Ashtabula B-Ball's king of the Hill
By KARL PEARSON
Every summer, Tom Hill comes back to Ashtabula from his home in Clarksville, Tenn. His path takes him past the outdoor court at West Junior High School. Often, he participates in the annual Westside Shootout.
These days, when he comes back for those occasions, or even when he pays his annual Thanksgiving visit to see his father, David Hill Sr., and his siblings, he views those courts with a bit of sadness since they generally go unused.
He also remembers those courts with fondness, because that is where Hill developed the skills, even as a preteen, that would serve him well as the leader of what many people feel is the greatest basketball team Ashtabula County ever produced, the 1977-78 Ashtabula Panther squad coached by Bob Walters.
It won the much-acclaimed Star Beacon Hoop Dreams Tournament two years ago.
It was those skills that helped him earn a scholarship to Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, Ala., then to Austin Peay University in what is now his hometown. In an indirect sense, it also helped him connect with his wife of 24 years, the former Monica Claudy, whom he met at Austin Peay. They have a 17-year-old daughter, Ashley. It has brought him to his career in the insurance industry.
"West Street was like home to us," the 47-year-old Hill said by telephone from Tennessee. "I wish it was there more for today's kids. If you provide the facilities for them, you can save some people, and they won't face the consequences they do.
"Basketball was the thing that kept me on the straight and narrow. Back when I was a kid, Ashtabula was closer to Mayberry than it is now. Those games on that court gave me the preparation and the sense of purpose I needed for my life.
"Definitely, something very good came out of it for me."
Hill misses those formative years on that court. He may even start visiting more frequently.
"I couldn't have picked a better place to grow up," he said. "I'm even thinking about trying to get up there three times a year to see my dad, my brother (David Jr. of Kingsville), my sister (Joanne Scruggs of Harpersfield Township) and (Panther teammate) David Benton. Part of my heart is still there."
Another occasion for Hill to get back to his roots is coming Sunday when he returns for his induction into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. He will be one of 12 people inducted at the ACBF's annual banquet at 6 p.m. at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
"I thought someone was kidding when I was called about it," he said. "I didn't know anything like this even existed. When I found out (former Harbor rival and boyhood friend) John Coleman was in it, I was pleased."
Joining his old coach, Walters, in that body brought added luster to the honor.
"Coach Walters was probably the greatest mentor I've ever had," Hill said. "The things he taught me transcended basketball.
"He taught me discipline and doing the job right. He told me when I accomplished something not to make a big deal about it. He taught me to be an assassin, always cool, calm and collected. And he taught me it was always about the team."
Walters took the student to school more than a few times on the court when the youngster played for the Panthers.
"I used to play him one-on-one, and he never let me win," Hill said. "We played by his rules. You weren't allowed to dribble the ball more than three times."
As high an esteem as Hill holds the coach in, Walters responds in kind.
"Tom was the best point guard I ever coached," he said. "He was one of the quickest players I ever coached. He was an extremely intelligent young man with a really high basketball IQ. He was a coach on the floor."
The development of that basketball acumen began around the home David Hill Sr. and his wife, Barbara, who is now deceased, established on West 38th Street.
"I remember dribbling the ball up and down the sidewalks and watching other kids play when I was little," he said.
When he got to Station Avenue Elementary School (now Thurgood Marshall), Hill was united with other kids who would become key factors with him later at Ashtabula.
"I played with guys like David Benton, Deora Marsh and Stanley Ball," he said. "Later on, when we got to West Junior High, was when Perry Stofan, Lou Murphy and (Harrison) Scooby Brown joined up with us."