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Since opening in 1985, the Essex County College Gymnasium had simply known as the Physical Education Building. A change occurred on May 27, 2022, when the newly renovated Gym was formally dedicated as the Cleo Hill, Sr. Physical Education Building, complete with exterior signage. Additionally, the Cleo Hill, Sr. name also emblazoned on the new Gym floor.
Cleo Hill, Sr. was an NBA standout and legendary ECC Men’s Basketball Coach and Athletic Director. Born and raised in Newark, he was a graduate of South Side (now Malcom X Shabazz) High School and Winston-Salem Teachers College (now University). In 1961, he was the top draft choice of the St. Louis Hawks, the fifth player ever drafted from a Historically Black College and University.
Unfortunately, he was “blackballed” from the NBA following his rookie year. He subsequently played in the American Basketball League and the Continental Basketball League before coming to ECC as head coach.
At ECC, Coach Hill compiled an amazing 489-128 record over 24 years, including a trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game.
“We loved you Cleo Hill and hope we’ve done well by your family today,” said Marion A. Bolden, Chair of the College’s Board of Trustees during the dedication ceremony. College Trustee Johanna Wright added Coach Hill had great courage. “Courage is something you can’t buy; it’s the willingness to stand for right, even if you stand alone. That is who we honor today.”
Fighting back tears, an emotional Cleo Hill, Jr. said, “Our family is forever grateful to Essex County College, Newark and Essex County for this honor. My father was passionate about winning, the fundamentals of basketball and, most importantly, the grooming of young men.”
Before the formal cutting of the green ribbon in front of the Cleo Hill, Sr. Physical Education Building, former ECC basketball players offered testimonies to their coach.
“Coach Hill was the first person to teach me about life. He mentored me and got me on the start to where I am today,” said Essex County Commissioner and former ECC basketball player Rufus Johnson.
“I couldn’t wait to get here today and show my appreciation to Coach Hill. Coach first saw me when I was a kid playing basketball at the rec center. He taught me so much,” said Louis Grimsley. Grimsley was the longtime basketball coach at Shabazz High School and served as an assistant coach at Elizabeth City (North Carolina) State University.
Former ECC players Russell Shuler and Kim Fisher also offered testimonies. “It’s difficult to find the words for what Coach Hill meant to me. He was like a second father,” said Shuler.
“Cleo Hill, Sr. dedicated his life to Essex County College. We will never forget what he did for us,” said ECC’s President, Dr. Augustine A. Boakye. Dr. Boakye also thanked Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. for the role he played in renovating the interior of the Gym, including the floors, hallway and lighting.
County Executive DiVincenzo called the culmination of the dedication ceremony a “team effort. Rufus Johnson first suggested naming the Gym for Cleo Hill. It is the right thing to do. Today is Cleo’s day. This will be here forever. He was an important man who did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
ECC Athletic Director Michael Doughtie said, “We are honoring the legacy of an individual who had such an impact on both our College and Essex County. His legacy at the College might be as impressive as his playing ability” He added that an ECC Athletic Hall of Fame is also planned for the Gym.