Before practice the other day, a young player approached Armond Hill, the new head coach of men's basketball, and asked him about his glory days as a pro. The player wanted to know, had Coach Hill played against basketball's legends, had he shared a court with the best?
Hill nodded and smiled, but kept walking. He was on his way into the gym, to run a rigid practice with his new Columbia team. With the challenge of his first season ahead, Coach Hill knows there isn't room for glory now. Only hard work.
"I'm trying to get them to understand what it takes to compete," Hill said. "And that, in turn, teaches them to win."
Hill, 42, who joined Columbia in April as head basketball coach, inherited a team not known for winning. They finished the 1994-95 season with only one victory in the Ivy League and begin this season ranked near the bottom of nation's Division One college teams. But Hill sees his job as a long-range project with great potential.
He is starting at the beginning, running his team through practices centered on the basics of basketball: passing, dribbling, shooting. He wants to turn them into solid players who pass well enough to force errors by their opponents and who are confident enough to take only the smart shots.
"Everyone knows it's not going to happen over night. But it can be done," Hill said.
Coming from Hill, there is every reason to believe his prediction. Winning has followed Armond Hill all his life. He grew up playing basketball with his brothers on the concrete playgrounds of Brooklyn, where his family lived in a housing project. Hill distinguished himself as a star player at Bishop Ford Catholic High School and was recruited heavily by such schools as Notre Dame and Louisville. But Hill had his heart set on Princeton, primarily because he was struck by the integrity of its legendary coach Pete Carril.
Hill recalled: "I liked Pete Carril because of his honesty. He told me, 'If you come to Princeton, I can't offer you anything, but I can make you a better player.'"
Hill also knew the value of an Ivy League education. So he ignored the scholarships and the flashy offers, and decided on Princeton. But his application was rejected: Princeton was not sure Hill, who was a C student in high school, could handle the class work. Hill took it as a challenge.
He enrolled for a year of prep school at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, and proved he could get the grades. Princeton accepted him, and under Carril's guidance he won All-Ivy, All-East and the Ivy League Player of the Year honors for the 1975-76 season. Hill then left Princeton for eight seasons in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, San Diego Clippers and Seattle Supersonics.
At the end of his pro career, he finished his A.B. in psychology at Princeton and began coaching. He was at Lawrenceville for five years, three as head coach, and then became Carril's assistant coach at Princeton for four years, during which the Tigers posted a 71-35 record.
Throughout his remarkable basketball career, Hill has nurtured his other passion: art. His love of art started early, when as a boy his talent emerged: He won a contest that awarded him a scholarship for art classes at the Brooklyn Museum. He spent one summer away from the playgrounds in favor of drawing and painting. Years later, Hill served as curator of the Lawrenceville School's museum, where he built up the collection and organized gallery shows to enhance the art education program on campus. Even while a professional player, Hill was a museum researcher in Atlanta and served on the board of the Atlanta Ballet.
"Basketball and art are very similar," Hill explained. "You're dealing with creativity, discipline and how to see." And what he wants from his team this season is nothing less than art. "I'm just trying to teach them how to play and use the staples of the game," Hill said. "I'm trying to teach them how to play. And how to see."
The Columbia men's team won its first game of the season against Ursinus last Saturday at home, with a score of 77-35. Their next home game is Jan. 6 against Lehigh.
Columbia University Record -- December 1, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 11