The day is December 29, and it’s an uncharacteristically warm, rainy morning in Statesboro.
Outside Statesboro High School there’s a couple of parked cars around the rotunda in front of the gym entrance, where a poster still crudely taped onto the glass from the Gentleman’s Classic — the three day basketball showcase Statesboro High School holds annually after Christmas.
All the doors are locked, so the only way into the school is through a pair of doors tucked quietly off the the right side of the main doors at the rotunda. The brick staircase leading to the performing arts center covers the doors up from the naked eye, so for a stranger it might take a minute or two of excavating the sidewalks in the pouring rain to find those elusive set of doors.
One door is propped open by a rug rolled up under the bottom, allowing access to the locker room and training hallway of Statesboro high school. Right in front of you as you walk in are stairs that lead right into the main gymnasium where the Statesboro Blue Devils were holding practice fresh off a 3-0 run at the Gentleman’s Classic.
Sitting in a slight slump with his arms folded is Lee Hill, a staple for nearly four decades now within the halls of Statesboro High School. He watches his team from his coaches chair still set up from last night’s game, which sits right in front of some navy-blue text on the hardwood which reads “Lee Hill Court”.
Hill every now and then will shout in the direction of a player — not in anger but just loud enough so the player can hear him over the sounds of a dozen bouncing basketballs. His assistants roam about the court making sure every player is doing what they’re supposed to do in their shooting drills.
In other words, it was a routine day for Statesboro’s basketball team.
Any stranger rolling in would have had no earthly idea less than 24 hours earlier Hill had achieved a pinnacle that put him in the pantheon of the greatest high school basketball coaches in the state of Georgia.
On Dec. 28 at Statesboro High School in the final game of the Gentleman’s Classic at exactly 9:25 p.m. — the final buzzer rang on what was a foul-riddled game between the Blue Devils and Glenn Hills High School with Statesboro coming out on top 73-66.
However this win was no ordinary win. This win was the 800th in the esteemed career of Hill, in a career that started all the way back in 1978 when Hill was just 27 years old.
“Right now it’s hard for me to really enjoy it because I’m more focused on trying to win with this team and make them better,” Hill said. “I’ve enjoyed it a little bit but this is what I’m focused on right now.”
It’s seems like a strange way to drink in an accomplishment so large — especially for someone who hasn’t been in the coaching business day in and day out like Hill has. However that’s the kind of mentality it takes to win as many games as Hill has over the course of 38 years.
“We work hard. I could’ve given them the day off today and I know they’re tired but this is when we have to pick our play up,” Hill said. “When I want to work and they want to work too. It’s how we makes these players better on the court and off it.”
It’s hard to blame Hill to think like that when you see his team on paper this season. Despite experiencing what Hill called the “worst” injury luck he’s had in his entire career, the team is now nearly full healthy with all of its starters back in tact.
Ever since their captain Cameron Harvey returned to the starting lineup, Statesboro is 5-2 and back up to 6-6 on the season and humming right before region play. Statesboro is a heavy favorite to win region 5-2A this season so long as they’re healthy, and a title in 2017 would make for the 13th time Lee Hill has won the region he’s coached in.
Hill’s record stands at 800-307 in what is now his 39th season of being Statesboro’s head coach. Amongst those accolades are a state title in 1991, 28 playoff appearances, 24 seasons with 20 or more wins and perhaps most remarkable of all — zero losing seasons.
Hill’s won 72.27 percent of the 1107 games he’s coached in, but in the long run it’s the players he’s most proud of — not the wins.
“Winning would be the obvious thing to be proud of,” Hill said. “But it’s the players that I’m most proud of.”
Hill would continue to emphasis how important the players are to the process, that without well over a hundred young men who’ve passed over those gym floors he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today.
“The greatest joy I’ve had as a coach is seeing my boys go off and be good citizens. Whether they go to college or not, to think I had some impact on their lives to make them better people and to see them do good,” Hill said. “I feel like a majority of those guys have gone on to do just that. I’ve got them out doing good.”
Many of those players were in attendance for not just Hill’s 800th game, but for the court dedication that happened the night before on Dec. 27. Zaquavian Smith — now the leading scorer (20.4 ppg, good enough for 28th in the entire NJCAA) at South Georgia College — was there to support the man who saw as something more than just a coach.
“He’s a father figure really. He took me under his wing because I grew up in a home where a father figure wasn’t a very strong presence. Coach Hill really pushed me,” Smith said.
Smith recalled being in middle school and going to camps at Statesboro High School, where he grew up watching games of Statesboro teams who had gone to the Final Four. Hill was a sort of reverent figure to Smith’s class of players, someone who’d they could only hope to play for once they got to high school.
At Statesboro Smith became a standout guard. In his junior year he’d help lead the Blue Devils to a 28-4 record and a final four appearance, and even now he can still hear coach Hill in the back of his head while running the offense for the Hawks up in Douglas.
“Even now I can hear him at then end of games say, ‘if it goes in, it’s a good shot’,” Smith said. “‘But if it doesn’t, it’s a bad shot’.”
Hill has a similar bond with many of his players, past and current. The aforementioned Harvey, who currently stands as Statesboro’s leading scorer, has a bond with Hill that far stretches beyond anything between a normal player and coach.
Hill is Harvey’s Godfather, and Hill’s sister babysat him from the time he was born. In essence Harvey has known Hill his entire life, and cherishes his presence in his life on and off the court.
“It’s basically like having a second Dad on the court. He expects me to do the best I can,” Harvey said. “He’s taught me how to work hard at everything you do so when when you get out in the real world you can work hard in your real job.”
So it’s well established Hill has fostered the “father figure” role with many of his players. However it’s Hill’s lack of ego that really draws people who’ve never played for him in — something so rare in a business where massive ego’s are as abundant as sand on the beach.
Todd Gilchrist was a football coach in addition to girls from 2005 to 2013 at Statesboro before he took another job that pried him away from coaching. However Gilchrist still makes an effort to get out to all the games and even some of the practices because of how willing Hill is to take advice and help from others.
“He just doesn’t have an ego. He’ll always tell me ‘Man don’t you sit back there and not tell me if you see something’,” Gilchrist said. “He’ll be serious too. He asks after games in person or on the phone or will even ask me to tell the players what I see because they’re tired of hearing Lee’s voice.”
One would be hard pressed to find another coach with 800 wins under his belt willing to listen to others for advice. However Hill says to push away advice from others is not a successful method to winning.
“If you think you know everything you won’t be successful. You might see something and I’ll listen to it,” Hill said. “Let me know so I can think about it. I appreciate stuff like that. It doesn’t bother me.”
It’s that kind of friendly, non-standoffish mindset that keeps bringing people like Gilchrest back around year after year to stay apart of the program.
“I’ll keep coming back. He’s just a great guy. Everything I’ve learned from coaching I’ve learned from him,” Gilchrist said. “The one thing about him is he’s one of the only coaches I’ve known who encourages old coaches to come back and tell him to see what they see. Even at 800 wins he’s humble enough to ask others for their opinion on what’s happening on the court.”
800 wins and 39 seasons is enough to break any man, but at 65 years young Hill is still going strong. Most people his age are retired by now, but Hill’s passion for coaching basketball still burns as white hot as it did when he was a 20-year old assistant at Metter High School.
“I’ve enjoyed every day of this. If there had been you know I would have quit. I just enjoy this so much,” Hill said. “I don’t know if this is just what God sent me to do or what. I never get tired of this.”
Hill retired from teaching in 2003, giving him more time to focus on basketball and keep doing what he loves. As for a full retirement? That’s still up in the air.
“I take this one year at a time. I appreciate the board of education and the administration for letting me coach without teaching anymore,” Hill said. “It gave me a little more life. I just take it as it comes. I’ll know when it’s time to give it up.”
For now Hill isn’t giving anything up. If you were to walk in that gym right now you wouldn’t hear anything about 800 wins or 38 years in coaching.
It’d be about how they were going to beat Southeast Bulloch on Tuesday, because it’s that kind of laser focus that’s allowed Hill to become Mr. 800.