In this week’s “Conversations with Clayton,” I had the pleasure to talk with Bill Campion, a living legend of New York basketball. Born and raised in the Bronx, Campion starred at Rice High School in Harlem, one of the historic juggernauts of New York City high school ball. The small Catholic high school, which closed in 2011, produced the likes of Kemba Walker, Felipe Lopez, Dean Meminger, and Cincinnati Bearcats great Kenny Satterfield.
After starring at Rice, the 6’10 Campion went on to become one of the greatest big men in the history of Manhattan Jaspers basketball. A rugged rebounder and consistent scorer, Campion helped lead Manhattan to three consecutive NIT bids between 1972 and 1974. Campion capped off his fantastic college career by winning the Haggerty Award, which honors the top collegiate player annually in the New York metropolitan area. After a brief stint in the Italian League, Campion spent eight years with the Washington Generals, the perennial adversaries of basketball’s winningest team, the Harlem Globetrotters.
In a wide-ranging interview, Bill and I discuss his high school career at Rice, his tenures with the Manhattan Jaspers and Washington Generals, and his latest effort. Bill is a part of a group that is working to bring Rice High School back to life in Harlem.
Clayton Trutor (CT): When did it become clear to you that you were a college basketball prospect?
Bill Campion (BC): When I entered Rice High School. I got better each year. Freshman, sophomore, and then junior year I started getting feelers from some colleges. By the time my senior year came, it took off.
CT: At what point did you get your height?
BC: In the eighth grade, I was like 5’9 or 5’10. By the time I entered Rice, I was 6’6. I ended up topping off just about 6’10.
CT: When you think back to your career at Rice, what were your most memorable moments?
BC: I played against a lot of great players. And when I went to Rice, I met a lot of great guys: athletes, students, guys from all over the city. The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn. We all got along and learned about life from each other. It was a great atmosphere. The school itself was known for basketball and track.
CT: What influence did the coaches at Rice have on your basketball career?
BC: There was a bunch of guys coming out of grammar school and we stayed together as a unit as freshman and sophomores. We had a coach there by the name of Ron Niemus, he was our freshman coach and he was a very good coach. The head coach at the time, Mike Brown, he just passed away about two months ago. Mike taught at Columbus High School (Bronx) but he coached at Rice. He coached so many great players like Dean Meminger. Mike Brown was the type of coach that took you in as a person first. Like a guardian. And he talked to you about having goals in life. It wasn’t all about basketball. I was kind of lackadaisical but Coach Brown that got me motivated. I remember him saying to me, “You better hit those books a little harder. You’re going to have a lot of college offers and if you don’t have the grades, you aren’t going to go any place.”
CT: How would you characterize Rice’s style of play during your high school career?
BC: We had a pretty good front line that all came up to varsity as juniors. We rebounded well and played fast. We were playing against the best. Power (Memorial) had Lenny Elmore and Ed Searcy. (Archbishop) Molloy had Brian Winters. They beat us but we held our own.
CT: What kind of fan support did Rice get?
BC: The students were great. We had a small gymnasium. It was an old YWCA at 124th and Lenox in Harlem. We played a lot of our games on the road and some of our home games at Power Memorial. For such a small Catholic school, the students really turned out. For a small school, we had a great track program, bowling, swimming and the support was always there from the students.
I liked playing at Power. It was a nice facility. It’s funny, when you’re a young kid and you’re playing in these church leagues and there’s 50 or 60 people watching. Then you in high school and it’s a much bigger deal and a much bigger crowd. We’d go up to Iona Prep and they had a lot more students and the thing would be packed.
CT: What do you recall about your college recruitment and how did you end up at Manhattan?
BC: I started getting some feelers my junior year and I ended up going on a couple of visits. I went to the University of Georgia and I worked in a couple of basketball camps at North Carolina State and the University of Tennessee. Back then, a lot of guys were leaving and going out of state. But then they were coming back. So I decided to stay in my senior year and I decided on either Manhattan or St. John’s. Right around Christmas time, I decided I wanted to get it done and went with Manhattan College. I knew the school because it was near the area I grew up in the Bronx, it was close by, and I knew some guys that went there. When I went there, I lived on campus but it was like 15 or 20 minutes away from my parent’s home. So I was able to get home when I wanted to get home. And I was very familiar with that campus. I took driver’s education at Manhattan Prep during the summer and I used to go up there to attend games.
