As I was writing the story on Saturday about the passing of Statesboro basketball coach Lee Hill, I was struck with a very strong coincidence — Coach Hill, my father and Nate Hirsch all died at the age of 68. These were the three most important men in my life, and they all passed away at the same age.
I was fortunate to cover Coach Hill’s career from 1991 until this year. Basketball has always been my favorite sport, and what a privilege to come to Statesboro the year they won the state title and see a legend in the prime of his powers.
Statesboro played for the state title in back-to-back seasons, and then went to the Final Four two years later. I will never forget those trips to Albany for the state tournament. I think I enjoyed the time in the Albany Civic Center, sitting with him between games, as much as the games themselves.
When you sat with Coach Hill at a game, you knew you were in the presence of greatness. People would flock to him, and you could tell how highly they regarded him. High school and college coaches would line up to get a chance to talk with him, and, if they were funny enough, they got to hear his unique, special laugh.
When Coach Hill realized I actually knew a little bit about the game of basketball, it took our relationship to another level. I got the chance to coach his son Lee Jr. in sixth grade. He was impressed that our recreation league team was playing a 1-3-1 trapping zone, and the fact that I encouraged the kids to throw bounce passes and use the backboard.
Asking my advice
After I had been covering the Blue Devils for about 10 years, he came out at halftime of a game in which they were struggling and asked me what I thought. I told him in my opinion they needed to spread the floor more on offense and let Rashad Wright go one-on-one, or post up his defender, who was much shorter than him. He told me that was a good idea, and used it on the way to a victory.
How many coaches would even ask a member of the media what they thought, let alone use the advice they were given? It made me so proud, especially afterward when he told me he appreciated the advice. It was as if my own father had just told me I did a good job.
Coach Hill also was like a father to his players. Some of his players didn’t have a father in their lives, and I’ve heard some say they don’t know where they’d be without Coach Hill’s guidance. He always tried his best to make sure any student that played for him had a chance at a scholarship to further his education.
My 17-year-old son Jordan passed away in 2015. At his service, I mentioned how Jordan had incorporated the term “Hey, good buddy” as his greeting to his friends and to his family. He got that from hearing me and Coach Hill use that as our greeting for years.
It started one day when I saw him and said, “Hey there, good buddy.” He then started laughing and said that anytime someone greets you with “Hey there, good buddy,” it means they want something. From there it just became the way we always greeted each other, usually followed with a hug or him grabbing me by the neck.
A contagious laugh
Coach Hill loved to laugh, and his laugh was contagious. I’ve heard that from most everyone I have talked to the past couple days about him.
I’ve even seen him go from anger to laughter in a matter of seconds. I recall a game around 1995 when Derrick Taylor missed a dunk. Coach Hill immediately called timeout and began yelling at him, and Derrick just smiled, patted Coach Hill on the backside and said, “I know, I know.” He tried to suppress the laugh, but it came out anyway. I have seen that happen on more than just that one occasion, including last year with the late OJ Reese.
For someone who was as intense as he was with his players, I have only seen Coach Hill get one technical foul in my 29 years of covering him. That actually happened when he was yelling at his own player, and the ref thought he was yelling at him. I think that fact is also an example of how respected he was by the referees as well.
My sons and Coach Hill
I was so glad my son Jordan got to know Coach Hill as well. He loved basketball and asked if he could help video the Statesboro games for Coach Hill during his freshman and sophomore years of high school. Jordan was so excited to be a part of the team and would tell me stories of the road trips they took. He said he would always sit in the front in order to hear what Coach Hill had to say.
Coach Hill also always has been gracious with his time for my oldest son Kyler. Kyler uses a wheelchair to get around and has an iPad with an app on it he uses to communicate. He and Coach Hill had a unique relationship, and Hill would always tell Kyler he was going to bust him up if he didn’t come to the games. When we would get to the gym, Kyler would always go straight to Coach Hill and make sure he saw him. Coach would put up his fist like he was going to punch him, and Kyler would just bust out laughing.
I think the world of the Hill family, and my thoughts and prayers go out to them. I’ve gotten to know all of them through the years. They are the sweetest group of people, and I cherish our friendship.
It will never be the same walking in the Statesboro gym and not seeing him, and I’m really not looking forward to basketball season for the first time in my life.
I loved Coach Hill and will miss his laughter, his busting my chops and his friendship.
Josh Aubrey is a sports writer and videographer for the Statesboro Herald. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.