Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Bill Campion, a living legend of New York basketball.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Campion starred at Rice High School in Harlem, one of the historic juggernauts of New York City high school ball. The small Catholic high school, which closed in 2011, produced the likes of Kemba Walker, Felipe Lopez and Dean Meminger.
Currently, Campion is working with a group that is aiming to reopen the school in Harlem. He is also busy working with a group that has established a Bronx Basketball Hall of Fame.
After starring at Rice, the 6-foot-10-inch Campion went on to become one of the greatest big men in the history of Manhattan Jaspers basketball. A rugged rebounder and consistent scorer, Campion helped lead Manhattan to back-to-back NIT bids in 1973 and 1974.
Campion capped off his fantastic college career by winning the Haggerty Award, which honors the top collegiate player annually in the New York metropolitan area. After a brief stint in the Italian League, Campion spent eight years with the Washington Generals, the perennial adversaries of basketball’s winningest team, the Harlem Globetrotters.
This interview builds on a previous interview I conducted with Campion for the dearly departed Down the Drive.
We discuss his high school career at Rice, his time with the Manhattan Jaspers and his years with the Washington Generals.
Clayton Trutor (CT): At what point did you get your height?
Bill Campion (BC): In the eighth grade, I was like 5-feet-8-inches or 5-feet-9-inches. By the time I entered Rice, I was 6-feet-6-inches. In about four or five months, I grew up pretty quick. I ended up topping off just about 6-feet-10-inches.
CT: In grammar school, were you playing front court or back court?
BC: In grammar school, I was playing forward. I was in the sixth grade, and I didn’t play that much. I’d be the guy that’d go in with 23 seconds left and everybody would be cheering for me to take a shot. By the time I went to Rice my freshman year, I ran into all these guys I’d played with in grammar school and they were like ‘Boy, you really grew up.’
CT: As you transitioned from grammar school to playing at Rice, do you think having been used to playing at a much smaller size helped you as a big man?
BC: Oh yeah. People always said to me ‘you pass the ball good and move good for a big man.’ And I had a decent shot from 12 or 14 feet. I’d worked on it when I wasn’t that tall. That’s all I used to do, go down to the playground and work on it. Dribble, shoot. It also helped that when I was 12, I’d be playing against guys 16 or 17. I’d always be hanging around the court, looking to play if they needed an extra body.
CT: Having played so much on the playground, did you have a hard time adjusting to playing more organized basketball?
BC: Not really. You had the skills and everything. You just had to listen to the coach. I was pretty lucky. I had a lot of good coaches all the way through.
CT: Do you recall trying out at Rice?
BC: I remember freshman tryout. We had like 40 guys try out. They were mostly from Harlem and went to St. Cecilia. I’d gone to public school in seventh and eighth grade. I think I played for about five minutes then found out I’d made it. There was a group of us that were all together—freshman, JV, and then two years on varsity.
CT: How would you characterize Rice’s style of play during your high school career?
BC: We had a pretty good front line that all came up to varsity as juniors. We rebounded well and played fast. We were playing against the best. Power (Memorial) had Lenny Elmore and Ed Searcy. (Archbishop) Molloy had Brian Winters. They beat us but we held our own. We never won a championship but we only lost like 5 games each my junior and senior years.
CT: When you think back to your career at Rice, what were your most memorable moments?
BC: I played against a lot of great players. And when I went to Rice, I met a lot of great guys: athletes, students, guys from all over the city. The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn. We all got along and learned about life from each other. It was a great atmosphere. The school itself was known for basketball and track.
CT: What influence did the coaches at Rice have on your basketball career?
BC: We had a coach there by the name of Ron Niemus. He was our freshman coach, and he was a very good coach. The head coach at the time, Mike Brown, he just passed away about two months ago. Mike taught at Columbus High School (Bronx) but he coached at Rice. He coached so many great players like Dean Meminger.
Mike Brown was the type of coach that took you in as a person first. Like a guardian. And he talked to you about having goals in life. It wasn’t all about basketball. I was kind of lackadaisical, but Coach Brown, that got me motivated. I remember him saying to me, ‘You better hit those books a little harder. You’re going to have a lot of college offers, and if you don’t have the grades, you aren’t going to go any place.’
CT: At what point did you get the sense that you were a college prospect?