CT: Did John Powers recruit you directly or who made contact with you at Manhattan?
BC: I met Coach Powers when I was in the eighth grade. He spoke at an award ceremony at my grammar school and I bumped into him once and a while after that. And then my junior year, he started recruiting me. I liked him a lot and to this day I still talk to him. He wasn’t like a hound dog. He’d talk to me about going there but he kind of left me alone. And the class that came in, we all stuck together, the whole four years.
CT: How did your style of play evolve at Manhattan?
BC: I rebounded a lot and I’d score but not go crazy. I wasn’t going to go out and take 25 or 30 shots. I’d get 14 or 15 rebounds and maybe 18 points. We had a very balanced team. One of the guys I played with, George Bucci, he ended up getting drafted by Buffalo in the NBA and the Nets in the ABA. He played in the ABA.
CT: What stands out when you think about rivalry games with Fordham and Iona?
BC: Fordham was our biggest game. We used to play that game at Madison Square Garden. We never played Iona back then. We’d played Seton Hall and St. Peter’s.
CT: Which gyms did you like the best that you played in during your college career?
BC: We didn’t have a home court so we played a lot of our games at Madison Square Garden every year. Probably 9 or 10 times a season. That was a great atmosphere to be in, the Mecca of Basketball.
CT: Did being an independent pose any challenges for Manhattan at the time in terms of recognition?
BC: No because we got to the NIT every year. And there were a lot of other independent teams then like Marquette and Notre Dame. We’d have like 18 wins and they’d win 20 and get picked ahead of us for the NCAA Tournament. There were so many independent schools back then. It was unbelievable. Fordham was independent too and they had great success that year with Digger Phelps (1970-1971) when they made the NCAAs and went 26-3.
CT: When you won the Haggerty Award, did you realize you were in the running for it?
BC: I really didn’t pay attention to it or have my eyes set on it. It was coming toward the end of the season that year (1973-1974) and we played at Seton Hall. I had a pretty good game and Bill Raftery was their coach then. After the game, he said ‘looks like you wrapped up the Haggerty Award.’ Lo and behold, I did win it but I was more focused on being a team player. I never did have that on my mind about winning that award.
CT: How did you find out you got drafted?
BC: I got drafted my junior year by the Virginia Squires of the ABA. I was going up to the gymnasium and the track and field coach Frank Gagliano was coming out and he goes, “Oh, Virginia” and he started laughing. I didn’t know anything about it. When I got into the gym Coach Powers told me about an hour or so later. But I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was going to be coming back my next year anyway.
CT: In terms of the NBA Draft, what are you recollections of that?
BC: I got picked in the fourth round by Milwaukee. That was the year that Jabbar left and went to LA. I had an agent and they had a contract and wanted me to go to camp and all that stuff but then the thing with Italy turned up. And it was guaranteed money. So I took that instead.
CT: What was your experience in the Italian League like?
BC: I was lucky. I played with Bob Morse out of Penn. He was the other American on the team (Ignis Varese) and he was a really great scorer. We had the center for the national team, Dino Meneghin. There were like 3 or 4 total guys on the Italian National Team. We won the European Cup that year (1975). We beat Real Madrid in the finals. It was competitive over there. There were a lot of guys that played in the NBA that were over there.
CT: Was it as good as American college basketball?
BC: Yeah, I would say it was like a top 10 American college game. There were a lot of American players over there, playing all over the place: Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium.
CT: Did you ever meet Kobe Bryant’s dad, Joe Bryant?
BC: I played against Joe Bryant when he was at LaSalle. At Madison Square Garden during the Holiday Festival. We beat them and then we went onto the finals against St. John’s and beat them. We were lucky with Joe Bryant, though. Right at the start of the second half he twisted his ankle and was out for rest of the game. It helped tremendously.
CT: How did you become a Washington General?
BC: I was home. I had student teaching to do and some elective courses to do to finish up my degree. I was out in Queens working with special needs children. And one of the guys I played with in college was named Charlie Mahoney. He called me up and said “The Generals are looking for a big guy. You doing anything?” Since I’d been finishing up my degree, I’d played in a couple of rec leagues but was kind of burnt out. Charlie laid it out for me and I decided I’d try it. So I went out with the Generals in 1978 and I stayed there till 1986.
CT: Was there a formal tryout?
BC: It was mid-season and they needed somebody. I went out to Grand Rapids, Michigan. After that, we’d have guys come in and try them out at camp. We’d work them out at the Jewish Community Center in Atlantic City. We’d pick up about 2 or 3 guys every year.
CT: How high was the quality of play on the Generals?
BC: We had a lot of good players. One guy when I started was Sam Pellom who went to SUNY Buffalo. He ended up playing with the Atlanta Hawks for a few years. As well as Charlie Criss, who played for the Hawks. Some of them played with us and ended up going onto the Globetrotters afterwards.
CT: What was Red Klotz like?
BC: He was funny. He was a great guy. He went back to the days of Abe Saperstein, Goose Tatum, Sweetwater Clifton. He always told the story that Abe Saperstein told him to get a team together against the Trotters. Red was from Philly and I guess they were coming into town. His team beat the Globetrotters two out of three or something. And Saperstein got the idea, “why don’t you get a team together and travel around with us” and that’s how it started. Red was out there a long time—like forty-something years. He had a lot of good stories about the different players.
CT: How did you guys prepare to play the Globetrotters?
BC: We strictly played man-to-man defense all the time. Back then, we’d be going up and down the floor. Meadowlark Lemon or another funny guy would be up in the stands and we’d be just playing. They’d work in their tricks and we’d get back to playing again.
CT: Who were your favorite guys on the Globetrotters to play against?
BC: Lou Dunbar was great. 6’10 out of the University of Houston. They had Robert Page, who was 7 foot, big, strong kid. He was from Houston Baptist. Eddie Fields out of Oklahoma was a great dribbler. They had good talent all around.
CT: My impression is that you were out on the road like nine months a year. How tough was it to maintain that schedule?
BC: We played every night. You’d get done at 930 or 10. You get on the bus. Some guys went out. Others went and looked for something to eat. You’d get up each morning by 9. On the bus by 10. Travel another 300 miles and do the same thing over and over. We were lucky in the big cities because you were there for a couple of days. Small towns you were in and out. It was grueling. Europe wasn’t bad though. We used to stay in one place like four or five days. When we were in London, we’d stay at Wembley Arena for like seven straight nights. They used to bus in people from all over England to see it.
CT: How were you able to just get up for it every night?
BC: Most nights you were but some nights you weren’t. You’d have aches and pains and didn’t want to be out there. But you’d split the time with other guys. But you got over it. You’re young. Somebody’d hurt them ankle and somebody else would pick up the slack for a couple of nights. There were plenty of nights where the funny man would come up with something new and I’d be laughing out there just as much as the crowd.
CT: After your time with the Generals, where did your career take you?
BC: When I was 32, it was getting time for me to move on and find a job and that’s when I started looking at different things. I looked into juvenile probation in New York and I looked into the Federal Bureau of Prisons and filled their the application out, did an interview. The process takes a long time with the government. I ended up working with the Bureau of Prisons. Put my time in and retired.
CT: Now you’re a part of an effort to bring Rice High School back into being. What did Rice mean to you and what do you hope a new Rice High School means to the city of New York?
BC: Rice has a remarkable record of turning out professional people. Lawyers, doctors, civil servants, firemen, police. That school helped a lot of people over the years. I had gone to public school before and I’d heard of it but I had no idea what a big basketball school Rice was. I was going to go to DeWitt Clinton but a referee who did some of my grammar school games encouraged me to go to Rice and I did. When I got there, I found out there was a lot of kids whose families were struggling who went there, underprivileged kids from all over. The kids went to jobs after school and helped out their parents with tuition.
It was such a shame that it had to close down. The group I’m with now, we’re in the beginning stages, of trying to get the school back going. Our plan is just coming together. It will definitely be in Harlem again. We’re getting everything in line. Start small and build from there. Start with a freshman group and build every year from there. It will be a great opportunity for kids and their families. It worked for me.