A Season Spent in the Cheering Section : Ex-Hoover Cage Star Sits Outs a Year at Indiana, Looks Toward '87

Times Staff Writer

There weren't any fans cheering for 19-year-old Joe Hillman this season. For the first time since he slipped on his sneakers and picked up a basketball as a youngster, the former Hoover High star guard didn't play competitive basketball.

Instead, Hillman, now in his second year at Indiana University, cheered on the Hoosiers in street clothes just like other fans.

That's the way he wanted it.

No, Hillman, the three-time All-CIF Southern Section guard selection and No. 5 scorer in CIF history, didn't stop playing basketball. He just decided that it was in his best interest to redshirt this season.

"I wanted to redshirt," said Hillman, who played in only 21 of Indiana's 33 games in his freshman year and averaged just seven minutes per game. "I think it's going to help me in the long run because it's going to give me a chance to play a lot more in my last three years. Sure, it was tough sitting out, but I think it was worth it."

Eyes on the Diamond

Besides, the extra time will enable Hillman to play his second favorite sport--baseball. A two-time All-CIF outfielder, Hillman said he will start practicing with the Indiana baseball team on Monday. He did not play baseball last season.

"I liked playing baseball during high school, and I feel I can still play the game now," said Hillman, who has not played competitive baseball in a year and a half. "I've always wanted to continue to play both, but it was just a difficult situation last year because we didn't end basketball until April. By that time, (the baseball team) had played five games."

The basketball schedule was no problem this year for Hillman, who practiced with the squad but did not play in games. Indiana was upset by Cleveland State, 83-79, in the first round of the NCAA East Regional basketball tournament last week in Syracuse, N.Y.

"I'm sure looking forward to it (the baseball season). I sure missed baseball. Sitting out the whole year . . . that would have been kind of tough, after just sitting there watching basketball games. After practicing (basketball) every day, I just want to get out there and play any sport."

As things stand, the 6-3, 180-pound Hillman probably will play more baseball this season than he played basketball last season.

"I should get to play a lot," said Hillman, who practiced hitting and fielding before basketball practice this year.

But no matter what the result in baseball, basketball will continue to be his No. 1 sport, he said. After all, it was basketball that got him to Bloomington.

As a senior at Hoover, Hillman, the three-time Pacific League MVP, led the state in scoring with a 41.3-point-per-game average--the third-best mark in CIF history. He finished with school records for points in a season (1,074), points in a career (2,213) and career scoring average (26.6 a game).

That was enough to gain Bobby Knight's attention. Hillman became the first player west of the Mississippi River to be recruited by the fabled Hoosier coach, who has won two NCAA championships and seven Big 10 titles in 14 years at Indiana.

But Hillman soon found collegiate play much more difficult to handle than Knight's sometimes volatile personality. In fact, Hillman's 1.5 freshman scoring average is far lower that his 3.5 grade-point average.

"I knew I wouldn't play much as a freshman and that didn't really bother me. I didn't expect to play right away. It's one of the best programs in the nation. No one can expect to play right away as a freshman."

After the season, which ended with the Hoosiers losing the National Invitation Tournament championship game to UCLA, Hillman began thinking about redshirting.

"Coach Knight called me into his office and we talked about the possibility of redshirting.

"He told me I was there to play as many minutes as I could in my career, and I said that was what I wanted to do. And he said, 'If you redshirt this year and see what's going on, you're going to have three years to play a whole lot.' And that's what I wanted to do.

"So we thought we'd play it by ear and see what would happen. Nothing was really set."

In the meantime, Hillman got more playing time as the Hoosiers traveled overseas in the summer on an 18-game exhibition tour in Japan, China, Yugoslavia and France.

Then came the factor that would decide whether Hillman would redshirt.

A few days before the opening of the 1985-86 season in late November, Hillman, who was battling for a position behind All-American Steve Alford and senior guard Stew Robinson, tore a tendon in his right knee in practice. He would be out at least six weeks.

"Right before the injury, Coach Knight still wasn't sure he was going to redshirt me . . . " said Hillman. "Then I hurt my knee and didn't do anything for a week. That's when he said, "Hey, let's redshirt you.' "

He sat on the bench in street clothes during home games but didn't travel with the team except to Syracuse for the tournament.

"I thought it (redshirting) would be a lot harder than it was," said Hillman, one of five Indiana redshirts. "But actually, it wasn't really that bad.

'Still Part of Team'

"At first, I thought I'd be excluded and wouldn't really be a part of the team. But no one looks at it that way, and that helped. I always felt like I was still part of the team.

"The hardest thing was sitting on the bench during home games. Just seeing them at home and not playing well made me want to get out there and help them."

Hillman used the time to learn Knight's system better and improve his game, including ball handling, penetration and defense.

"I've learned a lot just by having the extra year in the system. I've learned the offense where I can go in next year and direct what's going on. In my freshman year I really didn't know what I was doing.

"I'm going to have an opportunity next year to start a few games and play a whole lot. I'm really looking forward to that."

Hillman thinks Indiana, which will lose only three seniors, will be in the hunt for the Big 10 title and another NCAA tournament bid.

"We are young and have most of the team coming back," Hillman said. "We ought to be tough next year if we can put it together."

Whatever the outcome, Hillman is looking forward to hearing the crowds cheering for him again.

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