BC: Coming out of my sophomore year, I started getting letters from different schools. Kansas, Marquette, Georgia. I was thinking about Georgia because there was a guy down there I’d played with. I took a visit there and didn’t care for it. I decided my senior year around Christmastime to go to Manhattan.
I knew about the college game from guys in the Bronx who’d gone on to play at the college level. I got to know players from all over the city during the summer in high school. I’d go to different parts of the city to play ball.
I knew Manhattan College because it was near the area I grew up in the Bronx. It was close by, and I knew some guys that went there. When I went there, I lived on campus but it was like 15 or 20 minutes away from my parent’s home. So I was able to get home when I wanted to get home. And I was very familiar with that campus. I took driver’s education at Manhattan Prep during the summer, and I used to go up there to attend games.
CT: Did John Powers recruit you directly or who made contact with you at Manhattan?
BC: I met Coach Powers when I was in the eighth grade. He spoke at an award ceremony at my grammar school, and I bumped into him once and a while after that. And then my junior year, he started recruiting me. I liked him a lot and to this day I still talk to him. He wasn’t like a hound dog. He’d talk to me about going there but he kind of left me alone. And the class that came in, we all stuck together, the whole four years.
CT: Did you play freshman ball at Manhattan?
BC: No, I played sophomore, junior and senior. I wasn’t eligible my freshman year due to grades. When I came back my sophomore year, I thought I’d be a half-step behind, but I came out against St. Peter’s at Madison Square Garden and had 28 rebounds my first game and tied a school record. Two nights later against Hofstra, I had 30 and broke the record. I had a good junior year, got drafted into the ABA, but then I hurt my back and my senior year was kind of a wash out. I was dragging my butt the whole year. I could have come out. Actually, I should have sat out the year.
CT: What are some of the varsity games that stand out in your mind?
BC: We had a great game sophomore year at DePaul. We went out there and won. They had a really good team with Dave Corzine. My junior year, we won the Holiday Tournament at Madison Square Garden. We beat LaSalle with Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad. And we played St. John’s in the finals. I got the MVP at the tournament.
CT: I see you went down to Penn your sophomore year. Was Chuck Daly coaching there at the time?
BC: Yeah, we went down to the Palestra and lost by a point. We played an Army team coached by Coach K. that year too. I’ve gotten to meet him a couple of times. Really nice guy. I met him onetime in Newburgh, N.Y., when he was coaching Army and went to a function for kids.
CT: You guys got to the NIT twice. Was being an independent and having a somewhat irregular schedule hinder you guys in pursuit of that?
BC: There really weren’t a lot of conferences back then. A lot of good programs didn’t have one, like Marquette and Notre Dame.
And we were on the road pretty much all the time. We played at Madison Square Garden, but that wasn’t our home court. At the time, we didn’t have one on campus. We practiced at the college but it was in a gym with 200 seats. We never played any home games there.
CT: What stands out in your mind when you think about that 1973 NIT game you guys played against Alabama? Being an 87-86 loss, it must have been a barn burner.
BC: A guy named Goober, Glenn Garrett, just sank one clean as a whistle with two seconds left to beat us. The coach at Alabama at the time was a guy named C.M. Newton. Bear Bryant, in his checkered hat, came right over to congratulate him after the game.
The next year we played Maryland Eastern-Shore on St. Patrick’s Day in the NIT. It was on CBS and they beat us. They had a big guy named Joe Pace who was really good, 6-foot-11-inch guy.
CT: You guys played one of John Thompson’s early teams down at Georgetown?
BC: I remember it was hot as hell in that building [McDonough Gymnasium], and it was packed. That was John Thompson’s first year.
CT: How did your style of play evolve at Manhattan?
BC: I rebounded a lot, and I’d score but not go crazy. I wasn’t going to go out and take 25 or 30 shots. I’d get 14 or 15 rebounds and maybe 18 points. We had a very balanced team. One of the guys I played with, George Bucci, he ended up getting drafted by Buffalo in the NBA and the Nets in the ABA. He played in the ABA.
CT: Did you find all the traveling with the team in college to be a grind or did you like it?
BC: When you’re young, you can do anything. It wasn’t like it is today. We’d fly into Chicago mid-afternoon for a game that night, go back the next morning. We took a train down to Rhode Island. The traveling never bothered me.
