Mater Dei High School, the well-known private school located in Orange County, has produced its fair share of NCAA Division I and NBA talent. From recent players such as Stanley Johnson, David and Travis Wear and Jamal Sampson, to early ’90s players such as Reggie Geary and LeRon Ellis, Mater Dei has long been a Southern California high school basketball powerhouse.
And, when Solomon Hill first walked into their gym, he immediately understood the advantages many private high schools have.
“That’s one of the biggest gyms I’ve ever been in,” Hill told Basketball Insiders. “That’s an advantage. That’s just their gym, what about their equipment and their facilities? It gives you advantages.”
Hill attended Fairfax High School, a Los Angeles public school and basketball powerhouse in its own right that often squared off against Mater Dei. Growing up in South Central, Los Angeles, Hill normally would have attended Fremont High School on the Eastside but, before he reached his freshman year, Hill’s father enrolled him in a middle school magnet program that enabled him to attend any high school in the Los Angeles area, including Fairfax.
There, Hill played under the legendary Harvey Kitani. One of the most successful high school basketball coaches in the state of California, Kitani has won three Los Angeles City Section Division I titles, four Los Angeles City championships, and two California State championships. He’s also coached for Team USA’s U17 team, served as a McDonalds All-American coach and took part in both LeBron James’ and Chris Paul’s high school training camps.
Hill knew that, although he still was attending a public school, Fairfax gave him an advantage that kids from his home neighborhood didn’t have, especially when it came to his dream of playing in the NBA. Fairfax’s reputation earned them matchups against some of the top high school basketball programs in the country. Hill recalls playing against other future NBA players throughout his high school career.
“The same guys I’m playing against now are the same guys I’ve been going against since high school,” Hill said. “If you wanted to play in [Los Angeles] and you wanted to find success, it was either you go to Fairfax or Westchester. It’s like trying to go to college, it starts when you pick your high school. I’m picking its history, I’m picking its coaching staff, a lot of it was based on what can that school do for me as far as putting me in a position to make it to the NBA.”
When the NBA decided to finish the 2019-20 season back in July in the Orlando bubble, each player was given the opportunity to include a pre-approved slogan or word on the back of their jersey that was supposed to signify a message pertaining to social justice. Hill chose “education” as the word he wanted to display. Thinking back to his high school days and what he saw growing up, he felt education is the starting point to the greater conversation surrounding social justice.
Had he stayed in his home neighborhood and attended Fremont, Hill’s not sure as to where he would’ve ended up, let alone go on to play college basketball and in the NBA.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve been told that part of the American Dream is hard work. That’s what you’re told, no matter what school you go to,” Hill said. “When you work hard, you reap benefits, you’re able to do more. But if you’re not at the right type of school, your life can be drastically different especially if you’re in a certain area. It can almost mean life or death.”
“We’re not talking about the best player at Fremont, you don’t get too far when you have to go to a school like Fremont.”
“But that’s not fair,” Hill said, “that’s the opposite of what the American Dream… education has been something that’s been told to us as far as you get an education, you go to school and you go to college and these opportunities are provided to you. Let’s be honest, let’s really try to give our children and people of the future a certain type of education that will allow them to open doors and opportunities as the people that live in better neighborhoods.”
This past summer was a big one for the NBA. Not only was the country in the midst of a global pandemic, but also a time of civil unrest during which conversations focused on addressing the social and systemic injustices that have permeated the country grew ever louder. When the league and the Players Association came to an agreement to finish off the season in Orlando, part of that agreement was with a plan in place for players to continue to use their voices and platforms for real change even beyond the 2019-20 season.
Back in May after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many NBA players were at the forefront of the various actions that popped up across the country. And, since, the NBA has established a social justice coalition and several teams opened their arenas as voting centers, providing voters a safe place to do their civic duty.
Hill is grateful to have the platform that he does in the sense that much of the country has come to regard NBA players as being leaders for social change, but he’d also like to continue to see change, to ensure that the Black community and other minority communities can find success and advocate for change beyond the entertainment field. He also believes that neighborhood empowerment is the first step, where the seeds of success can and should be planted.
“I think what we’re trying to say is that, just because I came from this, doesn’t mean that you got to come from this, and that’s easier said than done,” Hill told Basketball Insiders. “We shouldn’t have to hear helicopters above our house at night. We shouldn’t have to have gates and bars on the windows. But that’s the reality we live in. I want to create a different reality, I don’t want to have to move from who I grew up around and move from them to put myself in a whole new situation just because I got a little bit of money.”
One of the biggest issues that Hill sees in terms of NBA players using their platform and giving back to the communities is the fact that many of them were steered towards basketball and that education, especially financial education, isn’t emphasized enough.
“There’s going to be people that make financial mistakes that equate to either thousands or millions of dollars lost because of that lack of education because of that lack of education around us, even with our parents,” Hill said.
“That’s a huge conversation for whoever makes it, that our parents aren’t educated in handling millions of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and their education may only span to high school if we’re being realistic. We have to have those realistic conversations.”
Hill also believes that he needs to use his platform in the NBA as much as he can now because, once players are out of the league, they tend to lose the interest of the general public. It’s one of the reasons why Hill’s done as much outreach as possible to various community leaders, not only to keep himself educated on social issues but to figure out how he can continue to make an impact and help kids find success in their own field, and beyond the entertainment industry, long after his NBA days are over.
“The most attention that you get in the African-American community comes from entertainment. That’s just the way it’s been cut,” Hill said.
“I would hope that it does continue to change. I love the platform that I have, but I would love if there were people we could connect with that can speak about this and be in the public eye just as much as an athlete, Hill said. “We need those leaders in the community that we can work with, that can help us in the right way.”