It was the most important day of George Hill’s future.
Last July, the Indiana Pacers point guard was due at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to sign a five-year, $40 million contract during a news conference that was open to the public.
Before signing his deal, though, Hill had a promise to keep, one he made almost six years ago.
Hill spent part of the day in Cincinnati watching his fourth-grade AAU team, G3, play in a tournament. He stayed for the first half before hopping in a rental car and flying down Interstate 74 to get to the fieldhouse for the news conference.
Hill got there in time — though he was fixing his tie when he made his way to the stage in the entry pavilion.
“I tell my kids that I will make it to two or three tournaments every summer so that I can support them,” Hill said. “They were expecting me and I wasn’t going to disappoint them.”
Hill didn’t have anybody to fill that role when he was growing up in Indianapolis.
No big-brother figure.
No role model.
He knows how easy it is to end up on the wrong path in that situation.
For that reason, Hill promised that one day — whether he made it to the NBA or not — he would find a way to mentor and support young kids.
It started with a handful of kids raising money by selling baked goods and Hill using part of his financial aid check during his final year at IUPUI. Today, it’s a nationally ranked program with 10 teams for grades 3-7 that focuses as much on how the kids perform in the classroom as how they do on the court.
“I wanted to make an impact in the community, so I figured why not use basketball as a steppingstone to open up other opportunities for kids,” Hill said. “I’m just trying to impact a bunch of lives, be a positive role model for the kids. Maybe they don’t have anybody to look up to, but they can look up to me as a big brother and focus on basketball. They can also use that for opportunities with their education.”
No more bake sales
Hill now foots the entire bill for the kids. He doesn’t believe in making the kids, who are mainly from Indianapolis Public Schools, pay to play.
He spends about $60,000 a year on tournament fees, travel, shoes, socks, uniforms, bags and warm-ups for his players.
The only thing Hill doesn’t pay for is the parents’ travel to the tournaments.
“It’s a great opportunity for families that George is willing to help out financially,” said Sheila Beeler, who has twins playing in Hill’s program. “We don’t have to come out of our pocket for a lot of money.”
A professional athlete sponsoring a travel team is not anything new. Hill, however, separates himself from many of his peers by not just cutting a check and having his name slapped on the jerseys.
“He’s involved with everything from the scheduling on down,” said Mike Saunders, Hill’s business partner. “He wants to make sure his input is being put to work. He wants to teach the kids on the court. Who better than somebody who actually plays in the NBA?”
Hill attends practices when his schedule allows during the season. The kids don’t always like it because, Hill said, he “makes them do a lot of running to make sure they’re in shape.”
Most of the players, however, enjoy the opportunity to interact with an NBA player.
“I like that he shows up because sometimes he surprises me,” said fifth-grader Mike Saunders Jr. “I like when he comes because he usually talks about how it is to be in the league, and we enjoy hearing those stories.”
Carlos Ramirez, the father of a G3 player, had just lost his job and wasn’t sure how he was going to support his family.
Hill heard about it and decided he had to do something.
He offered to pay the $15,000 a year tuition at St. Richard’s Episcopal, a private school in Indianapolis, for Ramirez’s son, Elkin.
Ramirez didn’t think Hill was serious at first. Then tears filled his eyes once he realized the Pacers point guard wasn’t kidding.
“George is an angel,” Ramirez said. “He’s a blessing from God. Me, a grown man, started crying. What was even more special is that George was there when we went to sign up. He wanted to go through the entire process and check out the school.”
Hill also pays the $15,000 a year tuition for two of his other players at St. Richard’s.
It’s another opportunity to make sure they receive the opportunities to which he didn’t have access.
Hill and Saunders are listed on all the school records of the program’s players, allowing them to drop in and visit their schools at anytime. Hill also receives a copy of each player’s report card and progress report.
Having a C in a class is highly frowned upon by Hill. Players are forced to sit out games if they have a D, and they’re suspended if they fail a class.
“It was tough at first, but you hold kids accountable and make them do it or not play,” Hill said. “All the kids want to play and if you take that away it makes them upset and work harder. I have almost all my kids on honor roll. All my kids at St. Richard’s are on high honor roll.”
With success, problems
Six of Hill’s teams — five boys, one girls — are nationally ranked. They’ve ventured to tournaments as far away as Maryland and Texas.
Competing locally, however, they’ve encountered problems.
Teams have refused to play some of Hill’s teams because they feel like they’re at a competitive disadvantage. Saunders said they’re forced to play “80 to 90 percent” of their tournaments out of state.
“One of his third-grade teams was playing a fifth-grade team and beating them by 20 points,” said a person who runs a facility in the Indianapolis area. “Parents take it personal when that happens. If teams see they’re playing G3 on the schedule, they’ll call and cancel, giving excuses like too many kids are sick or something else came up.
“I’m then forced to call around and find a game for George’s team. From our standpoint, it’s about the kids and getting them in the gym, off the streets and letting them play basketball.”
Saunders, who coaches three of the teams, said Hill’s teams work on their offensive sets, passing the ball at least five times before taking a shot unless it’s a wide-open layup, and use a soft zone on defense when they get a big lead.
“We don’t believe in embarrassing teams,” Saunders said.
Hill said it’s not fair to the kids to have to deal with the criticism.
“I’ve been told our teams are not good for business,” he said. “They tell us we have to play one or two grades up. That’s not right. You can never satisfy everybody and that’s one thing I’ve learned. No matter what you do good or bad, they are always going to have something to say. In the big picture of things, it’s about the kids.
“I want mine to have fun playing and also do good in school. And that’s what we’re accomplishing.”