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by Steve Young

Steve Young columns

One day a scorpion needed to cross a deep and wide chasm. He attempted to enlist a sparrow to fly him across. "Why would I risk that," said the sparrow. "While I was flying you across, you would just sting me and I would die." "Ah," responded the scorpion. "If I would do that, then we would both fall from the sky and die." It made sense to the sparrow, and he had the scorpion climb aboard. Half way across, the scorpion stung the sparrow, and as they both fell towards their death far below, the sparrow asked, "Why did you do that?" Responded the scorpion, "It's my nature."

There were two stories this week that are great illustrations of the morality tale.

John Edwards, despite the risk of losing his political life, message and family, followed his libido and what he thought was his invincibility. It was his nature.

Bill O'Reilly opened his weekly column with a mention that the group Earth, Wind and Fire, thanked America and God for their success, not to speak of the good of America or God, but to kick off a diatribe against Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and performers who, O'Reilly says, "have demeaned the United States," when, in reality, their displeasure is not with the country but with those in power But this is what O'Reilly says to attack those who disagree with the present administration and himself. It's his nature.

So many people with the power to benefit society, tend to concede to their ego, risking all, when taking contrary action is what would make them and those around them, the better for it.

Juxtaposed to these two stories is one where a man's life's work was honored because he refused to give into the nature of personal gratification, and instead, used the negative experiences he faced, not to reciprocate against those who held him back, nor to claim any sense of entitlement, but as an impetus to make a real difference.

Philadelphia's "Mr. Basketball," Sonny Hill, who never got the chance to be voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player, on September 5th will hear his name announced at the Hall as co-recipient of the Mannie Jackson Basketball Human Spirit Award along with NBA Hall of Famer, David Robinson.

The award, named for Jackson, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, is meant to honor those "who have incorporated basketball into their efforts to contribute to the greater good of society. The 71 year old, 5'9" Hill, who, like Jackson, had to deal with an NBA "quota" on black players when he played, never had the same opportunity as today's African-American players to play in the NBA, but he did have a great part in paving the way for those like Robinson and he's been doing it for longer than Robinson has been on the planet.

While Sonny's basketball exceptional on-the-court talent was on display in his college days and in the Eastern Basketball League, where most gifted black basketball players ended up, it is off the court where Sonny broke down long-locked doors.

At CBS, he was the first black commentator for NBA games. "Ahead of his time," said Marc Narducci, longtime NBA reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The first analyst who actually dissected the game for viewers."

But it has been in rescuing underprivileged kids where Sonny Hill found his true signature game, founding and continuing to preside over the Sonny Hill Basketball League where young stars like MVP Kobe Bryant sharpened their skills and untold thousands have been given an alternative to the street for over 40 years.

Without Sonny many talented players would not have had the experience, education and discipline to make it out of childhood games and into college or pros. Without Sonny, those not as talented may not have made it out of childhood. He has built and continues to produce a safe environment for city kids to learn academically, socially and athletically.

"With the relentless message of 'giving back,' Sonny's years of work here and around the country has affected nearly a million kids and adults," said former Virginia State basketball star, Val Phillips. "A little man with a big heart who has made basketball, practice for the real world."

"My family left us for dead, but Sonny literally saved my life by keeping me off the streets," said Phillips, who lost her mom at 16 and had to take care of her four younger siblings. "And when I lost the use of my legs after a car accident, it was Sonny who stepped up and brought me on as a coordinator for the league."

Zelda Spoelstra, who's known as "Angel of the NBA," for her life-long service helping former NBA players and their families, has been with the NBA since 1951, and has known Sonny since he was a kid in the old Eastern Basketball League. "When he was a young man playing in the EBL, I would feed him at my house because, as a black he couldn't get served at the restaurants nearby," said Spoelstra. "Instead of getting mad, he used basketball to give back. He created solid citizens out of kids who might not have a had chance if Sonny weren't there."

"He was a positive role model for thousands of kids where there weren't a lot around," said former St Joe and NBA star, Mike Bantom, a Sonny Hill League player, who now serves as NBA Senior Vice President of Player Development. "Sonny would use basketball to teach, but reminding us that it wasn't always about basketball. When you're a teenager from North Philly, it didn't always make sense, but as you grow up it becomes part of who you are. No one has made a greater contribution to the community than Sonny Hill."

It's never made a difference to Sonny whether he was dealing with hundreds or a single kid.

"His contribution to society is immeasurable," said NBA Hall of Famer and "Mr. Baker League," Earl Monroe. "But even one on one there is no one more loyal than Sonny. Whether I was looking for advise or just friendship, Sonny has always been steady as a rock."

Even as executive advisor for the Philadelphia 76ers, there's ongoing evidence that everyone seems to be on Sonny's team.

"Sonny Hill has been and continues to be an incredible role model to thousands of Philadelphians," said Sixers owner, Ed Snider. "I continue to be amazed at every 76ers game when players from both the Sixers and our opponents all walk by Sonny and say how much of an impact he has had on their lives."

When Sonny left college he had talent enough to be considered for the NBA, but with the league's "marketing quota," teams were worried that middle-class whites would not come out and root for people of color. Sonny went on to star in the smaller pro leagues where he began to draw on life's challenges, not to brood , but to begin to give back.

He hasn't stopped since.

It's Sonny Hill's nature.

Steve Young is author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" ( and blogs at His 13 year-old son Casey played this year in the Sonny Hill League

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Albion Monitor   August 8, 2008   (

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