seasons with the Eastern League, Mr. Hill joined Essex County College as a teacher and men’s basketball coach, and then later as the athletic director. Mr. Hill enjoyed a successful coaching career, winning 489 games over 25 years and leading ECC to three Region 19 championships. More importantly, Mr. Hill was a mentor to generations of students.
He was elected to the CIAA Hall of Fame in 1994 and posthumously elected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017 and the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. He passed away in 2015.
The request is currently being reviewed by the College.