CT: Do you think it prepared you for the traveling you did with the Generals?
BC: That you don’t get accustomed to. You take a four-hour bus ride, get into a town play, get into the hotel. Do it again the next day.
After seventh months a year of that kind of touring, I didn’t do anything for a month when I got home.
CT: When you won the Haggerty Award, did you realize you were in the running for it?
BC: I really didn’t pay attention to it or have my eyes set on it. It was coming toward the end of the season that year (1973-1974), and we played at Seton Hall. I had a pretty good game, and Bill Raftery was their coach then. After the game, he said ‘looks like you wrapped up the Haggerty Award.’ Lo and behold, I did win it, but I was more focused on being a team player. I never did have that on my mind about winning that award.
CT: How did you find out you got drafted?
BC: I got drafted my junior year by the Virginia Squires of the ABA. I was going up to the gymnasium and the track and field coach Frank Gagliano was coming out and he goes, ‘Oh, Virginia,’ and he started laughing. I didn’t know anything about it. When I got into the gym Coach Powers told me about an hour or so later. But I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was going to be coming back my next year anyway.
CT: In terms of the NBA Draft, what are you recollections of that?
BC: I got picked in the fourth round by Milwaukee. That was the year that Jabbar left and went to LA. I had an agent and they had a contract and wanted me to go to camp and all that stuff but then the thing with Italy turned up. And it was guaranteed money. So I took that instead.
CT: Who ran the Bucks minicamp?
BC: It was Larry Costello, the head coach. We played in an old auditorium in downtown Milwaukee.
CT: What was your experience in the Italian League like?
BC: I was lucky. I played with Bob Morse out of Penn. He was the other American on the team (Ignis Varese), and he was a really great scorer. We had the center for the national team, Dino Meneghin. There were like three or four total guys on the Italian National Team. We won the European Cup that year (1975). We beat Real Madrid in the finals. It was competitive over there. There were a lot of guys that played in the NBA that were over there.
CT: Was it as good as American college basketball?
BC: Yeah, I would say it was like a top-10 American college game. There were a lot of American players over there, playing all over the place: Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium.
CT: How did you become a Washington General?
BC: I was home. I had student teaching to do and some elective courses to do to finish up my degree. I was out in Queens working with special needs children. And one of the guys I played with in college was named Charlie Mahoney. He called me up and said ‘The Generals are looking for a big guy. You doing anything?’ Since I’d been finishing up my degree, I’d played in a couple of rec leagues but was kind of burnt out. Charlie laid it out for me, and I decided I’d try it. So I went out with the Generals in 1978, and I stayed there till 1986.
CT: Was there a formal tryout?
BC: It was mid-season, and they needed somebody. I went out to Grand Rapids, Mich. After that, we’d have guys come in and try them out at camp. We’d work them out at the Jewish Community Center in Atlantic City, N.J. We’d pick up about two or three guys every year.
CT: How high was the quality of play on the Generals?
BC: We had a lot of good players. One guy when I started was Sam Pellom who went to SUNY Buffalo. He ended up playing with the Atlanta Hawks for a few years. As well as Charlie Criss, who played for the Hawks. Some of them played with us and ended up going onto the Globetrotters afterwards.
CT: What was Red Klotz like?
BC: He was funny. He was a great guy. He went back to the days of Abe Saperstein, Goose Tatum, Sweetwater Clifton. He always told the story that Abe Saperstein told him to get a team together against the Trotters. Red was from Philly, and I guess they were coming into town. His team beat the Globetrotters two out of three or something. And Saperstein got the idea, ‘why don’t you get a team together and travel around with us.’ And that’s how it started. Red was out there a long time—like 40-something years. He had a lot of good stories about the different players.
CT: How were you able to just get up for it every night?
BC: Most nights you were, but some nights you weren’t. You’d have aches and pains and didn’t want to be out there. But you’d split the time with other guys. But you got over it. You’re young. Somebody’d hurt their ankle, and somebody else would pick up the slack for a couple of nights. There were plenty of nights where the funny man would come up with something new, and I’d be laughing out there just as much as the crowd.
Clayton Trutor holds a Ph.D. in U.S. History and teaches at Norwich University. He is the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports and the forthcoming Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, and the Forgotten Cradle of Basketball Coaches. He’d love to hear from you on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor.